Yosemite National Park is one of the gems of America. People flock from all across the world to visit this natural wonderland. One of the biggest downsides of this amazing park is just that: it’s popularity. The Yosemite Valley can be crawling with people at any time of the year, especially on weekends in the summer. Forget about it. The new permitting system is helping reduce foot traffic, but some of the charm definitely takes a hit when you are experiencing amusement park-like crowds.
Enter Hetch Hetchy. Yosemite’s second valley. If you are looking for a more remote Yosemite experience, with similar topography and wildlife as Yosemite Valley, head to Hetch Hetchy. Among the most popular things to do are to hike to Wapama Falls, and backpack to Rancheria Falls. This article will focus on all that entails to backpacking your way to Rancheria Falls.
Located north of the main valley entrance, Hetch Hetchy sees far fewer visitors and offers a wonderful natural setting. But what Hetch Hetchy looks like today is far different from the valley it was. The center of a major environmental battle in the early 1900s, Hetch Hetchy valley was flooded and a dam was created in 1913 to supply San Francisco a steady supply of drinking water. The water now sits 350 feet above the original valley floor. This was upsetting for many environmental conservationists, including John Muir, who led the argument to keep the valley intact.
GETTING A PERMIT
Getting a permit to hike to Rancheria Falls is fairly easy to navigate, but like many other Yosemite backpacking permits, it is best to check as soon as spots become available to ensure yourself a spot. 35 permits are open daily for advanced booking. Reservations can be made 24 weeks in advance, and the park offers first come-first serve spots for Rancheria Falls as well that you can score at the entrance. Permits reservations are $5 per person with a $10 reservation fee. To check for permit availability and learn more about the permitting system at Yosemite, click here.
When buying your permit, you will have to indicate which entrance station you want to pick up your permit from. The obvious choice would be the Hetch Hetchy entrance point, but if you are visiting the main Yosemite Valley early that same day you can pick it up there and head to Hetch Hetchy backpackers campground afterwards. You have until 5pm to pick up your permit.
YOSEMITE TIMED ENTRY
Yosemite National Park now has timed entry between May 20th and September 30th, every day from 6am until 4pm. If you are lucky enough to reserve a campsite in the park, a lodge in the park, or a backcountry camping permit in the park, this will also double as your entry into the park. If you have an overnight reservation in Yosemite National Park then you won’t need to purchase the $2 reservation entry fee. The entrance fee to the park is $35 per car unless you have an annual or lifetime national parks pass.
One trick that we utilized when visiting Hetch Hetchy was that with your backcountry permit, you are also granted access into the park the day before and after your camping night. This includes the main Yosemite Valley. So after we returned from our backpacking trip, we still had a good amount of time to drive over to the Yosemite Valley and explore the area. This is a clever way to visit the Yosemite Valley if all the daily permits there are booked up, since Hetch Hetchy sees a lot less visitors.
CAMPING AT THE HETCH-HETCHY BACKPACKERS CAMPGROUND
If you arrive at Hetch Hetchy the day before your hike, which I’d highly recommend, you will stay at the Hetch Hetchy backpackers campground. With your permit reservation you are allowed to spend a night both before and after your reservation night(s) at the Hetch Hetchy backpackers campground.
This campground is quite beautiful itself, with some very good campsites with great views. Since only backpackers can stay here, we only saw a couple and a group of about ten people at the entire campground. It’s very remote and quiet, and we even saw a bobcat walking around the campground in the evening! We stayed in late May and could tell the weather was really starting to warm up. Staying here the night before will help you get an early start - and you’re going to want it to avoid as much of the sun as you can.
The trail begins at the Hetch Hetchy dam. You will walk across the bridge and enter through a tunnel in the side of the mountain. This tunnel can have large puddles and you may even have to get your feet wet right out of the gate.
It took us about an hour and ten minutes to get to Wapomo Falls, the first major stop. Most people use the trail as a day hike to Wapomo Falls and back. This first stretch is largely uncovered, walking along rocks with a few ups and down. In this early section of the trail we ran into our big wildlife sighting of the hike: a rattlesnake. This thing was huge. I will go over more about our wildlife sightings later in the article, but you should keep an eye out for rattlesnakes on this trail. Sections of the trail are prime rattlesnake territory as they love to bask on rocks in the hot sun.
Wapomo Falls is a pretty exciting waterfall, and a real destination in its own right. When we went in late May we got soaked while walking past the falls enroute to Rancheria. Make sure to cover your camera gear, phones, etc when crossing along the bridges in front of the falls. Wapomo Falls make a great, refreshing rest stop to break up the hike. There are several good photo ops around the falls.
