Backpacking at Hetch Hetchy

Last weekend I went backpacking around the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir (which you will most likely remember as the Hetchy Hetch Reservoir) with my friends Kate, Meg, and Naveen. Hetch Hetchy provides potable water for San Francisco, and it is a picturesque yet relatively uncrowded area of Yosemite, so it seemed like a cool place to go.

It was. We spent three days hiking 30+ miles up and down some big hills and through some beautiful scenery. We had a backcountry permit, so we were free to camp anywhere we liked — one of my favorite things to do. Here are some pictures of our trip.

The reservoir itself is an intentional artifact of a dam built in the early 1900s, which caused the river to fill up much of the surrounding valley. It now holds 88 billion gallons of water, and marked the beginning of our trip. Our packs were at their heaviest (carrying all of our food for the weekend, plus bear canisters; I think mine weighed in at 33 pounds, blargh), so it was a pretty tough climb, up 1500 feet in 1.8 miles, to get out of the valley. After several more pleasant miles we arrived at Miguel Meadows, our first camping spot. This first part of our hike was the most isolated. At times the trail was hardly discernible, and we didn’t see anyone else until noon on the second day.

One of the more surprising aspects of the trip was the sheer amount of post-fire growth we encountered. Nearly every area through which we hiked had been gutted by a fire in the last 20 years (or so we estimated, based on the undergrowth and sapling size). The growth varied dramatically from location to location, so there seemed to have been many different fires. I knew forest fires were common, and generally helpful for forest growth, but I had no idea they were so pervasive.

Another recurring theme was water-crossing. The spring snow melt was in full force, so small creeks had become full-on torrents. While this was great for replenishing our water supply, these creeks were surprisingly deep (waist-level), wide, cold, and fast, which the pictures don’t do a great job of illustrating. In one of these pictures you can see me ferrying our packs across a creek. It was pretty painful — I couldn’t get the packs wet, despite the current’s best efforts to knock me over. The rocks at the bottom of the creek were alternately treacherously slippery or sharp, and they diced up my bare feet pretty well, since I couldn’t use my hands to balance. A lot of teeth-gritting moments there!

At the end of the second day, we reached what I think was the best part of the hike: an enormous granite valley. Everything was stone. It was awesome. Little rock piles were our only indication that we were still on the trail. At the east end of the valley was Lake Vernon, which had some of the most frigidly pure water I have ever stepped in. (I don’t have a picture of it here, but you can see it in the background of the first picture in the next series.) Crossing a twenty foot wide stream left my feet numb for a minute afterward. The lake’s main outlet was this absolutely insane raging current that pretty much spelled instant death if you happened to slip in. Luckily there was a bridge over this one!

After reaching Lake Vernon, we climbed up the steep eastern cliff, feeling the effects of the 7000+ ft altitude and our burdensome packs. We camped at the top of the cliff in one of the most beautiful spots I’ve ever seen, and watched the sun set while devouring some mac and cheese.

The last day was our longest, nearly 14 miles. Luckily we had gone nearly as high as we were going to go, and so most of the morning was spent in a steep decline. Check out the fire damage.

In that last picture you can see the reservoir behind the trail. For the last five miles, we hiked back around the reservoir, past two spectacular waterfalls (and of course through some small streams as well) to the dam and back to our car. What a relief to be off of our feet!

Speaking of feet, I have to say that that’s one of the best sock lines I’ve ever had. It’s only about 40% tan — the rest is dirt!

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4 Responses to Backpacking at Hetch Hetchy

  1. gdogg says:

    those are some incredible pictures

  2. ccho says:

    Looks really fun!

  3. Anonymous says:


    Incredibly beautiful pictures, AJ!