History of the valley

Hetch Hetchy was once a resplendent glacier carved valley, with towering cliffs and waterfalls cascading onto a serene valley floor. Pioneer conservationist John Muir called it a "remarkably exact counterpart" to the now world-famous Yosemite Valley - 15 miles to its south. Hetch Hetchy was one of Earth’s most beautiful places.


Some believe Hetch Hetchy is named for Dichelostemma capitatum, or "Blue Dicks"

Due to its glacier carved U-shape, Hetch Hetchy was one of the more hospitable locations in California's rugged Sierra Nevada. Native Americans are thought to have inhabited the valley year-round. The name "Hetch Hetchy"is derived from the Miwok word “hetchetci”, describing seeds from a prominent grass growing in the valley and from which a mush was made. Paiutes and Washoes regularly visited Hetch Hetchy as well - the name Ahwahnechee is sometimes used for the Native Americns who lived in the Yosemite area. These tribes later shared Hetch Hetchy with European Americans, who first arrived in 1850. For more information on Native Americans and Hetch Hetchy, see "How Did the Hetch Hetchy Project Impact Native Americans?" (Professor Bruce Pierini, 2005) or "Finding the Way Back to Hetch Hetchy" (Restore Hetch Hetchy, 2005). 

When Yosemite National Park was created in 1890, Hetch Hetchy Valley was to be protected "in perpetuity". 

But in 1913, United States allowed, for the only time in our history, a single city to appropriate one of our national parks for its own exclusive use. When President Woodrow Wilson signed the Raker Act on December 19, 1913, he permitted San Francisco to build a dam in Yosemite National Park’s spectacular Hetch Hetchy Valley. 


Today, most of the park’s 4 million annual visitors go to the similarly spectacular Yosemite Valley, unaware that Hetch Hetchy Valley once existed a mere 15 miles to the north.

Building a dam in Yosemite was allowed at a time when our national parks were relatively new. Even so, the proposal generated unprecedented controversy. Naturalists, led by John Muir, and more than 200 newspaper editorials nationwide opposed the legislation. But the San Francisco lobbyists were able to push the Act through Congress.

Although John Muir was unsuccessful in preventing this from happening, his rigorous campaign resulted in the creation of an international environmental conservation movement. As he explained to a distraught friend, “The long drawn out battle work for Nature’s gardens has not been thrown away. The conscience of the whole country has been aroused from sleep; and from outrageous evil compensating good in some form must surely come.”


Muir was right. Only three years later, public outrage over the seizure of Hetch Hetchy Valley caused Congress to pass the National Park Service Act. This act ensured that our parks would be preserved and managed for the enjoyment of all Americans. So in many ways, the desecration of Yosemite also inspired our nation’s conservation movement and no such intrusions in our parks have been allowed since.

But Hetch Hetchy Reservoir remains as a scar upon Yosemite and our national park system.

The unfortunate story of the clear-cutting, damming and flooding of Hetch Hetchy Valley has been told many times in books and film. As described by Robert Redford, Hetch Hetchy’s damming turned into the defining struggle of the conservation movement.

Restoration of Hetch Hetchy Valley will not only restore the integrity of Yosemite National Park, it will also resurrect one of the most ecologically diverse and scenic areas in our national park system – a twin of the famed Yosemite Valley, 15 miles to its south.

It’s time to return Yosemite’s Hetch Hetchy Valley to the American people.