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Re: Short-ish "not-TR": Hetch Hetchy "the loop" (& Pate Valley bridge)

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Short-ish "not-TR": Hetch Hetchy "the loop" (& Pate Valley bridge)
July 19, 2018 01:08PM
Executive Summary: the bridge spanning the Tuolumne River in Pate Valley is in a state of disrepair. It may or may not be suitable for you. It is unclear when it may be restored. Scroll down for pictures and description of our experience crossing. We did make it across OK.

We finally were able to put together a 7/6 day/night hike around Hetch Hetchy over July 4th week. It was great fun and well worth the effort. I'm not posting a full trip report, as there are already some really great ones here (e.g. basilbop) that are hard to surpass or even augment. Instead, my aim is to provide a bit of current information for those that may be pondering a similar hike themselves sometime soon.

All but two segments (the climb out of Pate Valley towards White Wolf, and west of Rancheria Falls to the dam) would be new trail for us. We began our journey at the Smith Peak trailhead, off the road between the Mather Ranger station and the dam. This route certainly provided a clear "your adventure has officially begun!" notice, not a gentle easing into the wilderness. The trail immediately (literally - the sign at the TH is at a 10%+ slope) climbs, we were laden with food/gear for a 7 day trip, and this was only our second hike of 2018, the first being only 2 nights in the Grand Canyon (the big one, not GCOT). We were thrilled that we saw 0 people during the entire 7 days, other than the short segment between the trail junction from White Wolf down to Pate Valley, and from a bit west of Rancheria Falls area back to the O'S dam. Unfortunately, we also saw 0 bears... but we did see much evidence of their presence. For instance:

We left our packs at the junction (after ensuring all food/smelly stuff was properly stored in the trusty Bearicade) and went up to Smith Peak. It's a bit shrubby and overgrown, but not too difficult to find the trail. Afterwards, we were rewarded by what I felt to be the best view of the first two days on trail. A short cross-country excursion to a prominent ledge provided a view of Wapama Falls that I've not experienced first-hand before:

Afterwards, I did a bit of cypherin', and concluded that the height of Wapama Falls (to the valley floor submerged under the reservoir) is only about 400' less than Yosemite Falls. This another validation of the claim that HH Valley is a beautiful yet unique sister to Yosemite Valley.

The trail east of the junction to Smith Peak (at the beginning of Smith Meadow) is overgrown. That's an understatement. I didn't take any photos: just imagine pointing a lens at a field of shoulder- or head-high lupine, willow, fern, etc. That's what it looks like. In some areas you may see indication where someone (or some animal) plowed though the foliage; in other areas, not so much. Be sure to know where you are going; a GPS could help, but also be aware that the trail (or what seemed to be the currently used track) is not in the same location as shown on the USGS topo maps (or CalTopo). I'm not trying to discourage anyone from this route, just offering up our experience.

When picking up our permit at Mather "backcountry center" (which appears to be the back 5' of the entrance/toll kiosk) we asked about the condition of the bridge in Pate Valley. "It is in dire need of repair..." "there is a trail crew down there, not sure what they are planning to do..." "we've had some people say they crossed OK, others said it's not crossable and returned...". Not very helpful, but we decided to give it a shot, and if that meant we'd have to turn around at the Tuolumne that was OK.

We did manage to cross. Here is the current state of the "bridge":

This perhaps is the biggest reason for this posting. There was indeed a spike camp set up not far away (the normal place I've seen in before). We spoke with some trail/support crew in camp, but there was no information to be gained about the bridge. I'd offer that for some, this crossing would be no problem. However, there are three distinct beams forming the current track, and there is about a 4" gap between each, through which one can't help but see the Tuloumne flowing quickly in the background. For some, this might be difficult to manage (I've been with others who find this to cause something like a sense of vertigo or similar disorientation). It's also not trivial to "look ahead, not down" because one has to mange foot placement to not fall into the gaps between the beams. Upon closer examination of the photo above, one can also see that the two outside beams are rotting - and this may be contributing to the "bouncy" feeling I experienced when crossing:

My take on this (purely speculation, take with a grain of salt) is that this bridge will not likely be repaired soon. The current design is utilizing three very large (10" x 18" ??) timbers to span the river. There appear to be one or two others that were washed away or removed. They seem to be a single length of (unjointed) timber. I have no idea how they were placed there, my only guess is helicopter? This is different than other more modular structures in the backcountry, which clearly are assembled from smaller pieces that can be brought in with livestock. So, it may be a while before a helicopter can deliver new timbers, or a new, modular design is completed. [Note, however, I'm no expert, and I was told (but have not personally verified) that the cables for the suspension bridges crossing the Colorado River near Phantom Ranch were brought in with clever planning and stock management, so I may be totally wrong here.] Again, I don't intend to discourage anyone from this trail, but instead am hoping to offer some information to you can decide what is right for you.

