Tueeulala and Wapama Falls grace the northern walls of Hetch Hetchy.
I first became aware of Hetch Hetchy in 1990. It is the only year I haven’t camped in Yosemite Valley. We were kept out because the A Rock Fire and other conflagrations were burning along all three of the roads that accessed the that part of the park. The year happened to be the centennial of the establishment of Yosemite National Park and festivities were either cancelled or moved due to the fires. The Valley was completely closed off, a rare circumstance in its modern history. Not about to be aced out of time in Yosemite, even if not in the Valley, my mom pulled her usual strings and got my family cabins at White Wolf. This was a part of Yosemite I had not spent time in and the whole week was filled with excellent and new adventures.
It was during this unusual week that we went to Hetch Hetchy for a day. California was four years deep into a bad drought and the reservoir was extremely low. I remember my dad telling me to really impress the view from the dam on me, as it may be the closest I ever got to seeing the valley drained and “restored” to what it had been. What it had been was a spectacular twin to Yosemite Valley, through which flowed Yosemite’s other glorious river, the Tuolumne. I had a hard time understanding how something so close to the place I thought was heaven itself could be dammed up and destroyed. I had not yet read John Muir’s eloquent description and defense of Hetch Hetchy but 12 year old thoughts along the same lines were already forming in my mind. It was obvious in the granite cliffs before me: the El Capitan-like wall between the waterfalls, Hetch Hetchy Dome and Kolana Rock.
At the time of my first visit, the waterfalls were drought stricken and hardly noticed. It was later that I returned, the state flush with a deep snowpack and the falls were booming. It was shocking to see the pair of white streaks of water dropping down the cliffs. From the normal view on O’Shaughnessy Dam, they appear strikingly different, Tueeulala Falls being tall and slender while Wapama Falls is seemingly shorter and stubby. On the contrary, the true nature of each waterfall is somewhat hidden from the normal perspective and closer investigation is needed to appreciate their fullness.
Eventually, I overcame my disdain for the abominable lake that fills Hetch Hetchy and came to love the place for what it retains rather than avoid it for what it has lost. The hike to the two waterfalls (and beyond to Rancheria Falls, more on that in a bit) is among my personal favorites and I included it in my guidebook covering Northern California. I strongly encourage hikers who have not experienced this forgotten corner of Yosemite to visit it and allow yourself to love it in spite of the injustice that has been wrought. Perhaps one day it can be undone but until that day, let us still appreciate the beauty that remains in Hetch Hetchy. Chief among these attributes are its fantastic waterfalls.
John Muir likens this oddly named waterfall to the infinitely more famous Bridalveil Falls of Yosemite Valley. While this may seem an unexpected comparison at first, what struck him as alike between the two falls was the linear nature of their plunge. Both waterfalls leap off of the cliff and maintain a straight, vertical appearance as they drop hundreds of feet down the granite cliffs. Also like Bridalveil, Tueeulala Falls has a tendency to dance in the wind. However, the Hetch Hetchy iteration, at 840 feet high, is over 200 feet taller than the famous fall of Yosemite Valley. The final two hundred feet of Tueeulala Falls sees the water hit protrusion in the cliff and explode into several smaller cascades, still maintaining a vertical trajectory to the cliff’s base.
The trail offers many good views of the falls, both from the west, immediately below the falls and also from further east up the trail along Hetch Hetchy. However, the crossing of the fall’s creek below its base can be a little uninspiring, as the water simply races across spillways in the trail and on down the granite talus into the reservoir below. Regardless of the lower area’s lack of interest, the falls themselves are excellent are certainly deserve to be regarded among the classic Yosemite cataracts.
In my opinion, the true star of Hetch Hetchy is not the granite cliffs and rocks (though they are awesome) nor Tueeulala Falls but it is the thunderer, massive Wapama Falls. Although it looks the shorter of the two from the normal view at the trailhead, it is immediately evident that the volume of water in this waterfall is significant. John Muir describes it as something of a combination of Yosemite and Vernal Falls. It is tall, though not as tall as the former but with greater volume while it is taller than the latter but not as much volume. It is the happiest – and mightiest – of mediums between the two. In truth, I believe Wapama Falls to be the single most unappreciated waterfall in California.
