Bears, Waterfalls and Decisions at Hetch Hetchy

Backpacking at Hetch Hetchy - Yosemite National Park this past June was certainly an adventure! We had programmed a Senior Backpacking Trip for our graduated high school seniors from our Spanish-speaking church where my husband and I are youth leaders.  Originally only my husband was going to lead the group but situations arose that I along with our two children were able to attend.

A huge heat wave had come over most of the West Coast but we were hoping that the temperatures would drop due to the higher elevation at Hetch Hetchy.  Temperatures were nearing 100 degrees in the immediate San Francisco Bay Area, so we hoped it would be cooler in Yosemite.  Alas, it was not cooler.

The Group
We planned to hike the Lake Vernon Loop, approximately 27 miles over a 3 day/2 night backpacking trip.  That is what we planned but things were about to change as we started out on our adventure!  It was all of the graduates first time to Yosemite National Park, and almost everyone's first time to this section (Hetch Hetchy) of Yosemite so everyone was very excited.

Backpackers Camp
We arrived Friday afternoon at Hetch Hetchy Reservoir Backpacker Camp, set up camp, had dinner and made our final preparations to start our trek the following day.

Setting Up Camp

Gear for Six Adults & Two Toddlers
A few of us went on a search for water, since all the bathrooms did not have potable water.  The bathrooms had sinks and flush-able toilets and even had a separate kitchen "washroom"  There were signs on the walls stating that potable water was located at the "Comfort Station" but the few backpackers we saw never heard of the elusive "Comfort Station".  We eventually drove down to the Hetch Hetchy Day Use area and found the drinking fountain.  It was still quite warm when we finished all our preparations that night, so we all climbed into our fly-less tents and stared at the beautiful starry night and drifted off to sleep.

Day 1 - Bears, Waterfalls and Decisions
The following morning we started our trek a little later than we hoped but everyone was in good spirits and we started our first day of backpacking.  Everyone gasped when we had our first view of the reservoir and Wampama Falls.  The youth were amazed that Hetch Hetchy Reservoir is one of the Bay Area's water source and that they were going to drink "their" water from the source.

View of Hetch Hetchy from Wampama Falls

We all happily hiked along the reservoir, crossing the O'Shaughnessy Dam into the tunnel, where we finally started hiking off pavement.  We all knew it was going to be hot but we never knew it was going to be scorching hot.  We calculated low 90's but in reality we were hiking in over 100 degree weather for large portions of the day, peaking at 105 at the hottest point in the day.

O'Shaughnessy Dam
About two hours into hiking, we were walking in an open rocky meadow when another hiker (not of our group) all of a sudden said, "Wow whats that?!" and low and behold it was a small California Black Bear and her two cubs! It happened so quickly that none of us reacted they way we though we would react.  It was the groups first time seeing bears in the wild, except for my husband.  I think we were all internally scared but after a few minutes had passed of the mama bear and cubs munching on some berries, we made a safe passing of them on the trail.

Mama Bear and Cubs
The bear sighting gave us an adrenaline rush and we made it to Wampama Falls, then Tiltill Creek Falls where we all happily hydrated.  We eventually made it to Rancheria Falls on our first day but just barely!  The hike itself wasn't technically difficult but with heat wave upon us made every slight uphill feel like a giant mountain.  We would all huddle around the shade like cows, drink water and have snacks.  There was one large non-shaded section between the two first waterfalls but thankfully that section was switchbacks going downhill.

Get ready, no shade here!
After hours and hours of hiking along the reservoir (about 8 miles) we made it to Rancheria Falls dehydrated and exhausted.  The heat made everything less enjoyable, but after we kicked off our boots, had some cool refreshing river water and relaxed at our gorgeous campsite by the river and as time passed all our suffering had been forgotten.

We had to reevaluate our trek at this point, for the following reasons:
  • Day two was scheduled to have two ~1500' climbs on exposed rock faces.
  • The members of the group where suffering physically, including myself.  Nausea, headaches and some "other" digestive issues had hit the group.  Thankfully it was all related to the heat, food change and not related to the treated water.
The leaders had a little pow-wow, figured out that our meals had not been affected and we decided we were going to camp at Rancheria Falls for the two nights with a day hike to Tiltill Valley, instead of the Lake Vernon loop.  Some disappointment was felt by all but we had to make the correct decision based on the circumstances we were in.  These are the great moments where we can use outdoor experiences to real life, especially for graduating students entering the military and college life.

After our bellies full of pepperoni bacon pizza, we taught the group how to properly leave a camp clean and bear safe, we had a water-filtering team down by the river and I laid in the tent with my babies relieved that the day had come to an end.

A few more pictures of the day...

To Be Continued! Coming up Day 2 and Day 3....

Related Posts and Links:
  1. Wordless Backpacking at Hetch Hetchy - Yosemite
  2. The Toughest Backpacking Cheese
  3. Latinas Outdoors
  4. Yosemite National Park -
  5. Backpacker Campgrounds at Yosemite -