Edit: it occurred to me that with the amount of deadfall in the park, if small engines are tolerated, the trail crew could easily mill those timbers on-site.

The rest of the hike was spectacular. My absolute favorite section was (remarkably) the climb out of Pate Valley up to Pleasant Valley. The views of Piute Creek were beautiful, always changing. I wanted to try some cross-country along the creek, which seemed "doable" - but suspect there is at least one crux that is difficult to pass through, likely in a deep, steep canyon obscured from sight while on the trail. Other views to the north were not only gorgeous, but also helped me to get a better sense of how all this is connected with other hikes we've done, in particular the (highly recommended) Benson Lake/Matterhorn Canyon loop. The Benson Lake beach is even clearly visible with the naked eye. (See basilbop's TR for the pictures I've not wanted to duplicate with my inferior shots).

Edited 4 time(s). Last edit at 07/19/2018 08:05PM by ags.
Re: Short "not-TR": Hetch Hetchy "the loop" (Pate Valley bridge)
July 19, 2018 03:36PM
This earlier trip report has a "before" view of the bridge (seventh picture from the top).


Some other pics on the web show an "immediately after" state with the handrails and some of the decking planks still attached. Looks like those have been since removed and the few remaining deck planks trimmed to the width of the three main girders. From those pics it looks like there was at least one additional main girder on the upstream side prior to the 2017 runoff.

As a side note, the cables for one of the Grand Canyon bridges (Kaibab/Black Bridge) were carried nine miles down to the river on the shoulders of local Havasupai laborers who did much of the construction work on the bridge. There's a picture of them snaked around a couple switchbacks in one of the museums/visitor centers in GCNP. Silver Bridge was built much later and may have used mules to transport the cables down from the canyon rim.
Re: Short-ish "not-TR": Hetch Hetchy "the loop" (& Pate Valley bridge)
July 20, 2018 03:08PM
I couldn't find the referenced picture, but the oracle (wikipedia) has this to say:


The Black Bridge was built in 1928. As motorized vehicles could not access the construction site, humans and mules transported the 122 tons in materials down the nine miles of trail. Walking single file, 42 Havasupai tribesmen carried the one-ton, 550-foot suspension cables.[1]

I suppose 50 lbs/person is a reasonable carry... but it must have been something to see the cable and it's carriers winding down the switchbacks. A significant accomplishment for certain - I am very grateful each time I see (and cross) either bridge. :-)
avatar Re: Short-ish "not-TR": Hetch Hetchy "the loop" (& Pate Valley bridge)
July 23, 2018 07:36AM
in history...

see Mayan Temples or such...
Great Pyramids of Egypt...

smiling smiley

wutt! no mention of Loch Tablae!
sad smiley

Chick-on is looking at you!
Re: Short-ish "not-TR": Hetch Hetchy "the loop" (& Pate Valley bridge)
August 07, 2018 06:54PM
I really appreciate the picture of the Pate Valley Bridge. I would hate to get down there an be confronted with that.
Re: Short-ish "not-TR": Hetch Hetchy "the loop" (& Pate Valley bridge)
August 09, 2018 01:10PM
Does anyone have recent updates on the Tuolumne River water level at Pate Valley? I'm hoping to ford the river to avoid crossing the bridge. I'm backpacking there on the 3rd week of Aug 2018.

Yosemite's webpage just states, "the Tuolumne River must be crossed to access Pate Valley from the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne- this is not recommended".

Just curious what is recommended? Thanks for your input!
Re: Short-ish "not-TR": Hetch Hetchy "the loop" (& Pate Valley bridge)
August 09, 2018 02:34PM
Here is a link for the stream gauge just a few miles downstream. It is located just before the river turns into the reservoir (or at least when it is full)


I would look at CFS (Cubic Feet per Second) as it looks like the gauge is located at a deeper section of the river, so the depth for that gauge is misleading.

Currently the gauge is showing 81 cfs. For comparison, the river gauge at the Pohono Bridge in the valley is 76 cfs. You can put in a custom range of dates to see the previous flows, so you can see it was at ~ 1400 cfs in early June, so the flow is much, much lower now. I wouldn't be concerned about crossing at this flow, with the usual caveats of being within your skill and comfort levels. I have crossed the Merced River at similar flows, albeit rock hoping, but wading wouldn't be very deep at an appropriate location.

At the bridge site the river is a little deep, but if I recall correctly a little ways downstream is a much better site that is shallower and wider.
Re: Short-ish "not-TR": Hetch Hetchy "the loop" (& Pate Valley bridge)
August 10, 2018 07:51AM
Thank you buster for the insightful link.

Another user at the link below also mentioned to go downstream to ford the river. That sounds like a safer option.
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