YOSEMITE -- I
was 35,000 feet in the air, flying back from a business trip
in Denver, when the 767 crossed the eastern escarpment of the
I looked out my window hoping
to see Yosemite Valley, where my wife, Kathleen, and I had recently
celebrated our wedding anniversary at the Ahwahnee Hotel. The
valley was below the airplane, visible only to the cockpit crew.
But looking north, I saw a lake and a V-shaped dam bathed in
On the lake's north shore, a vivid
white streak looked like a wide ski slope going down to the
water's edge. But ski runs don't empty into lakes, and this
one was well below the snow line. If not snow, what was down
Then it dawned on me. I was looking
at one heck of a waterfall. Back home, I grabbed
a Yosemite map. It soon was obvious what I had spotted: Hetch
Hetchy, the reservoir that supplies drinking water to the San
Francisco Bay Area. The map also revealed the name for the accompanying
white streak: Wapama Fall.
Last month, a year after that
plane ride, Kathleen and I ventured to that very spot. We stood
on a redwood bridge looking up at Wapama, a raging 1,400 tall
waterfall. We felt as though we were in the eye of a hurricane--white
water plummeting above us, below us, beside us.
Neither of us could talk above the
roar--the volume of water was twice that of Wapama's more famous
neighbor Yosemite Fall. But most remarkable: We were on the bridge
on a summer weekend, and not another tourist was in sight.
This little-visited area of Yosemite
is about 325 miles north of Los Angeles, but our adventure started
from our apartment in Menlo Park. (Kathleen and I split our time
between homes in San Mateo and Santa Barbara counties.)
hours on California Highway 120, we approached Yosemite's Big
Oak Flat Entrance. A half-mile-long line of cars moved at a
snail's pace toward Bridalveil Fall, Half Dome, Yosemite Fall
and El Capitan.
We turned north onto Evergreen
Road, continuing about six winding miles, skirting Yosemite's
boundaries and Stanislaus National Forest. We passed verdant,
wood rimmed meadows and crossed two tumbling forks of the Tuolumne
River before reaching Evergreen Lodge, where we were to spend
The 79-year-old lodge is rustic,
with forest-green shingled roofs, unpainted cedar siding and
rough-hewn-pine porch railings. It rents 20 one- or two-bedroom
cabins for $69 to $105 per night.
Emily Mills, a lodge employee
and self-described Yosemite fanatic, greeted us and gave us
a 1950s postcard of the lodge. The picture showed old cars--a
Hudson, a slope backed Pontiac, a svelte Chevy coupe parked
between nearby pines, but otherwise the place looked unchanged.
After a drink
in the bar, where we found a stunning 1911 photograph of Hetch
Hetchy Valley before the reservoir, we moved to the lodge's
restaurant. Kathleen ordered barbecue chicken, I had the steak,
and we shared a piece of blueberry pie, a good, hearty meal
in anticipation of the long hike awaiting us at sunrise.
The next morning we drove less
than a mile to the northernmost entrance to Yosemite, where
Hetch Hetchy Road begins its eight-mile descent along the edge
of Poopenaut Valley to O'Shaughnessy Dam.
In the late 1800s, San Francisco
officials first discussed building a dam here on the Tuolumne
River to catch the Sierra Nevada melt. Hetch Hetchy Valley seemed
perfect: High granite walls form a narrow canyon, and dam builders
needed to span a gap of less than 1,000 feet to create a reservoir
eight miles long, covering 1,861 acres and measuring nearly
370 feet deep.
As first president of the Sierra
Club, John Muir fought Hetch Hetchy vehemently. "Dam Hetch Hetchy!
As well dam for water tanks the people's cathedrals and churches,"
he wrote, "for no holier temple has ever been consecrated by
the heart of man."
But in 1906, fires from the San
Francisco earthquake proved the city's water supply to be woefully
insufficient. Politicians and local media pushed for Hetch Hetchy.
Congress finally authorized the reservoir in 1913, and Woodrow
Wilson quickly signed the bill.
O'Shaughnessy was completed 10
years later. Crews used about 674,000 cubic yards of concrete
and 760,000 pounds of steel to create a dam that's 308 feet
thick at its base. The whole project, including pipes and tunnels
to carry the water west, cost $100 million.
Manipulating water flow at the
dam keeps the reservoir deliberately below the high-water mark,
leaving a bathtub ring of sorts: a 10-foot-wide stripe of discolored
granite, the only eyesore in an otherwise breathtaking view.
Our first glimpse of Hetch Hetchy
came at Inspiration Point, a turnout about 1,500 feet above
the Tuolumne River. To the south, we saw 2,300-foot-high Kolana
Rock, whose spire resembles Yosemite's Cathedral Rocks. To the
north, Hetch Hetchy Dome's granite brow rises abruptly more
than 1,000 feet, then forms a rounded top much like Half Dome.
#160; We continued down the narrow road,
no other vehicle in sight until we reached the dam, where seven
others were parked. Backpackers can stay at a nearby campground,
which has restrooms and a water faucet. But for day hikers like
us, the main draw is a five-mile round-trip route to Wapama
Kathleen and I started our walk
across the top of O'Shaughnessy Dam. We looked down the sheer,
430-foot face. At this spot in 1987, an environmentalist painted
a giant crack. The stunt was just one protest against the dam.
The movement reached its zenith
that year when Interior Secretary Don Hodel endorsed a study
advocating removal of the dam. California politicians, led by
then-San Francisco Mayor Dianne Feinstein, quickly led a successful
campaign to defeat Hodel's proposal.
The Sierra Club's opposition lives
on through a Hetch Hetchy Task Force, a Web site and "Restore
Hetch Hetchy" bumper stickers. It's easy to see why people are
so passionate about this place. Kathleen was impressed with
its solitude--the clear blue water, the wildflowers that border
the trail. Because the reservoir is used for drinking water,
the park bans motorboats, Jet Skis and even swimmers and rowboats.
A 500-foot rock tunnel, built
during the dam's construction, led us to the trail head. During
our four hours to Wapama and back, we encountered only a dozen
or so small groups of people.
The trail is rated easy to moderate,
and we passed mostly senior citizens and some backpackers. A
family cavorted in natural granite pools filled with cold water
from nearby Tueeulala Falls, which drop off the brow of a rock
resembling El Capitan. While Wapama beats like an anvil against
granite, Tueeulala floats like a butterfly in the wind.
After a day of hiking, we headed
back home. Along the way we looked for the 37 miles of tunnels
and 156 miles of pipeline that transport Hetch Hetchy water
to the Bay Area. Gravity alone moves 225 million gallons of
water to 2 million people each day.
Back in Menlo Park, I drank a
glass of water with new appreciation for its magnificent source.
Then I felt a little guilty knowing it came from the largest
reservoir in any national park. Maybe we'll get one of those
[Editor's Note: Michael R. Boldrick
is a freelance writer who lives in Santa Maria.]