The total height of Wapama Falls is about 1,100 feet but, like Yosemite Falls, it descends in three sections. The top part is nearly 700 feet of foaming torrent descending into a narrow chasm. It hits a rocky ledge then careens into the second section, a short series of cascades dropping roughly 100 feet. The third stage is a final 300 foot plunge to the base of the cliff. Though not counted as part of the falls proper, the water of Falls Creek then pours through a massive talus pile before finally being stilled by the stilled waters of the reservoir.
Though a portion of the upper section of Wapama Falls is briefly visible from the trail, the full stature of the falls is, for the most part, now lost. The best place to view the falls was down in the now inundated valley. In those days one could sit in lush meadows and gaze up at the raging deluge pouring down the cliff. No longer and, other than that briefest of glimpses of the upper section, we much content ourselves with the final drop of Wapama Falls. Thankfully, it is a beautiful beast, untamed and powerful.
The Other Mist Trail
Since there are so many analogs between Yosemite Valley and Hetch Hetchy, it seems fitting that there is a counterpart of Yosemite’s iconic Mist Trail. Rather than ascending alongside the river to the base of the falls and then higher, up steps and through cracks, to the top of the Vernal Falls, in Hetch Hetchy the trail simply makes a linear traverse across the talus slope that lies at the base of Wapama Falls. Bridges provide quick passage across the massive rock pile and over the churning water tumbling down the rocks. The volume of Wapama Falls is so great that the bridges are constantly blasted by powerful mists. When the falls hit the rocks at its base, it detonates into massive plumes of mist that is then blown by powerful winds down on the bridges below. The creek is shattered by this impact and fractured into several channels that descend through the talus. Each of the separate channels are large and powerful as well and pour down the rocks strikingly close to the bridges. Hikers must prepare to get soaked!
The bridges of Wapama Falls, circled in red.
When crossing the bridges, it is difficult to get a sense of the scale, both of the passage (how small we are) and the falls itself (how big Wapama Falls is). This is better appreciated from the dam, or from a vantage point further up the trail to the east. Indeed, from this spot Wapama Falls, its bridges and Tueeulala Falls are arranged in incredibly dramatic fashion, highlighting just how spectacular the entire area is. Now, it that dern lake would drain and make the area perfect!
Enlarge the image to spot the bridges and appreciate the area’s scale.
I can imagine a scene where hikers crossing the bridges below Wapama Falls can pause and catch their breath in the mist and gaze south. Two hundred of feet below, the Tuolumne River meanders through the lush meadows of Hetch Hetchy. The splendid tower of Kolana Rock overshadows all and the roar of the falls drowns out everything but what the eyes can feast on. If this were so, the Other Mist Trail would take its rightful places among the most spectacular, not just in Yosemite or the Sierra Nevada, but in all of America.
There are several impressive waterfalls at the end of Rancheria Creek.
Hetch Hetchy does have a third waterfall, though it is quite different to the valley’s primary pair. Rancheria Creek stretches 22 miles to the north and is the largest tributary of the Tuolumne River withing Yosemite National Park. Its headwaters are just across a low divide from Peeler Lake, a spectacular hiking destination approached from the Twin Lakes/Mono Village area. Much of the creek’s passage is through classic High Sierra terrain. These conditions have changed dramatically by the time the creek arrives at Hetch Hetchy. The area is lower in elevation and somewhat drier, with more brush and even some scattered Gray Pines. However, Rancheria Creek finishes its journey in dramatic fashion, pouring over a series of unusual waterfalls.
When I was younger, I enjoyed studying maps of Yosemite and the identification of Rancheria Falls always intrigued me. It just seemed off on its own, further in the backcountry than the other two falls in Hetch Hetchy. When I finally hiked out there, I found the area a little confusing. The map marked the falls in one spot, and sure enough, there was a cataract there. However, this was joined by an extremely impressive cascade immediately downstream. Even further downstream, a pair of waterfalls dropped down into a extremely linear and vertically walled granite gorge. It seemed as though any of these was unique enough, large enough and beautiful enough that they could be identified as Rancheria Falls. After some study and exploration, I concluded that the upper cataract was, in fact, Rancheria Falls but that the other falls needed names too. In the end I settled on Rancheria Falls, “Middle Rancheria Falls” and “Lower Rancheria Falls”. The final drop, however, I dubbed “Kolana Falls”, after the towering rock that loomed over the spot and was located just across the lake from where Rancheria Creek would have joined the Tuolumne.
