Day 5: Hetch Hetchy and a Return to Yosemite Valley

“Hetch Hetchy Valley, far from being a plain, common, rock-bound meadow, as many who have not seen it seem to suppose, is a grand landscape garden, one of Nature’s rarest and most precious mountain temples…

Dam Hetch Hetchy! As well dam for water-tanks the people’s cathedrals and churches, for no holier temple has ever been consecrated by the heart of man.” —John Muir (Read more of Muir’s essay against the damming of Hetch Hetchy.)

Hetch Hetchy was the subject of a controversial conservation struggle within Congress in 1908-13, in which this valley north of the Yosemite Valley—to which it bears great resemblance—was ultimately dammed and turned into a reservoir providing water to the San Francisco Bay Area, to the great distress of John Muir. (More recently, the organization Restore Hetch Hetchy has been fighting to have the reservoir removed and the valley restored.)

In my journey to experience and record sites important to Muir, I had to visit Hetch Hetchy to contemplate what the place is today, what it was like before the valley floor was flooded, and to try to wrap my head around the fact that I have lived much of my life off of the pure Tuolomne River water channeled from this former valley (among other reservoirs) and into the taps of San Francisco.

The place was beautiful, placid, quiet, and a bit haunted. The parallels that Muir describes in his essay are visible: Hetch Hetchy’s granite domes are like the cousins of Yosemite’s, with identifiable equivalents to El Capitan and Half Dome. Due to the flooding of the valley floor, there is really only one way to explore Hetch Hetchy: a wildflower-starred trail that leads around one side of the valley to its two stunning waterfalls, and continues along the rim. We trekked through the hot weather to the Wapama Falls (its companion, Tueeulala Falls, was dried up when we visited) and basked in the cool spray flying off of its powerful, roaring flow.

Later that afternoon we returned to the Yosemite Valley to get a last look at Yosemite Falls, Bridalveil Fall, the peaceful Merced River, and the granite domes. Golden light bathed the landscape as we watched from Tunnel View, taking my final photographs alongside the throngs of tourists and trying to contemplate how this Yosemite trip seemed to have both sped by and occupied a huge amount of time, since we have been so headily immersed.

Read the next post in the series (Day 6)

Return to the On the Road to Capture John Muir’s Yosemite to view the other entries in this series.