Hetch Hetchy Valley, As Amazing As Muir Said It Would Be

Hetch Hetchy Valley, As Amazing As Muir Said It Would Be

Have you ever heard about a place and just needed to go experience it for yourself? With the help of my cousin, I crossed one of those places off my list: Hetch Hetchy at Yosemite National Park. Ever since learning about it at college, I’ve wanted to go and experience what it was that made that area such a wonderful place. Let me back up- what is Hetch Hetchy you’re wondering.

Photo from the Restore Hetch Hetchy Project. Taken 1908 by Isaiah West Tabor.
Photo from the Restore Hetch Hetchy Project. Taken 1908 by Isaiah West Tabor.
Standing on the dam at the beginning of the hike. Use Kolana Peak to compare the two photos, 108 years apart.
Standing on the dam at the beginning of the hike. Use Kolana Peak to compare the two photos, 108 years apart.

During the fall of 1871, John Muir visited Hetch Hetchy Valley for the first time. He was a conservationist in every sense of the word, meaning he felt that nature needed to be protected and not saved simply for human benefits later. About 180 miles west of Hetch Hetchy Valley was the growing city of San Francisco. Officials were concerned with the growing city’s need for water and began looking at areas to build a reservoir. The years of 1908 through 1913 saw this great debate about whether or not to build a dam in the valley and use Hetch Hetchy for the reservoir.

Looking at the dam from the Wapama Falls over looking the reservoir.
Looking at the dam from the Wapama Falls over looking the reservoir.

Muir argued against this construction. He and his supporters appreciated the beauty of Hetch Hetchy and the marvel of true wilderness simply for what it was and not as a human resource. President Wilson saw its value too, but for its benefit to San Francisco and approved the project. Michael O’Shaughnessy, the project director, and his team completed the dam in 1938. Yosemite became a National Park in 1890, thanks to the lobbying by Muir himself. The controversy over the construction of the dam continues to this day since the dam was built on National Park land, protected land- it is the only project that destroyed protected land in the history of the National Parks.

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Flash-forward a little more than 80 years, I am at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where Muir spent many years, and I am learning about environmental issues and both sides of this debate. I learned about Muir and Gifford Pinchot, Wilson’s Natural Resource Advisor, and their backgrounds and ideas about Hetch Hetchy. We talked about it at some point in every one of my environmental classes so I became knowledgeable and passionate about how to see both sides of an environmental issue. I got to the point where I wanted to see Hetch Hetchy for myself and see what was so special about Yosemite in every sense.

My cousin and I had the meadow to ourselves the night we camped in Yosemite. We ate our breakfast with Mule Deer who came down to the valley to graze- these were the only large wild animals we came across.
My cousin and I had the meadow to ourselves the night we camped in Yosemite. We ate our breakfast with Mule Deer who came down to the valley to graze- these were the only large wild animals we came across.

Sight: This trip I have two answers for my favorite site. One was when we were driving to the trailhead and Hetch Hetchy just came into view. I was star struck. I kept sitting up further in my seat to see more of it and when my cousin and I were hiking around it, I kept wanting to stop to keep taking it all in. We hiked 10 miles each day. We ended the first day with a 5-mile hike up the side of a mountain before reaching the meadow where we spent the night. That was my second favorite site: seeing the meadow. My thighs, my butt and back were killing me- I’ve never been so happy to see a meadow or an awkward log to sit on.

 

 

 

One step in front of the other, dont forget to look up at the trees and smell the fresh air.
One step in front of the other, dont forget to look up at the trees and smell the fresh air.

Smell: This is an easy one, and I noticed it right away. Fresh pine. As soon as we got onto the trail and away from the parking lot, you could smell how fresh the air was. Even when I was out of breathe from all the switchbacks at the end of the first day, I would breathe in deeply and feel clear and calm. And no it’s nothing like a pine scented candle or having the Christmas tree in your living room for a month, this smell surrounds you and gives you a hug saying, ‘welcome back to nature.’

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Sound: Throughout Yosemite National Park there are several waterfalls- who knew! During our hike around Hetch Hetchy we passed several smaller falls before coming to Wapama Falls. This gorgeous curtain of water cascades down from the side of a cliff before spraying off several rocks and flowing into the reservoir. You can hear it and feel the spray from it hitting the rocks before seeing it. We ate lunch next to the Falls both days. It was soothing to watch each section of water make its way over the edge of the cliff before rushing down. Water is just so cool 🙂

Taste: If you hike, camp or workout often you know there are certain snacks that just taste better when you’re burning hundreds of calories at a time. For me, it was Teriyaki and Sweet Chipotle Jerky. My cousin hikes and camps often and knew all the good stuff to bring. We paired these jerky flavors with, what seems like a staple camping food for my cousin, hard Parmesan cheese. I hesitate to try this without having hiked 10 miles, but our breaks for jerky and cheese were delicious and appreciated.

This is where we decided to break from the trail and get down to this river.
This is where we decided to break from the trail and get down to this river.

Touch: At one point during the first day we diverted from the trail to get to a river to fill our water bottles (do not leave the trails or head into an area you can’t get out of- this PSA brought to you for the National Parks). To get back to where the trail was, we climbed up over these large rocks. Given that my pack was 20 pounds and that I am not used to rock climbing I had trouble getting over the last rock. My cousin came down and took my pack from me so I could just pull my body over the edge of the rock. We weren’t up very high, but I needed to use all my arm strength (not much) to pull myself up and over the rock. I was concerned about my grip and where I would put my leg when I swung it over the rock. I could feel my heart beat pick up and my adrenaline kick in. I was a little scared- what if I fell backward. I looked backward- bad idea. I got the best grip I could on this rock and pulled myself up. My cousin and I both agreed maybe we didn’t do anymore rock climbing.

A little more abstract, but I feel like this trip I really got more in touch with myself. I did things like climbing up those rocks and peeing in the middle of the night in woods where we knew there were mountain lions and bears (oh my) that I have never done before. I put myself out of my comfort zone and I feel much stronger. We’re encouraged to get outside our comfort zone and do things that make us a little uncomfortable and I think that’s why we must continue to do this. It forces us to rely on ourselves exclusively and see what we’re really capable of because if we don’t get in touch with this part of us, we’ll never know.

Here's to more family hiking trips!
Here’s to more family hiking trips!

Shout out to my cousin Kevin! I could have never done this without him. I am not a very experienced outdoorslady and I needed his expertise to help make this dream of mine a reality. That being said, if you have a dream or something you want to go do or try- find someone who can help you or find a way to make it happen on your own. These are the experiences that you’ll never forget and the ones that help you reach your full potential.

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