Had San Francisco not built O’Shaughnessy Dam the odds are significantly larger numbers of people would be jamming the glacial carved valley and the surrounding area making it as big a pain as Yosemite Valley at times in terms of congestion.
That’s not to take sides in the debate that still rages on more than a century after it started of the blasphemy some contend was committed against Mother Nature and the concept of national parks by damming — literally and figuratively — the Tuolumne River.
The fact the dam is in place and isn’t likely to be removed any time soon means those in the 209 can savor a Sierra retreat that’s a little over two hours away for a day visit, overnight stay, weekend, or a true vacation without suffering the crowds and traffic congestion of Yosemite Valley. And if you can’t resist a Yosemite Valley fix you’re 45 minutes away from the valley floor which means if you get up bright and early you can beat the crowds to the popular trail heads.
There are three options for “lodging” in the immediate Hetch Hetchy area. The universal one, of course, is backpack camping. But if that’s not your bag there are two options you can find on the road to Hetch Hetchy some seven miles off Highway 120 via Evergreen Road just outside the Yosemite entrance.
There’s Camp Mather run by the City of San Francisco Parks and Recreation Department that was established in the temporary “village” created to house workers and a sawmill while the dam was being built, from 1919 to 1923.
Operated as a semi-rustic summer camp, Mather offers spectacular scenery at 4,600 feet that entails crystal clear lakes, streams, meadows and forest. It features swimming in Birch Lake, fishing in nearby lakes and streams, and low-key hiking trails. There are sports activities and recreation programs for children plus evenings of campfire songs, skits, games, and more.
Mather is so popular the city conducts a lottery every February for you to get the chance to book an overnight or a week stay. The spaces not claimed can be secured by reservation by calling the permits and reservation office at the City of San Francisco’s Parks and Recreation office at (415) 831-5500.
There are numerous cabins housing between two and six people that start at $510 weekly and $93 nightly for two people who are city residents and $611 weekly and $102 nightly for non-residents. There are even six-person tents for $264 a week or $54 a night for residents or $355 a week or $67 a night for non-residents.
Day passes primarily for week days are $16 for those 13 and older, $8 for those 12 and under, free for infants younger than 2 years. There are also overnight guest meal plans and single meals for day users.
Next door to Camp Mather is arguably the best traditional “lodge” in the immediate Yosemite area and definitely the farthest off the beaten path in terms of being away from entrance highways to the national park that draws more than four million visitors a year. It’s the year-round Evergreen Lodge.
Evergreen Lodge has more than 70 cabins and offers a classic lodge experience from a large swimming pool to a main square with a 1,200-square-foot sun deck complete with a stone fire pit for the nightly creation of s’mores. There’s a general store, exceptional dining, recreation center and a hall that encompasses a theater and games such as foosball. You can also book a massage or partake in a yoga class beneath the pines. There are also free live music events — typically on the weekends — as well as guides available for excursions in Yosemite National Park.
There are of course plenty of activities such as hiking and stargazing that start right at the front door of your cabin.
Four person cabins are available for $325 a night. Smaller cabins are rustic with the least expensive being 2-bedroom vintage cabins with 250 square feet for $270 as well as larger family cabins. You can also rent a tent for two complete with the needed equipment and amenities waiting for you between $100 and $145 a night depending upon the day or if it’s a holiday.
More information on Evergreen Lodge can be obtained at evergreenlodge.com.
There are five Yosemite day hikes you can tackle in the Hetch Hetchy portion of the national park within a five- to 15-minute drive of the trailheads from either Evergreen Lodge or Camp Mather.
*WAMPA FALLS: The 5-mile round trip that takes you across O’Shaughnessy Dam and through a tunnel and then along the Hetch Hetchy shoreline to the falls that drop from 1,080 feet above into the lake. The hike is rated as moderate.
*RANCHERIA FALLS: Located behind Wampa Falls, the classic ribbon falls named Rancheria is a 13-mile round trip. The hike is rated as moderate.
*POOPENAUT VALLEY: The 2.5 mile round trip takes you down to the Tuolumne River 1,229 feet below the trailhead that is four miles past the entrance station. The hike is rated as strenuous.
*SMITH PEAK: It’s a 13 mile round trip to the peak from the trailhead six miles past the entrance station. The hike is rated strenuous with 3,700 feet of elevation gain. Part of the route goes through an old burned out area that is in the process of bouncing back. This time of year there are multiple streams flowing and plenty of waterfalls. Shrubs were just starting to bud last week with the first wildflowers popping up. A hike to Smith Meadow in itself is rewarding. It slashes off three miles of the round trip and eliminates 1,400 feet given the meadow is at 6,350 feet and the peak at 7,750 feet.
*LOOKOUT POINT: The moderate 2-mile round trip hike starts at the entrance station and takes you to a rocky outcropping for an impressive view of Hetch Hetchy.