Reflections of stark granite walls with numerous dramatic cliffs carved by glaciers shimmy in the early morning sun across one of the largest pristine bodies of water in all of the Sierra.
Water comes tumbling down over a sheer granite edge for a 1,380 foot plunge spraying those brave enough to stand near its base.
Soaking in the wonders from Wapama Falls of what remains of the Hetch Hetchy Valley after it was damned by San Francisco’s thirst a century ago, is still a stunning experience.
And making it all the more appealing is the handful of visitors it draws compared to Yosemite Valley despite being fairly easy to access.
Hiking to Wapama Falls is do-able for most people without working up much of a sweat.
You can reach the day use parking lot at the edge of O’Shaughnessy Dam in 2.5 hours from Manteca. It’s a straight shot on Highway 120 with a left turn onto Evergreen Road just before the Big Oak Flat entrance station to Yosemite National Park. And although you will eventually go through a park entrance station, there is no access fee charged.
Unlike the rest of Yosemite, vehicle access to Hetch Hetchy Valley is restricted. The gate is open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. during April, from May 1 to Labor Day from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m., from Labor Day to Oct. 31 from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m., and from Nov. 1 to March 31, from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.
There is nothing intimidating about the 5 mile round trip hike to Wapama Falls that allows you to savvy a Yosemite gem without feeling that you just completed the Bataan Death March.
You will never lose sight of the crystal blue pristine Hetch Hetchy Reservoir except for a short tunnel you walk through after crossing the dam.
The first stretch across the dam and through the tunnel is wide and flat. After that, it remains a wide and gentle trail for a long stretch before getting into moderate up and down hiking. After the junction (it is clearly marked and heads southeast toward the lake), the trail narrows and gets a tad more difficult but not by much. On one visit a couple was somehow managing to push a baby in a sports stroller through this section.
You can tell you are near Wapama Falls by two things — the familiar roar of falling water and the start of a series of rock steps that descend to the falls.
A series of bridges take you past the falls. The snowmelt usually peaks in May, often making the bridge crossing treacherous. A rule worth following is not to cross the bridges when water is flowing over them. By crossing when water was cascading over the bridge was how a pair of hikers lost their lives several years back.
When the bridge isn’t inundated during a heavy run-off, a spring crossing gives you enough spray to make you feel as if you have taken a shower in your clothes.
If you are more adventurous, you can stretch the hike into a 13-mile round trip by heading to Rainbow Falls — a traditional example of a ribbon fall. Along the way you will pass several smaller waterfalls still flowing this time of year. The trail is a little tougher but not by much. You also never lose sight of Hetch Hetchy Reservoir.
You can fish in Hetch Hetchy Reservoir but swimming is prohibited. Dogs and other pets are prohibited on all trails and the dam. There is plenty of poison oak and it is an active bear area.
It’s relatively low elevation of 4,000 feet is a plus for year-round hiking and it doesn’t draw the crowds that makes it feel like downtown San Francisco to make it next to impossible to secure developed campsites.
Hetch Hetchy Valley — or more precisely what is left of it after The City of San Francisco made a sweetheart deal to pay $30,000 a year to destroy a large chunk of it a century ago to build the first and only reservoir ever allowed in a national park — definitely offers a unique twist to the Yosemite experience.