Hetch Hetchy

2004 July

Hetch Hetchy with Hannah and Henrik

To summarize, another great trip but not one I would repeat. Instead I would probably just go directly to Rancheria Falls and avoid all of the hot, sandy, waterless trails. Don't let the photos fool you, just because most of them have water doesn't mean that it is abundant on the loop. I also had an epiphany of sorts and realized that I am not a good backpacker, at least mentally. What I found was that if I go on a backpacking trip and leave Emily at home I am quite melancholy for a good bit of the time and the only way around this is to either have Emily come along or to go on a trip when I couldn't otherwise be with her. The former wouldn't have been a good idea since this was actually a fairly physically demanding trip, with a lot of climbing and high temperatures, not Em's ideal environment. The latter seems promising, and indeed, my favorite backpacking trips without Emily occurred when I live in San Francisco and she was in Southern California so what I did on the weekends was irrelevant. Anyway, I hope you enjoy the following photos and text.

Here is the route, starting Friday morning at O'Shaughnessy Dam in the southwest corner of the map and traveling clockwise, arriving back at the dam Monday morning. According to TOPO!, the distance is about 34 miles.

  • Day 1: north then east to Lake Vernon,
  • Day 2: backtrack west to the junction then northeast to the junction north of Andrews Peak,
  • Day 3: east to the junction at the top-right corner of the map then southwest to Rancheria Falls,
  • Day 4: west back to the dam.

Day 1

Hannah arrived at our apartment in Berkeley at 5:00 am and by 5:30 we had picked up Henrik in Oakland and where on our way. Traffic was light and after a brief stop for a fast food breakfast in Oakdale we arrived at the Hetch Hetchy backpackers parking lot and began the short 1-mile walk down the paved road to O'Shaughnessy Dam. We walked across the concrete arch, through a tunnel and then began a climb up the dry switchbacks on a very warm morning. We would climb for most of the day, usually on sandy trails in forested areas, before descending to the open exposed granite of Lake Vernon where we camped.

Highlights of the day included: seeing a bear (a first for me in the backcountry), almost stepping on a rattlesnake that was as thick as my arm, getting water at the “Beehive”, and camping/swimming at Lake Vernon (almost no mosquitoes and a flat campsite right on the water, I mean at least 100 feet away). Credit must also be given where credit is due. Henrik deserves a big pat on the back for suggesting that we stash our extra food in 2 of our 3 bear canisters at the trail junction before heading down to the lake. This simple insight saved all of us from carrying the extra weight for the 2 miles down to the lake and the 2 miles back to the trail junction the following morning.

Here is a great shot looking up the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, elevation 3,797. Kolana Rock, the dome to the right, tops out at an elevation of 5,772 feet.

After making our way up the switchbacks we walked through an area that was recovering beautifully from a fire. Hannah, admiring the scenery here, spent the entire trip in pants and long sleeves, except when swimming when she wore not much of anything.

During the first few days most of the trail was like this, sandy and dry with water sources few and far between. Here I am walking ahead with Hetch Hetchy (not visible) to my right.

Bear! This was the first time I had seen a bear while backpacking in the backcountry. He smelled me first, made some noise, which caught my attention. Looks like Henrik couldn't hold the camera steady!

Beehive! After many miles of hot and dusty hiking Beehive, this meadow, was a superior spot to rest and get water from a natural spring just 25 feet off of the main trail.

With the exception of Beehive, almost all of day 1 had been spent walking in forests or on dry, dusty trail. Heading down to Lake Vernon the terrain changed to exposed granite, which Hannah and I are hurrying down in anticipation of swimming in the lake.

Some nut with a bandanna on his head enjoys the beauty of Lake Vernon oblivious to the incredible reflection.

Day 2

We rose early, hiked back to the junction, retrieved our bear canisters, and continued climbing until about noon. As before, the trail was sandy, it was hot, and water was scarce. After a day and a half we had finally reached our first of two summits and began our descent to a river that we would follow upstream for the rest of the day. Upon reaching the water we quickly found a superb swimming spot where we ate lunch, followed by another a stop to swim at “Walk Across Lake”, another dip at “1, 2, 3 Go River”, and finally once more in the drink at our campsite. In between "Walk Across Lake" and "1, 2, 3 Go River" we stopped and talked about where we might camp that night at "Discussion Lake".

A breakfast time view of Lake Vernon, elevation 6,564 feet, on day 2. We left fairly early since we knew we had to backtrack to the trail junction, retrieve our stashed bear canisters, and then climb up to approximately 8,120 feet before we would start heading down to our next drinking and swimming sources.

