What was Hetch Hetchy like? It was the “second Yosemite” – slightly smaller, but sharing all the unique and spectacular features of the more famous valley – crashing waterfalls, precipitous rock faces, a gently meandering river, and impressive granite walls. It had one of the most diverse ecosystems in California.
The accounts of all those who had seen Hetch Hetchy Valley ensured it was part of America’s best idea – the original Yosemite national park. Here is how they described it.
In one of the first accounts of Hetch Hetchy, Josiah Whitney, chief of the California Geological Survey, wrote: “The walls of this valley are not quite so high as those of Yosemite; but still, anywhere else than California, they would be considered as wonderfully grand. The valley is a large open meadow, a mile in length and from an eighth to half a mile in width, with excellent grass, timbered only along the edge.”
John Muir, the naturalist and first president of the Sierra Club, writing a few years later, described the valley as: “A grand landscape garden, one of nature's rarest and most precious mountain mansions. As in Yosemite, the sublime rocks of its walls glow with life, whether leaning back in repose or standing erect in thoughtful attitudes, giving welcome to storms and calms alike.” Muir compared the dramatic rock-faces of Hetch Hetchy to those of Yosemite: “The most strikingly picturesque rock in Hetch Hetchy Valley is a majestic pyramid, over 2000 feet in height, which is called by the Indians 'Kolana'. It is the outermost of a group like the Cathedral Rocks of Yosemite, and occupies the same relative position on the south wall.”
“A counterpart of El Capitan rises sheer and plain 1800 feet and over its massive brow flows a stream which makes the most graceful fall I have ever seen.”
Early visitors were also inspired by the thundering waterfalls in Hetch Hetchy valley: “A short distance to the eastward of Tueeulala booms and thunders the great Hetch Hetchy fall - Wapama - so near that you have both of them in full view from the same standpoint. No two falls could be more unlike - Tueeulala out in the open sunshine descending like thistledown; Wapama in a jagged, shadowy gorge roaring and thundering, pounding its way like an earthquake avalanche.”
“At the time of my visit to the Wapama Fall, the volume of water was much greater than that of Yosemite Fall, and I was told that in the spring its roaring can be heard for miles.”
Muir also described fine groves of black oak, with sugar pines, sabine pines, white cedar, and douglas spruce scattered throughout the valley floor. He noted thickets of azalea, brier rose, and common bracken – with some ferns exceeding eight feet in height. Muir described the Tuolumne River as meandering: “between sheltering groves of alder and poplar and flowering dogwood. Where there is a few inches of fall, it ripples and sparkles songfully, but it flows gently in most places, often with a lingering expression, as if half inclined to become a lake. Many of these river nooks are gloriously bordered with ferns and sedges and drooping willows.”
Open meadows and black oak woodlands stretched along the six-mile length of the valley. Deer were abundant, feeding on acorns and shrubs. The deer attracted black bears and mountain lions. Golden eagles and peregrine falcons nested along the valley rim. Almost 700 species of plants inhabited this five square mile valley - one of the richest and most diverse ecosystems in California.
The abundance of game, fish, plants and water attracted human settlement. Native American tribes hunted bears, deer, smaller mammals such as rabbits and grey squirrels, and trout. They gathered clover and bulbs in the spring; seeds and fruits in the summer; acorns, nuts, and manzanita berries in the fall; and mushrooms in the late winter.
The Miwok word “hetchetci” described edible seeds from a grass that grew in the Hetch Hetchy valley.
See Hetch Hetchy Valley Archival Photos here.
Stephen J. Botti, A Place We Never Knew, Yosemite: Journal of the Yosemite Association, 1988
Linda W Greene, Yosemite: The Park and its Resources, 1987