Channeling John Muir in Hetch Hetchy

Animals are great. But when I’m hiking, I prefer them at a distance.

The sudden appearance of a jumpy marmot in Alberta or a hump-rumped agouti in Belize—even more, a lip-smacking elk on the Oregon coast—freaks me out. Above all, I’m scared of bears, the sharks of the forests. I once clung close behind a shotgun-bearing guide while walking on a grizzly trail through neck-high grass in Kamchatka, Russia. (I still wonder why in the world I was walking on a grizzly trail in Kamchatka, Russia.)

And not ten steps into my two-day hike in Yosemite, my first overnight backcountry foray since my Boy Scout days in Oklahoma, I face a fresh clump of excrement, plopped defiantly mid-path. Fall is “bear time,” my guide tells me, when the hulking mammals are loading up on calories for winter.

“Look at the manzanita berries in it!” he shouts, as I nibble on a fig bar. To me, the dung seems an ominous sign.

Am I ready for this?

I’m just glad I’m not alone. Helping me learn how to camp in Yosemite is John DeGrazio, a cheerful, confident explorer with red hair, a Dick Tracy jaw, and a reedy voice.

Over a decade ago, Degrazio left a soul-crushing Wall Street job and moved to Northern California to start his own company, YExplore, leading backcountry treks into Yosemite. And he’s taking me deep into one of the park’s least-explored areas.

Only a tiny fraction of Yosemite visitors make it to Hetch Hetchy—the national park’s “other valley,” located in its northwestern corner. Our plan is to hike 14 miles over two days, rising a mere (at least by Yosemite standards) 800 feet from the valley floor to reach Rancheria Falls, which naturalist John Muir described as “sliding, leaping, hurrahing” as they “go their glacier-sculptured way.”

Hetch Hetchy—whose name is likely derived from a Miwok phrase meaning “edible grasses”—is essentially a carbon copy of the popular pilgrimage site Yosemite Valley, complete with its own dome and glaciated granite ridges.

But there’s a huge difference.

For nearly a century, Hetch Hetchy has been filled with water, the result of damming the Tuolumne River to provide water to the San Francisco Bay Area. Altering the valley (let alone using a national park’s resources in this way) continues to draw ire from conservationists, including the local variety, as evidenced by a rash of “Restore Hetch Hetchy” bumper stickers I witnessed throughout my time in Tuolumne County.

Though Muir—whose impassioned writings drove Congress to make Yosemite a national park in 1890—died of pneumonia on Christmas Eve in 1914, it was the creation of a reservoir at Hetch Hetchy that broke his heart.

“[Whether the valley is] ever restored or not, it’s a beautiful piece of Yosemite,” DeGrazio says as we stand on the dam with our packs on, looking out over the water. “It’s transcendent.”

The early morning light is near-perfect. A German couple is taking in the view, too, arm in arm. My concentration is broken by the sound of two torrents of water spewing from the center of the concrete dam into the river valley below.

“We’re always taught to leave no impact,” DeGrazio says quietly. “Then you look at that.”

As we pass into a tunnel to start our hike, the water’s roar fades and my senses begin absorbing the scene around me: giant live oaks that implausibly spring from cracks in even bigger boulders, the sweet scent of fallen bay laurel leaves, butterflies hovering over a trickling stream, gnarled manzanitas the color of red-velvet coffee.

It’s late October, but the midday sun is hot, so we lunch in the refreshing spray at the base of Wapama Falls. DeGrazio provides all gear on these trips—tent, backpack, sleeping bags, pads, headlamps. Food, too. Once we settle on a crop of boulders for our picnic, he pulls out a tasty chicken wrap and a tiny bottle of vinaigrette to sprinkle on.

Sated, we resume our trek on the slowly ascending trail. I’m watching the back of DeGrazio’s boots, when something dark and fast flits across my path.


“Where? What did it look like?” DeGrazio asks.

“Black, pretty small.”

“With a white stripe on its head, or down the side?”

“Down the side.”

“Probably a racer snake. Harmless. You only need to worry about rattlesnakes.”

We walk on.

I don’t admit it, but as the sun starts to disappear behind towering Kolana Rock, what Muir described as “the most strikingly picturesque rock in Hetch Hetchy,” I’m feeling worn out. And I’m relieved when we reach the swath of cascades at Rancheria Falls, our campsite for the night.

As the sky turns a pale gold, DeGrazio sets to work. He paces off 200 feet from the stream (a distance prescribed by the Park Service) and finds room enough for two one-person tents on the wide, grassy shelf of rock. Next, he points out a nearby clump of trees ideal for our “bear vault”(also required), where food and anything with scent (“lip balm, too,” DeGrazio notes) must be stored overnight. Then he produces a hand pump to filter water from the stream, providing delicious, naturally chilled refreshment in just minutes.

“My five-year-old is always so excited when I get back,” he says.“‘Do you have river water? Do you have river water?’ [she asks]. She loves it.”

After our tents are up, DeGrazio starts preparing high-protein “trail burritos” for dinner on a Jet Boil stove. His movements are slow and measured, a style I’ve observed him display consistently throughout our time together, whether he’s plucking out the pit from an avocado or fixing a broken shoelace.

It reminds me of a scene from Ernest Hemingway’s short story “Big Two-Hearted River,” where the author recounts protagonist Nick Adams’s patient attention to detail: “While he waited for the coffee to boil, he opened a small can of apricots. He liked to open cans.”

Watching DeGrazio, I feel like a city slicker.

I wonder if the trick to being truly at one with nature is learning to enjoy opening cans.

The next morning, we begin our hike back. I’m sore, but I feel good, and we make the seven miles in three hours, an hour less than the previous day’s hike.

As we near the O’Shaughnessy Dam, I ask what defines “accomplishment” for a guy who’s summited Yosemite’s 5,000-foot Half Dome well over a hundred times.

“When I see something [in] a completely new way,” DeGrazio answers without pause. “Ten years ago it would have been getting to the top of a mountain. Now it’s the discoveries along the way.”

DeGrazio calls his family’s move west, from New York City to the Sierra Nevada, a “huge leap of faith”—and an ongoing lesson.

“Part of our purpose in life is to evolve, I think,” he tells me. “I’m reaching this new level of consciousness over time. Every time I go into nature, I feel that.”

Now that the trip is over—and having seen no bears—I am fairly sure I could do it on my own next time.

When I do, I’ll be sure to pack a small can of apricots.

Robert Reid is National Geographic Travel’s Digital Nomad, exploring the world with passion and purpose. Follow his adventures in Yosemite Country on Twitter and Instagram

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