After Wapomo Falls, we entered a more shaded section of the trail - where mosquitoes didn’t waste a second finding us whenever we stopped! The trail gains elevation here and offers amazing views over the reservoir.
Later in the trail you will experience some pretty intense switchbacks, both up and down, and all exposed. The last 45 minutes of the trail were brutal for us. The sun was in full force as it was the afternoon, and the end of the trail before reaching Rancheria Falls is all exposed. This makes sunscreen and a hat essential items to wear, and I’d even suggest long sleeves if you are sensitive to burning. Late May offered a ton of wildflowers in bloom which made for some exceptional photo opportunities.
The trail in total took us about 4.5 hours to reach Rancheria Falls, and about 3 hours and 40 minutes on the return trip back. There are no bathrooms or cell reception on the trail.
CAMPING AT RANCHERIA FALLS
When you reach Rancheria Falls you will discover an area of dispersed camping. The main camping area is under a bunch of trees in a small meadow. There are fire rings that designate most of the campsites. You are allowed to make fires at the campsite as long as they are in the fire rings. You are allowed to collect wood from the area for your fires.
The best campsites at Rancheria Falls are a bit hidden but worth trying to find before settling on a spot. If you make your way through the meadow and towards the raging waterfall, you will find another camping area with 2-3 more fire rings. We were lucky enough to score one of these spots - thanks to the helpful advice of a return hiker we passed on our way to the site - and it made for an incredible experience. If you don’t want a fire ring there are more options in this area to pitch a tent and be closer to the river. These sites also have a great view of the reservoir and don’t have nearly as many mosquitoes as the meadow campsites. The soothing sounds of the falls make for perfect background ambience for sleeping.
Rancheria Falls are thundering. Powerful. Beautiful. Rancheria Falls are over 150 feet tall, and the lower falls cascade down into the reservoir. You can access the riverbanks right before the cascades start on the lower falls. There is even a (tiny) beach area with sand, but the slick granite rocks also make for a nice spot to relax and take in the views. If you get there early you can spend the good part of a day hanging out, relaxing, reading, eating or drinking by the falls.
The water temperature of the river however is extremely cold. It felt incredible to dip our feet in after the hike, but we could only keep them in for about ten seconds before the intense pain of the cold took over. This is not a safe place to swim due to the temperatures of the water and the strength of the current as it leads into the rough cascades. There is no shortage of water to fill up your water bottles here but make sure you have a water purifying lifestraw or purifying tablets as giardia is possible from drinking river water where wildlife is present.
We didn’t encounter a ton of wildlife on the trail, but a few of the animals we did see made it quite a thrilling experience. At sunset the day before our trek, we took a walk around the backpackers campground. We heard birds squawking in the trees, sounding like they were scaring away a predator, when all of a sudden a bobcat emerged from the bushes about 50 feet in front of us. It stopped and checked us out, then slowly crossed the road before entering the bushes on the other side, still being harassed by the birds. It was a rare sighting and got us even more excited for the trek the next day. Other wildlife we saw at the campground included bats, woodpeckers, and a hawk.
On the trail to Rancheria Falls, the wildlife highlight was by far this massive rattlesnake that slithered its way across the trail in front of us. In one of the early exposed stretches of the hike, my brother stopped us as he was startled by something moving across the trail. It was a giant rattlesnake calmly making its way across the path. It was over 6 feet in length and was only about 6-8 feet in front of us. It never rattled its tail or seemed to be threatened, but we waited for it to slither across before moving on. To see a rattlesnake that close and that big was surely a highlight, but also kept us on high alert the rest of the hike there and back. A lot of the trail is composed of rocks and in direct sunlight, prime rattlesnake territory. Another hiker coming from the opposite direction warned us of a rattlesnake that they had seen on the trail as well.
In addition to the rattlesnake sighting, we also saw two more snakes: the colorful sierra mountain kingsnake and a rubber boa snake. Other wildlife sightings included rabbits, squirrels, chipmunks, and the steller’s jay.
Some of the other Yosemite wildlife highlights that one can see while backpacking through the park include black bears, mountain lions, bald eagles, bighorn sheep, coyotes, red foxes, deer, and fishers.
Rancheria Falls are worth visiting and make for an incredible excuse to hike out to a remote campsite in Yosemite. Although it might be a solid effort to get to your campground, you won’t regret spending a day in Sierra paradise on the hike to Rancheria Falls.