Adventures on the way to Yosemite's Hetch Hetchy

Editor's Note: The Bee's Sam McManis has reasons for writing about road trips to Hetch Hetchy as well as why it's worth heading down to Santa Cruz.

Do not rush getting here. The Hetch Hetchy reservoir at Yosemite National Park isn't going anywhere, even though environmentalists hope with every fiber of their being that the valley one day will be drained and restored to what John Muir called a wondrous spectacle of nature.

You need, rather, to take your time meandering through the Mother Lode. Stop at every vista turnout. Pull over at the bevy of rock-and-brass roadside historic markers. And, by all means, when on Highway 49, whenever a sign says "historic route," take it. Don't bypass anything.

On the way, you'll channel your inner fourth-grader and relive some Gold Rush history. Plus, there are precious gems to be extracted, like a down-home diner, a cavern in which you rappel down 165 feet, a vineyard where there's so much more than mere wine tasting, Mark Twain's writing shack, a railyard that's so preserved that it's a state park and enough antiques shops to fill an entire season of PBS shows.

You can do all that – it'll take seven hours, given the circuitous route and the stops – and still get to the gates of Yosemite's Hetch Hetchy entrance in time for a quick hike before repairing to dinner and girding yourself for a full day of national park goodness to come.

Why Hetch Hetchy and not the more eye-candy delights of Yosemite Valley? Park figures show 4 million people visited the valley in 2012 – 24,000 a day in the most popular seven-mile stretch around Half Dome – but only around 50,000 a year visit Hetch Hetchy, with natural wonders of its own.

On the way

Clark's Corner (Ione)

Judging from the motif and the neighborly vibe, you'd think that this coffeeshop/diner dates to the late 19th century.

Sorry, try the early 21st.

But that should not detract from the feeling that you've stumbled into a town meeting when you walk through the door. The owner and barista hold court with the two old-timers at the counter. Middle-aged women in running shorts hold lattes and stretch their hamstrings.

On the morning I wandered in, it was the weekly story time for little ones. No one looked at me askance when I took my iced tea and a muffin as large as a softball over to a nearby table and listened in.

Michael Smith, a regular customer from Rancho Murieta by way of Australia, calls Clark's Corner "a nice example of a vernacular-style building. By that, I mean, the decor and everything."

Everything includes the back walls adorned with the brands from local cattle ranches, distressed wooden flooring and tables with photos of locals, historic and current, under the glass tops. The only nod to modernity: a flat-screen TV mounted in the corner, where President Barack Obama was giving a live press conference. No one paid it any mind.

Directions: 12 West Main St., Ione. Miles from Sacramento: 39. Take Highway 50 to the Howe exit. Go right on Howe and turn left on Folsom Boulevard, then right onto Highway 16 toward Jackson. After 20 miles, turn right on Ione Road (also called Michigan Bar Road), then continue left on Highway 104. Turn left on Main Street.

Moaning Caverns (Vallecito)

Workers tell you the "moaning" comes from the sound of water dripping against the flowstone.

Uh-huh. It also comes from your gut reaction after they've strapped you into a harness, and shove you off to rappel down the Freudian birth canal, at first narrow, then wide open.

When I first took the plunge, I was so concerned about working the ropes properly that I didn't fully appreciate the experience. This time, I made sure to look down and around and absorb the jutting calcite deposits and multi-hued walls slick with water. In minutes, you're at the observation floor 165 feet below, where you're unstrapped.

The even bolder types can sign up for an additional spelunking excursion, which is fun not just because you get to say "spelunking" a lot, but because you can crawl and slither around tight spaces wearing a head lamp.

Don't worry, a guide is with you on this journey, unlike the solo rappel.

Of course, there are walking tours down to the bottom. You descend a spiral staircase with safety handrails. No matter which way you've gotten down, the way up is to walk. That's quite a workout, like doing 20 minutes on a StairMaster. For those that like to stay above ground, or even higher, Moaning Caverns also offers zipline runs.

Directions: 5350 Moaning Caverns Road, Vallecito. Miles from Ione: 45. Take Highway 104 east, then take a left on 104/88 east. That turns into Highway 49 south. Go 27 miles into Angels Camp and turn left onto Highway 4. The Moaning Caverns/Vallecito exit is about 5 miles north off Highway 4.

Ironstone Vineyards and Alchemy (Murphys)

Some might need a drink after surviving the cavern experience. And Ironstone Vineyards certainly is a wine-tasting mecca in the Shenandoah Valley.

In fact, when I arrived around lunch time on a weekday, a tour bus had deposited a gaggle of seniors from the Sommerset Adult Community. Sure, they were there for the garden and nature tour led by Larry Ringland, who apologized to the group that the tulips no longer were in bloom ("too hot").