After many hours of walking we "settled" on this spot for lunch, a natural rock amphitheatre overlooking a wide area of the river. The following photo was taken from the rock island after I swam out with the camera.

What an amazing spot, and it only took 1-1/2 days of hiking to get here! Henrik and Hannah are relaxing after lunch with the river to the right. This photo was taken from the rock island in the previous picture.

I named this "Walk Across Lake" since that is exactly what I did, all the way to the rock, sinking in much up to my ankles with every step. How many more years will it be until this area becomes "Walk Meadow"?

After stopping and talking but not swimming at "Discussion Lake" we all got wet again at "1, 2, 3 Go River", so named for the contest I instigated to see who could get in the water first. Here Hannah turns her back to enforce her "no naked photos" rule. If you want to see Hannah naked (or Henrik, Casey, or Emily for that matter), just go on a backpacking trip with her that involves a lot of swimming. Leaving this spot the trail continued on a spit of land no more than 10 feet wide with the river to our right and "Discussion Lake" to our left.

Casey and Hannah take a post dinner dip at our final swimming spot of day 2 was also our campsite. Being very respectful backpackers, we made sure to locate our site 100 feet (or 100 yards?) from the water.

Day 3

Our third day started with a serious climb to our second and final high point so we hit the trail before 6:00 am to beat the heat and mosquitoes, succeeding in the former but not the latter (It should be said that getting up that early was no hardship since we were going to bed once it got dark, around 9:00 pm, giving us 8 hours of sleep assuming we woke up at 5:00 am). It wasn’t until we reached the exposed and breezy rock of the summit that we stopped for any kind of a break, in this case we ate breakfast as well. No sooner did we leave the sanctuary of the breezy rock when we once again descended into forests with the accompanying mosquitoes. With no relief in sight we kept going, and going, and going. At one point I sprayed DEET in my eye, ouch! We planned to stay in Tiltill Valley but Henrik and I, each independently, decided that given the heat, drinking water choices, and mosquito potential, we would be better served heading down to Rancheria Falls. This was the best decision of the entire trip. It was a long walk to get there but all fatigue vanished upon jumping into the pools around the falls and footbridge upstream of it.

I can describe this section of trail as walking through a field you would encounter in your dreams. The flowers where everywhere, shoulder high, and the trail was only inches wide at times. Plus, after an hour of hard climbing from camp we had reached the high point of the entire trip (probably around 8,600 feet) and for many hours today we walked down a gentle slope on hard, dirt trails. It was quite wonderful except that good water sources where not to be found, only stagnant lakes, and the mosquitoes where bad.

In my opinion, the best picture of the trip with Tiltill Valley below and Hetch Hetchy beyond. I also took a picture of Henrik in the same spot but since this is CaseyandEmily.com...

And from the great vantage point of the previous picture, we finally made it down into Tiltill Valley. Parts of the trail down, with giant boulders and oak trees made us think we where at the bottom of the trail up to Yosemite Falls. Only 10 minutes after this picture was taken Hannah would fill her bladder with questionable water that she would later drink without treating since I had the chlorine dioxide in my pack and Henrik and I had walked ahead.

Some pictures get to break my Lhorizontal > Lvertical rule, but it has to be something special like this. We spent quite a bit of time here, at the footbridge above Rancheria Falls. James, our co-worker, came here over Memorial Day in 2003 and found the water level to be substantially higher, to the extent that going in would most likely result in death.

Just as with the photo above, this one was taken below the footbridge and looking downstream. To get the shot of Mr. Dahl I had to take it from the middle of the river. I love the "infinity pool" effect. It looks like he could be standing out of the water but actually he is sitting in the middle of it.

This is another way to get around my Lhorizontal > Lvertical rule, if you can put two vertically orientated pictures side by side. In this case, the picture on the left is looking upstream from the bridge while the one on the right is looking downstream. We went upstream until the falls petered out, just a few minutes beyond what you can see in the picture and also explored downstream to the top of Rancheria Falls.

Speaking of Rancheria Falls, here it is with the footbridge just barely visible. This photo was taken very to close to where we camped.

Hannah collects water at our final campsite, with soft sand and no mosquitoes.

Day 4

We left our campsite at 6:00 am and I was back to the dam at 9:30 am. After crossing it I dropped my pack and jogged for 10 minutes back up the road to the car in the backpackers parking lot and drove it down to the day use area at the dam. We didn't rush out however. During the trek out Hannah and I stopped at a pool just upstream of the first footbridges west of Rancheria Falls for a swim in the creek that drains Tiltill Valley and later for a swim in the reservoir. In between, we ate breakfast on an exposed granite outcropping, just below Hetch Hetchy Dome with a great view of Kolana Rock, but just far enough upstream to not see the dam.

