Getting into the Hetch Hetchy backcountry (or not)

The reservoir behind O'Shaughnessy Dam not only makes Hetch Hetchy Valley inaccessible, it makes access to the surrounding area very difficult as well. That is not the way is it was supposed to be.

David, a friend of Restore Hetch Hetchy, recently asked about "circumnavigating Hetch Hetchy". He wanted to backpack around the reservoir over a long weekend and wondered if he could do so without making the long trek east around Rancheria Mountain (see map). He had heard there might be an old trail that would provide a shortcut.

I told David I did not know of any such trail. David indicated he, along with a few friends, might try the shortcut anyway.


The only trail around Hetch Hetchy takes backpackers to the east around Rancheria Mountain.

When Congress agreed to allow a dam to be built in Yosemite National Park, it was assured that a dam at Hetch Hetchy would provide an enhanced visitor experience. San Francisco provided each member a copy of the "Freeman Report", 500 pages long and luxuriously bound in red leather, which presented visions of easy access to both sides of the reservoir, replete with happy picnickers and ferries to transport park visitors across the water. 


A copy of the Freeman Report was provided to each member of Congress

The Freeman Report includes the following excerpts:

  • "there is not the slightest probability that the public will be excluded, or restricted from reasonable enjoyment",
  • "the proposed water supply development will at the same time make the scenery of the valley accessible to the public and greatly diversify and improve it", and
  • "The use for water supply ... can bring the scenic beauties of the Hetch Hetchy Valley within reach of a hundred-fold more people than would otherwise find it possible to enjoy them..."

The images in the Freeman Report - roads blasted out of the granite walls or a smoke belching ferry - do not reflect the way we would want to encourage visitors at Hetch Hetchy today. But a better trail system, and perhaps even a small electric powered ferry, would provide access to Rancheria Falls and Tiltill or Pate Valleys, without requiring an extended backpacking trip.

It is not surprising that few venture to Hetch Hetchy. The valley is, after all, buried beneath 300 feet of water and completely inaccessible. About 75% of the 4,000,000 annual visitors to Yosemite National Park go to the eponymous Yosemite Valley, while only about 1% goes to Hetch Hetchy. 

The reservoir makes it very difficult to explore the surrounding backcountry, including the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne River. And San Francisco has seemingly forgotten about the public access it promised to provide a century ago when it asked Congress for permission to build a reservoir inside Yosemite National Park.  


Tiltill Valley

Restore Hetch Hetchy looks forward to full replacement of the water supply functions that the reservoir now provides, so that the entire Hetch Hetchy Valley can be returned to Yosemite National Park. Visitors could then simply saunter across Hetch Hetchy Valley before ascending into the backcountry.

Our lawsuit, currently before the Superior Court in Tuolumne County, will demonstrate that Hetch Hetchy is more valuable as a valley than as a reservoir. Your continued financial support will be necessary make restoration a reality. Please contribute today.