Hetch Hetchy to Rancheria Falls

Quick Guide:

8.6 miles one way; 2 days/1 night; Permit Required; Bear Canister Required

Description: Follow the trail along the banks of the Hetch Hetchy to amazing views and seasonal waterfalls. A mild elevator trail with ups and downs.

Trailhead: Begin at the Backpacker’s Campground for Hetch Hetchy. Follow the road down to the start of the O’Shaughnessy Dam. Cross the dam and enter the tunnel to start the trail.

Permits: You must have a wilderness permit with you at all times. Easiest way to obtain a permit is to call the Wilderness Center. For September 2016, permits were $5 each with a $5 processing fee on the total order. Bear canisters are available to rent at the Hetch Hetchy Entrance where you will need to check in for the trip. Each rental is $5 cash only. A credit card is required as a deposit. Your card will only be charged if the bear canisters are damaged or not returned.

Additional Camping Options: My buddies and I camped the Friday night at Hogdon Meadow. This campsite usually fills up way in advance, but I happened to check a few days before our trip and luckily one site was open! There’s not much privacy here and the campsites felt tight and stacked, but it was decent. Flush restrooms and potable water available. It was nice for fun easy car camping before starting the backpacking trip. Another site I would recommend if you want to car camp the night before is Dimond O campground which is part of the Stanislaus National Forest. Sites can be reserved seasonally and walk ups are available as well. You can also camp at Hetch Hetchy’s backpackers campground for $6 per person, but the entrance closed at 7:00 pm and we wouldn’t have made it in time.

Overview: I really needed to get a quick backpacking trip in to prepare for a bigger backpacking trip. I had planned on doing this trip in the summer, but temperatures in June were forecasted for above 90 degrees. Luckily this time, the weather was forecasted again…for 90 degrees. I suggest keeping an eye on the weather as at one point it showed that there would be a massive thunderstorm for the weekend. But I guess that’s just part of the wildness of the Sierras.

I booked the permits two weeks in advance by calling the Wilderness Center. It was a super easy process. For four permits, I paid $5 each plus a $5 processing fee, $25 total. We all did a half day from work on Friday and were on the road by 4:00pm. There wasn’t much traffic except around the Berkeley area. It was a nice, easy,  and peaceful drive through towns with names like Copperopolis.

We stopped at Miner’s Mart in Groveland for wood and booze. We arrived at Hogdon Meadow at about 8:00pm. It was still pretty lively when we got there. That was a good thing for us because we still needed to make dinner.  For dinner, we wrapped some chicken thighs with chopped onion, olive oil, and salt and pepper in a foil and placed them in the campfire to cook for about 40 minutes. They  came out super delicious. My buddy Dom got us to play hearts, or at least we thought we were playing correctly.

Breakfast for Site 64 at Hogdon Meadow

The next morning, we had a pretty mellow and slow start. We made breakfast first and didn’t start packing up until about 10:00 AM. We drove to the Hetch Hetchy entrance to check in with the ranger who was super informative. We got our permits and bear canisters and drove down to the parking lot at the backpacker’s campground. The nicest toilet by far is here, so if you need to do your duty, I would suggest doing it then. There are also bear lockers here for you to store any other food or scented materials. You should not store anything that could attract a bear inside your car. If you have a lock, you can use it on the bear locker. It was about 11:30 AM by the time we started the trek.

From here we walked down the road to the O’Shaugnessy Dam. We encountered more people here since the dam attracts more tourists and people can day hike to the a couple waterfalls, notably Tuellala Falls and Wapama Falls. In September these falls become No Agua Falls numero uno and No Agua Falls numero dos. They’re both pretty much bone dry. I suspect they flow a lot more majestically in late Spring and early Summer as there are bridges and walkways where I assume water would be flowing freely under and around.

We spent quite some time on the dam enjoying the views and being in complete awe. If you are concerned about time, I would suggest to keep going. You might not know it yet at the time, but the views get even more amazing. After you cross the dam, you will go through a tunnel and finally reach the start of the hike. (The 8.6 miles estimate I wrote up included the 7.6 miles from here to Rancheria Falls, plus the hike across the dam and back to the car.

One of the many majestic views of Hetch Hetchy

From here it’s a gradual climb up. If you were hiking on a normal day with just a water bottle I would rate the hike as easy overall. However, the 90 degree heat and 40 pound pack definitely added to the difficulty. I didn’t quite realize how much my body was working until a few miles in. Soon the heat was getting to me. It was then when I realized that the waterfalls were all dry. I had thought we could cool off a bit at Wapama falls and refill. Overall, it was about 6 miles until we reached Tiltill Creek and we were able to refill our water supply.

From here it’s about another mile climbing up until you reach the beauty that is Rancheria Falls. During this time of year, the water levels are quite low revealing many pools for swimming. I’ve seen photos where the water was right under the bridge, but this time of year, it was low enough that you could swim in a pool right under the bridge or to another one even lower (as seen in the picture).

Low water levels reveal lots of swimming holes at Rancheria Falls

The original plan was to take a break at Rancheria Falls. We were the first group to arrive and we immediately got in our swim trunks and dove into the water. It was ice cold, but our bodies adjusted. Some of us were brave enough to do some cliff jumping. It doesn’t look that high in the photo, but it was easily at least a 15 feet jump into the water. The next group to join us at the swimming hole were a group of young members of the British Army. They put us to shame when their group leader had them casually jump of the cliff one by one like it was no big deal. The last to arrive were a group of women backpackers who claimed one of the lower swimming holes.

We spent quite some time swimming until we had to make a decision of whether to stay or move on. Our goal had been to hike all the way to Tiltill Valley which was another three miles away…uphill. Thankfully, my group was on the same page and we all decided to make camp at Rancheria Falls. Finding a good space for camp was a bit tricky. The group of women had already claimed a nice spot near the lower pool. We decided to look higher up past the bridge and eventually found a nice little camp overlooking the bridge of the swimming holes. We had an amazing view of the Rancheria area flowing into the reservoir. With more free time, we went back down to the swimming holes to hang out and do some stargazing.

We packed up early the next morning and began hiking at about 9:00 AM. Our goal was to finish the hike back to the car before it got way too hot. The plan worked really well. Hiking in cooler temperatures made the journey back a heck of a lot easier and we finished in about three and half hours.

Overall, this was definitely one of my favorite backpacking trips. The group was solid and meshed really well together. Lots of laughs and great stories. If you are able to do the trip in cooler temperatures, it would make it a lot easier.

Cheers and happy hiking everyone. As always, can’t wait for the next outdoor adventure.

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