When you think about backpacking in Yosemite, you generally think of the summer months. The high country isn’t clear of snow until June at the earliest, and backcountry travel during the fall to spring months requires snow skills and gear. Although I enjoy all kinds of outdoor activities in any kind of weather, my favorite is backpacking in the Sierra high country. So, naturally, I spend most of fall through spring longing for the summer months.
Fortunately, the western side of Yosemite offers an early-season option to satisfy those high country cravings long before the road through Tioga Pass is clear of snow. Beautiful hiking complete with waterfalls, wildflowers, polished granite, and mountains can be found in Hetch Hetchy, once a twin to Yosemite Valley, now a reservoir supplying the San Francisco area (I won’t get into THAT can of worms).
Since the Hetch Hetchy valley itself is covered in water and the high country is still covered in snow, trail options are limited early in the season. The trail to Rancheria Falls, which contours along the walls of the Valley, is a perfect option for a spring hike. Depending on snowcover, you can continue further into the higher terrain, or simply make an out and back hike to the falls.
It is approximately six miles to Rancheria Falls from the trailhead, making it a simple overnight outing or a longer dayhike. I did this hike recently as an overnight and pairing it with a summit of LeConte Point to increase the difficulty a bit. Although this summit is only at about 6400 ft, LeConte Point is a prominent peak overlooking the reservoir and Rancheria Creek. It is sun-exposed so there is little snow accumulation, making it a perfect early season scramble.
Rancheria Falls is a very busy early-season backpacking destination and you’ll be sharing it with many other people. This is not a destination for solitude, but some exploration and persistence can find you a campsite away from the crowds. Permits are required as is proper food storage (bear canister).
Climbing LeConte Point
From Rancheria Falls camp, continue across the bridge by the falls and head up the switchbacks. Either take the trail all the way to the top and then follow the ridge cross-country to the summit. You will have to bushwhack through some manzanita and pick your way through rocky terrain. The approach to the point is an easy class 2 if the proper route is chosen. There is some fun scrambling that can be found in the piles of rocks if you wish to challenge yourself a bit more.
Optionally, you can cut off the trail early and up a slope to the ridge. This is a slightly easier route since it eliminates the unnecessary distance and manzanita-bushwhacking that you will do if you stay on the trail all the way to the ridge. In the track below, I followed the trail to the ridge on the way up, but then took the shortcut on the way down. It helps to have a GPS that displays your track on a map – that’s how I realized I was so close to the trail and was able to find the shortcut on the way down.