2008 Hetch Hetchy to Lake Vernon

Description: 4 day out-and-back from Hetch Hetchy to Vernon Lake

The Hetch Hetchy region, in northwestern Yosemite, is an area of the park I had never visited. Its splendor has been said to rival Yosemite Valley’s, fueling a national debate years ago on whether to build a reservoir on its site. Nevertheless, O’Shaughnessy Dam was built and the reservoir now supplies pristine drinking water to most of the San Francisco Bay Area, though there is an ongoing movement to remove the dam.

I eagerly awaited this backpacking adventure where I hoped to see spectacular vistas, waterfalls, lakes, wildflowers, and the occasional bear or 2.

Day 1:

After parking at the backpacker’s parking lot, Richard and I started towards the dam, unaware that we were taking the longer route, adding ~0.6 mile to our first day’s hike.

At the dam, we took the obligatory pictures of Wapama Rock, a stalwart feature peaking at 6000 ft. Our plan was to hike to 6500ft today. After making our way through a 500ft tunnel, we embarked on a set of long sun-exposed switchbacks that would lead us out of the valley.

Along the way, we traded leads with a 61 year old mother/daughter tandem who would eventually continue on to Lake Vernon, about 3 miles further than our intended destination. Midway up, we crossed paths with a seasoned backpacker on his way out. He relayed stories of bears he had come across at the lakes we were headed towards. Hoping to see a bear in the wilderness for the first time, I was more eager than ever to reach the lakes this evening.

Having depleted each of our Camelbaks, Richard and I filtered water from the spring in Beehive Meadows and then proceeded to tackle the last 1.2 miles to Laurel Lake, which consisted of a steep descent and then a crazy ascent. One wonders why someone didn’t just build a long bridge across these peaks. Hours of hiking tends to fill one’s mind with crazy ideas.

As we approached the lake, we saw that a good campsite with good water access was already occupied, so we continued west, despite the urge to drop our packs. Our path was littered with bear prints and seemed to be a major thoroughfare for the local bear community. We arrived at a campsite furnished with various cut logs and stumps. Most of the lake was surrounded by thick brush, azaleas, and grass but there was access to a muddy section.

We quickly washed up, ate dinner, and retired for the night.

Peering down O'Shaughnessy Dam


O'Shaughnessy Dam tunnel


Wapama Rock


Spring at Beehive Meadows


Laurel Lake


Day 2:

The next morning, we walked north for better water access. As we returned to camp, a volunteer ranger told us a bear had come by about 20 minutes ago and was being a bit too curious with nearby campers at the south end of the lake. I was disappointed at the missed opportunity.

We packed up and hiked to Lake Vernon as planned. The bear activity at this new lake seemed to be even higher than at Laurel Lake, as we couldn't take 2 steps without coming across bear prints or bear scat. We found a campsite along a granite shelf, about 300 ft from what appeared to be bear junction. Lake Vernon appeared to be a shallow lake, ideal for swimming but limited for fishing.

Bear tracks


Lake Vernon


Lake Vernon


Day 3:

Fishing was unsuccessful as the few fish we saw venture the shallows near the shore were skittish and swam away from our lures. Due to Richard’s blisters, we decided to take the out-and-back option instead of the loop to Rancheria Falls. I was also feeling a bit under the weather. As we approached the spring at Beehive Meadows, a couple told us a bear was crouching in the meadows just a few minutes prior but had run off. It seems we’d missed another opportunity. We proceeded to Laurel Lake and found a campsite with better water access. One of the highlights of this trip was the sight of an osprey circling the lake about an hour before sunset.

Laurel Lake


Day 4:

As we were packing up, we noticed a stream of smoke a couple hundred feet from our campsite so we ran over to investigate. It turned out to be a campfire that was coming back to life. We didn't see anyone else at this lake this morning so Richard and I proceeded to put the fire out. Today, we would retrace the first day’s path, which was bordered much of the way by wildflowers and butterflies. Unfortunately, we would also be swarmed by flies along much of the trail. And it seemed to be worse on our way out. The swarms were a reminder that we hadn't taken a proper bath in 4 days. This was made more obvious when we finally reached the dam, and found that the flies were still bothering us, but ignored the day hikers. Still, it had been a wonderful 4 days, despite not seeing any bears.

What kind of tree is this?


Closeup of tree feature