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Backpacking Hetch Hetchy to Laurel Lake: Yosemite National Park

This chilly, bucket-list trip took place May 7-9, 2022, and included a stay at the Hetch Hetchy Backpackers Campground, a scenic climb out of the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir via the Beehive Meadows Trail, a stay at Laurel Lake, and 3 inches of unexpected snowfall.

Located in the least-visited corner of Yosemite National Park, Hetchy Hetchy offers day hikers and backpackers breathtaking views away from the crowds. We intended to stay two nights at Laurel Lake and enjoy lazy day hikes to Vernon Lake but cut the trip short after 3 inches of snow blanketed our camp overnight. While we anticipated cool temperatures, days in the teens with accumulating snow were not on the itinerary. Nonetheless, we enjoyed every second of the trip. Clear skies graced the morning climb up and out of Hetchy Hetchy Valley, but the temperature dropped quickly from the mid-60s to the mid-30s as we reached Beehive Meadows and the trail to Laurel Lake. Flurries dotted the sky as we approached the Lake and set up camp.

Trip Overview

Day 1 - 8.63 Miles: Hetch Hetchy Backpackers Campground to Laurel Lake

(Elevation Gain: 2703 ft)

  • Backpackers Campground to Beehive Meadows/Rancheria Falls Trail Crossing - 1.7 miles

    • Cross O'Shaughnessy Dam & thru the Canyon Service Tunnel

    • Hike along the edge of Hetch Hetchy Reservoir

  • Beehive Meadows Trail to Beehive Meadows - 5 miles

    • 8 Switchbacks to climb out of Hetch Hetchy Valley

    • Snack break at Miguel Meadows/Beehive Meadows Trail Crossing

  • Beehive Meadows to Laurel Lake via Laurel Lake Trail - 1.93 miles

    • Lunch at Beehive Meadows

    • Overnight stay along Laurel Lake

Day 2 - 8.63 Miles: Laurel Lake to Backpackers Campground

  • Same route but in reverse through 3 inches of snow

How We Got There

We flew into the San Francisco Airport around 8 pm on a Friday, rented a car (a Toyota 4Runner quickly nicknamed San Fran), and drove to the Hampton Inn & Suites Manteca. The next morning we visited a Bass Pro Shop conveniently located two blocks from the hotel where we purchased stove fuel (note: you can't bring stove fuel on an airplane!).

Traveling east on 120 from Manteca to Groveland, almond trees line the road as far as the eye can see, and fruit & vegetable stands appear every couple of miles. We stopped for lunch at the Iron Door Saloon in Groveland, and it didn't disappoint. The menu includes delicious burgers, sandwiches, beers, and homemade chips to fill you up before a National Park adventure (I enjoyed the Golden Gate Grilled Cheese and a couple of Sierra Nevada Pale Ales). Look up and you'll spot dollar bills tacked to the ceiling. Our waitress explained how to wrap a tack and a stack of quarters in a dollar bill and pitch it at the ceiling to join the others, but we didn't drink enough to give it a try. We enjoyed the Saloon's historic photos featuring Hetch Hetchy Valley prior to being flooded in 1923 to become a reservoir for the city of San Francisco.

After making a stop at the Evergreen Lodge to peruse the store, stock up on last-minute snacks, and purchase a copy of The Wilder Muir, we finally reached the Hetch Hetchy Entrance Station. The Rangers were down-to-earth and so kind, providing us with helpful tips ("the north Frog Creek crossing is still too high, but a fallen tree will help you cross the southern one," etc.) and our Backcountry permits.

Hetch Hetchy Backpackers Campground

It's 7 miles from the entrance station down to the Backpackers Campground, the only campground in the Hetch Hetchy area and only available to backpackers the night before and after their trips. The campground features bear boxes at each site and bathrooms with running water. Bear boxes also line the parking lot for storing food while hiking (don't leave it in your car!).

Upon reading the info sign we learned the fee was $8 per person per night. Realizing we only had $9 in cash on us, we decided it best to start the trip off on the right foot and drive back up to the entrance station to ask where the closest ATM might be. When we reached the station and asked the Ranger, he stared at us bewildered, then said, "you drove all the way up here for that? It's an honor system! I wish I had something to give you for your wasted gas money" and proceeded to give us two Jolly Ranchers and a Yosemite bookmark. Perhaps the best rewards we've ever received for being honest.