My brother provides scale for the steep race through the rocky chute.
The main falls consists of two parts. There is a steep decent down a granite chute before a freefall of about 10-15 feet. Put together, I think the entire formation is Rancheria Falls. What really sets the falls apart, however, is the volume of water flowing over them, especially in spring and early summer. Rancheria Falls really is an impressive storm of foam and spray, especially when you consider the chute section and the final drop as one single unit. It is an intimidating stretch of torrential whitewater that ends with a short, but tremendously strong drop.
My brother again provides scale for the final drop of Rancheria Falls.
Unfortunately, the trail does not travel near the falls until it crosses over Rancheria Creek at the very top of the cataract. To truly appreciate the falls, one must scramble off trail. The trail does, however, pass alongside the creek just below the falls, where it pours over another impressive cascade.
This section is often misidentified as Rancheria Falls and I have dubbed it “Middle Rancheria Falls”. Here the water is compressed through a narrow gap in the rocks before fanning out into an exceptionally wide waterslide across a granite slab. Waves surge and subside as the water slides over the increasingly wide rock. Since the trail passes right alongside this formation, it is often regarded as Rancheria Falls. While the cascade is certainly impressive it is not the falls. Nonetheless, I think it is deserving of the moniker recognizing it as a middle waterfall.
The upper half of “Lower Rancheria Falls”
Just downstream from the cascade that is “Middle Rancheria Falls” the creek plunges over another waterfall, this one more vertical than the other two. Due to its proximity to the other falls, I christened this one “Lower Rancheria Falls”. Unfortunately it is difficult to appreciate it, since leaps into an impressively narrow granite slot. The water fills the entire canyon and the cliffs hem in the water very tightly.
Looking down the narrow slot of Rancheria Creek.
The slot is impressively straight and descends steeply as it heads to the stilled waters of the Hetch Hetchy. However, one final waterfall exists along the creek before Rancheria Creek has spent all its strength.
I confess to only having seen the final waterfall from afar and not having visited it myself. Despite this, when viewed through a telephoto lens, the waterfall does indeed appear to be quite impressive. It seems the equal in height and volume to Rancheria Falls but even more vertical. Nameless as far as I know, I decided to name this final waterfall on Rancheria Creek. Given the creek’s view of, and position opposite to, Kolana Rock, I decided that calling “Kolana Falls” is acceptable.
In the end, one ought to come to terms with Hetch Hetchy’s condition and enjoy its beauty. The granite walls are awesome and the waterfalls are tremendous. Perhaps one day we will be able to enjoy lush meadows along a meandering river and gaze up at the tower cliffs and the massive waterfalls thundering down them.
Awesome, God Bless!
This looks like a spectacular place to hike/visit.
Do you think it is an appropriate trip for seniors (ie not too strenuous)? Are there places to camp…is this a backpacking area or a day hike from a nearby camp?
My experience backpacking in Yosemite was many years ago and mostly out of Tuolumne meadows…Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne and Cathedral lakes.
Would love to return and see these waterfalls!
Depending on fitness level, I think it would be fine. It is about 4.5 miles round trip to the Wapama Falls bridges and it is mostly level, with just a few ups and downs. I would definitely go in late May or June, to get the best effect. With regards to camping, the closest is Camp Mather, but that may be tough to get a spot at. Evergreen Lodge is nearby as well. The Forest Service has a campground (Dimond O) on the way to Hetch Hetchy, after you leave 120. Hodgdon Meadow, right inside Yosemite after the entrance gate is also a good option.
You are fortunate to have packed the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne. That is one of the best!
Thanks for your response!
Yes, Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne is so beautiful! Great places to camp…one I called “Two Brave Fish camp” and is next to Le Conte falls. Probably my favorite. Water wheel falls is great fun too, to sit on a carved out rock and let the water tumble over you…bliss!
Very keen to explore the Tioga Pass Road someday. Thank you for all the tips!
Great post; we just returned from a backpack there and had a magnificent time.