During our 4 days on the trails we encountered a lot of bear poo, but most of it on the last day on the trail between Rancheria Falls and the dam. Every time I inspected it I was glad to see it was full of berries and not candy bar wrappers. One sample was only 5 minutes from the tunnel at the north end of the dam.

And our final photo, taken by Henrik from the footbridge at Wapama Falls and looking upstream, shows Casey and Hannah once again breaking the rules, this time by swimming in Hetch Hetchy.


For the first time since I started packing food based on Excel spreadsheets I finally got it right. I was never hungry and always looked forward to my snacks and next major meal despite bringing only 1.5 pounds (2700 calories) of high quality food per day. A link to my food spreadsheet is here and a discussion of the food is given below.

  • Unused Food:

When I got home I had 72 grams of dark chocolate covered espresso beans, 120 grams of peanut butter, 50 grams of jam, and one granola bar. On future trips I would replace most of the espresso beans with roasted and salted almonds since the former melted. I would also reduce my peanut butter consumption since I was not able to put 2 tablespoons worth on one sandwich. I do not consider the granola bar unused food since I'm sure I would have eaten it had I not reached the end of the trail by 9:30 am.

  • Food Dead Weight:

I also weight the trash and food containers when I got home with the following results. My trash, consisting of used food bags weighed 56 grams, squeeze tubes for my peanut butter and jam weighed 21 grams each, and olive oil bottle (with ~ 6 tbsp capacity) weighs 20 grams. The sum of this dead weight is 118 grams or 4.2 ounces and when compared to the total weight of the food (3 days worth of breakfasts, lunches, and dinners plus 4 days worth of snacks) seems pretty insignificant. A good deal of this weight was the paper from the three powdered milk packets that I used. Repackaging or burning these would cut the dead weight a lot.

  • Changes for the Next Trip:

Breakfast: Prior to measuring out my cereal at home I will gently crush the large pieces to get rid of air voids. I will also just measure 3/4 cup instead of 2/3 since my plastic cup I take as part of my cooking kit doesn't have a 2/3 cup marking.

Lunch: If I need a bear canister, and space is tight I will replace bread with pita, or perhaps just a more compact bread. I will not take Trader Joes Sprouted Wheat Berry Bread again since it dried. As mentioned before, I will reduce my peanut butter intake as well.

Dinner: No changes here. Chili-Mac rules! My recipe is easy to make, clean up, takes up no space, is a whopping 680 calories, and most importantly, I looked forward to it each night. To make it I put 1.25 cups of water and 0.5 cups of elbow pasta in my pot, bring it to a boil, add 0.5 cups of bean mix, bring to boil again, shut off the stove, and let it sit for about 5 minutes. Then I add 2 tablespoons of olive oil, and salt/pepper/Tabasco to taste. At the end of the meal I use my fingers to eat the excess from the pot and clean it with a cup of water and my fingers as well; no soap required. The reason that this works, despite adding 2 tablespoons full of oil, is that all of the oil gets absorbed into the bean mix.

Snacks: As I said before I will replace most of the chocolate covered espresso beans with roasted and salted almonds, plus a bit more to make up for bringing less peanut butter.

Hannah's Water

In general I'm a nice guy and try to "enlighten" people before trips rather than during since it just seems mean to pull out my 10 gram alcohol stove at dinner while someone is boiling water with a 1 pound plus liquid fuel monster that is not only complicated but loud as heck. With this in mind I told Hannah not to bring her water filter and her stove. Maybe it wasn't such a good idea. Actually, the stove worked great and she loved it so I gave her one (I have extras) but the water situation is a bit more complicated. I use chlorine dioxide in the form of two little bottles with droppers made by McNett. It only takes 7 drops of each liquid to treat 1 liter of water so before the trip I shook the bottles and guesstimated that I had enough. Then, while a Lake Vernon on day 1 I realized that one bottle had twice the liquid as the other. Shit!

The next day I stopped treating my water and offered the bottles to Hannah, feeling quite sheepish since I told her not to bring her filter. When she asked me to carry them since her pack was already so heavy I almost exploded, not out of anger but from surprise as the total weight of the bottles was probably 1 ounce! I put them back in my pack, never to use them again for the rest of the trip. On day 3, when Hannah really needed them, Henrik and I were minutes ahead of her, out of earshot, so she drank some really questionable water.

Now this made me feel even worse since I hadn't seen Hannah since 1997, when I graduated from Cal. We met at Cloyne, a student-run cooperative where we both lived and I spent many an hour hanging around the room she shared with Michelle Rappaport, doing nothing in particular but developing the kind of friendship that makes you wish you had kept in touch. Fast forward to June 2004 and the trail in Point Reyes from the Palomarin Parking Lot to Bass Lake. Who do Emily and I run into but good ole' Hannah. After catching up we continued onto our favorite lake while she headed out. In the following weeks this trip was planned and executed.