After setting up our tent at site number 14, we drove down to check out the O'Shaughnessy Dam. However, it was 6 pm by now, and a not-so-jolly Ranger informed us the Dam parking lot was now closed. As a result, we drove back to the campground, left our car, and walked back down to the Dam. There's a trail from the campground to the Dam, but we didn't see it and simply took the paved road. By the time we reached the Dam on foot, the grumpy Ranger was walking across it with a 20-something-year-old backpacker in tow who had reportedly been injured but was fortunately ok. Neither looked happy, and our midwestern cheeriness (we come by it honestly) clearly turned them off as our question, "Everyone ok?" was greeted by simple grunts.

We marveled at the Dam, reservoir, and gushing waterfalls in the distance and didn't see another soul for the rest of the evening. It was like having an entire National Park to ourselves and just as magical as that sounds. We found the campground trail near the public restrooms and used it on the way back, but wished we hadn't! It was surprisingly hilly and gave our legs more of a workout than we had hoped the night before our big hike.

Back at our campsite, we ate dinner, marveled at the bright stars above us, and enjoyed a great night's sleep.

Day 1 - 8.63 Miles: Backpackers Campground to Laurel Lake via Beehive Meadows (Elevation Gain: 2703 ft)

We packed up camp and crossed the O'Shaunnesey Dam by 9:30 am. After taking in the Dam's stunning views, a tunnel through the valley's granite wall offered a memorable start to the trip. The trail hugs the perimeter of the reservoir and it's a shame you can't swim or boat in it...the people of San Francisco wouldn't be happy. Being early May, Tueeulala and other waterfalls thundered down the side of the valley and into the reservoir.

About a mile before reaching Tueeulala Falls, you'll take the Beehive Meadows Trail up and out of the valley via 8 switchbacks. A waterfall bisected many of the switchbacks and the uneven stones made us wonder how cars once climbed the steep terrain. Once at the top, we stopped for a snack at the Miguel Meadows & Beehive Meadows Trail crossing. I was excited to leave the switchbacks behind, but the trail continued to climb for another 3.2 miles before we reached Beehive Meadows. There we saw packs of snow still lingering from winter. We stopped for lunch and met the only other backpackers we'd seen, who happened to be from Michigan, too! They were continuing on to Lake Vernon, about 3.5 miles further. We were happy to only have a little over 2.5 miles left in our own trek.

Once passed Beehive Meadows, the trail weaved in and out of the forest, and it was difficult to follow. No traditional markers guided the way, and we had to keep our eyes peeled for sawn-off logs to decipher where the trail was located. We now refer to all sawn-off logs as "California Trail Markers." For example, "Oh look, someone cut a tree down and left it there. Must be a California trail."

Laurel Lake

We hiked around Laurel Lake until we found a campsite that met our fancy on the northwest side, somewhat sheltered from the wind. A fire ring was available, but no bear boxes. Hanging food bags is not allowed in Yosemite, so we relied on a bear canister. It's recommended you set your canister 25 to 50 feet away from camp, but I don't like to tempt fate or bears and prefer 75 feet away.

Wilderness Permits are required year-round for backpacking and any other overnight stay in Yosemite National Park, and reservations are encouraged. Permits are currently available by lottery 24 weeks to 7 days in advance. You can also try your luck for first-come, first-served permits available within 7 days of your trip.

We were the only campers on the Lake that night, which may have meant others had kept a closer eye on the weather than we had. The snow flurries became heavier and heavier as we retrieved water from the lake, cut firewood, and set up our tent. We checked our Garmin inReach Explorer and discovered the temperatures were likely to get down to the teens overnight, with additional cold and snow accumulation throughout the next day.

That night our PJs included just about every layer of clothing we'd brought (tights, rain pants, long-sleeve shirt, puffy coat, raincoat, warmy hat, gloves, and two pairs of socks) and managed to stay relatively comfortable - I was thrilled with my 4 hours of sleep!

Day 2 - Laurel Lake to Hetch Hetchy

Instead of weathering another full day of cold, in the morning, we decided to hike out the same route we had hiked in. The creek crossing was dicier the second time around, with snow and ice covering the fallen tree used to traverse it, but slow and steady won the day and we made it safely across. By the time we reached the Miguel Meadows/Lake Eleanor trail crossing, we'd shed our puffy coats as the temperature had risen 20 degrees. There was no snow at the top of the switchbacks, which made for an easy hike down. Overall, we managed to shave 2 hours off the previous day's time.

The Evergreen Lodge was our first stop once passed the Ranger Station and where we enjoyed delicious burgers and beer. The upside to cutting the trip short is it gave us an extra day to explore Yosemite Valley and we were grateful to find availability at the Best Western in Mariposa that evening.

What's your favorite trail in Yosemite National Park?

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