In the spring, Yosemite National Park visitors flock to see thundering waterfalls and flashy wildflowers—an easy score in Yosemite Valley. But head to the park’s northwest corner in Hetch Hetchy Valley and you’ll witness spring’s splendor from a whole new perspective.
Hetch Hetchy—which conservationist John Muir called a “wonderfully exact counterpart” to Yosemite Valley—is, like its neighbor to the south, graced by sheer granite walls and multiple gushing cataracts. But Hetch Hetchy’s greatest charm may be what it lacks: gift shops, snack stands, and crowds.
An hour’s drive from Groveland via Highway 120 and Evergreen Road, Hetch Hetchy’s rugged cliffs frame an eight-mile-long reservoir that supplies San Francisco’s water. Its aqueous blue depth is held back by O’Shaughnessy Dam, a 1920s engineering marvel that took seven years to build—plus another 14 years to link the aqueducts and tunnels traveling 156 miles to San Francisco.
Hiking is a highlight here. Although peak summer temps can get toasty, this area of the park claims one of the longest hiking seasons. Stroll across the dam’s concrete crest and through a tunnel to access the two-mile trail to boisterous Wapama Falls, passing Tueeulala Falls along the way. Both cascades tumble more than 1,000 feet over polished granite before splashing into the deep blue lake. Carpets of purple larkspur, harlequin lupine, and pink farewell-to-spring paint the shoreline. To get a bird’s-eye view and a heart-rate spike, climb the steep switchbacks up Beehive Meadow Trail, with its edges lined with vivid floral displays.
After a hike, a microbrew might hit the spot, so drive nine miles from the trail to Evergreen Lodge. A cluster of ramshackle cabins built for the Hetch Hetchy dam workers in 1920, it is now a woodsy-chic cottage resort with a tavern, restaurant, and saltwater swimming pool. Spend the night so you can roast s’mores under the stars at the outdoor fire pits. Evergreen’s sister property, Rush Creek Lodge, offers additional rooms, suites, and hillside villas. Stay for a few days and you’ll have time to paddle the Wild and Scenic Tuolumne River, better known as the “T.” Eighteen miles of class IV rapids grace the river west of Hetch Hetchy. Biggest thrill: the three staircase drops of Clavey Falls.