I do know, because she told us, that Hannah had the runs on the morning of the 4th day, about 16 hours after drinking the questionable water. But at the time of writing this text, I don't know if she has been otherwise affected. If so, I am sorry! In case you are wondering, starting at lunch time on day 2, I drank water straight from the rivers and lakes and have suffered no ill affects.

Hannah's Story

I am always trying to get guest writers for the site, and Hannah has agreed. Actually, the story was a requirement for giving her a soda can stove but what the heck, let's see what she has to say.

Here is Hannah's story - to augment Casey's story

Day 1: I had to wake up at four o'clock in the morning in order to get ready and make it to Berkeley by 5:00. I guess this was good because it prepared me for waking up early for the next few days. This also gave me the excuse to sit in the backseat and sleep while Casey and Henrik drove. On our way to Yosemite we stopped and had a very beefy breakfast at Carl's Jr. It is a good way to start a backpacking trip. Anyway, the first day was a lot of uphill, but it wasn't that bad. The first few miles were hot, but then it got better and our first night was next to the lovely Lake Vernon. I think this was probably my favorite place on the entire trail. The lake was big, the water was clear and I love to swim. It was the perfect temperature and there were no mosquitoes. The lake was surrounded by granite walls and hills. We saw a huge rattlesnake - the size of a muscle-man's forearm. This was also the first night that I was introduced to Casey's homemade camp stove. He had two and I received one as a gift. This stove is very light and simple and works very well. I was impressed.

Day 2: We woke up early, but not that early - probably around 6 or so - and started the hike onwards. By this point we were up in the altitude so it wasn't extremely hot. The trees were big. After a bit of walking we began to descend into the valley that housed all the lakes, connected by a river, that we would swim in throughout the day. The water was cold, but this was a very good thing after hiking so much and it felt especially nice on my feet. I had packed avocadoes for the backpacking trip and for lunch I enjoyed one and some pita bread and salt next to our first swimming hole. I think this was the point where we first began discussing the lack of a water purification system, specifically the diminishing supply of chlorine and iodine. I think this is where Casey began to drink the water, which was clear and running. After swimming at almost every lake we came across we finally reached a lovely little swimming hole with a small beach that became out campground. We swam a lot, even after dinner. I am glad we finally decided to camp alongside the swimming hole, which I wanted to do all along - but of course we had to discuss (and walk around and inspect every possible site in the area) for about an hour where we would sleep. After eating and swimming and all that discussion in the nice sand next to the swimming hole, it became obvious - let's just camp where we are.

Day 3: We woke up early to beat the mosquitoes, which still eventually surrounded us after about 10 minutes of hiking. We had to walk about 2 miles uphill, but because of the mosquitoes, I was extremely motivated and I practically ran up the steep first two miles to a nice overlook where we had breakfast. Then we started walking again and were attacked by mosquitoes. As long as you kept moving really fast they weren't so bad, but if you stopped you were attacked. We then walked and walked and walked, through beautiful meadows where the flowering plants were nearly chest height, and we also walked through nice forests. Then things got a little drier and the mosquitoes disappeared. By this point I had run out of water and ended up drinking some stale, slightly smelly water, that had a film on it and seemed a little discolored. I was a bit worried because I drank it untreated. That night I had a slight squishy gut feeling, and was also a bit nauseous. The next morning I needed to make an early, immediate toilet rush, but after that I felt fine. I can't definitely say that my slight ill feelings were even due to the water. So I think it would be safe to say that the water in the Sierras appears to be clean and fine to drink - although try to avoid drinking stagnant water if you can. Anyway, we ended up hiking a long way, but it was very much worth it because of the beautiful place we camped which can be accurately described as: waterfall - swimming hole - waterfall - swimming hole - waterfall - swimming hole, etc. There were no mosquitoes here.

Day 4: This was our hike out day. We had an early morning swim at a waterfall along the way, and then again at another waterfall. This time though we were right along the rocks on the banks of the Hetch Hetchy reservoir, so we just walked down and swam in the reservoir. This felt slightly naughty, due to its illegal-ness, but the water was warmer than the previous rivers and lakes, and was in fact deemed the "perfect temperature." We continued our hike out, hopped in the car, and drove back, stopping on the way at a nice Mexican restaurant. This was my first backpacking trip in the Hetch Hetchy area and I am glad I went. I saw my first bear in the backcountry. Okay, that's all, I'll see you on another trip.