"We've planted 48 tons of daffodils along the roadway," Ringland said. "You probably missed it. They aren't blooming now."

The seniors didn't seem to mind the scarcity of blooms. Maybe their thoughts ran toward the tasting room featuring its old vine zinfandel.

Be sure to check out the museum/gift shop. Store manager Chris Gomez says the star attraction is the huge gold nugget – even larger than the diamond Kobe Bryant bought his wife after his infidelity – ensconced in a display case inside a vault.

It's the Kautz specimen. They call it "the Crown Jewel," and for good reason. It contains 44 pounds of gold, said to be the largest crystalline specimen in the world.

It's not pure gold, mind you; there are layers of quartz, clay, decomposed shale and pyrite mixed in with the leaf gold. It was unearthed in 1992 and the brochure says it all: "It is priceless in value." Said Gomez: "The school groups just love it."

Directions: Miles from Vallecito: 7. From the caverns, turn right (east) on Highway 4 and go four miles to Six Mile Road, just before downtown Murphys. Ironstone Vineyard is on 1894 Six Mile Road. Alchemy is downtown at 191 Main St.

Mark Twain Cabin (Tuttletown)

I'm asking you to bypass Angels Camp, which has frog statues on nearly every corner, in favor of the place where (arguably) America's most famous author wrote his classic short story, "The Celebrate Jumping Frog of Calaveras County" while hanging out with miners.

Drive about 12 miles south on Highway 49, before hitting Tuttletown proper. Stop at a stone marker pulloff to read the text. Let's just say it's not as scintillating as Twain's writing, but you need to stop to get your bearings to find where the cabin is.

Full disclosure: It's just a reproduction of Twain's original cabin, which burned down long ago. Still, it's worth a pilgrimage. Get back on Highway 49 but you'll make a sharp, hairpin left turn up Jackass Hill Road.

From there, you'll drive 0.9 of a mile to a circular driveway where the cabin sits surrounded by iron gates. You can't get too close and you have to stretch your neck to see inside. But, still, it's Twain.

Four friends from Fresno made the trek. Asked why, John Goble deadpanned, "We saw a sign." His wife, Janet, shook her head. "For years, we've driven by this place and never came up," she said. "I loved Mark Twain. I'm of the generation that read him in school without any controversy. Kids today probably don't even know his real name was Samuel Clemens."

Directions: See above. Miles from Murphys: 17.

Railtown 1897 State Historic Park (Jamestown)

If you visit this tribute to this bygone era of transportation, try to get Leroy Bushart as your tour guide.

The man not only looks dapper in his jaunty engineer's cap, he's a fount of information on boilers and steam engines, all that gearhead stuff, plus the fun cultural tidbits, such as the fact that "High Noon," "The Unforgiven" and "Back to the Future III" were filmed using Railtown's resident star engine, ol' No. 3.

The engine has been in enough movies that it should be issued an SAG card – "more than 100," Bushart said. "Lots of TV shows, too."

You get to brush up against this celebrity when touring the round house, where the trains are kept. Don't brush up too closely, though, or you'll wind up like toddler Julian Daniel Davis, who came away with a greasy palm after touching No. 3's wooden cow catcher.

Here's some railyard gossip: It seems No. 3, like many Hollywood stars, has had some work done: a complete restoration, to the tune of $1.5 million (all in donations), three years ago.

Check the Railtown website for the schedule of train rides that the park offers in the summer. You can also watch the railroad workers in action in the round house, getting the engines ready to go. "We try to make everything as accessible to the public as possible," Ranger Kimberly Baker said.

Directions: Miles from Tuttletown: 5.6. Take Highway 49 south for 1 mile, turn right on County Road 5 (Rawhide Road), go 1.9 miles. Turn left to stay on Rawhide Road and go 2.1 more miles. Turn left onto Highway 49 north, then a quick right onto Fifth Avenue in Jamestown. Follow the signs to Railtown 1897.

Hetch Hetchy/ Yosemite and area

Back Street Books and Iron Door Saloon (Groveland)

Sure, it's still a half an hour or so before you reach Yosemite, but I consider Groveland the gateway town. It is here where you can stock up for the trip into the park. And what's more essential than good reading material?

Back Steet Books is tucked away on, well, a back street off Highway 120, but owner Andrew Smalldon has amassed an impressive and diverse collection of used books, with authors as diverse as Cormac McCarthy and Danielle Steel.

"We mostly sell Yosemite-related stuff, history, guidebooks, stuff like that," Smalldon said. "But people want a summer read, too."

A tobacco-juice spit away from the bookstore is Groveland's famous Iron Door Saloon, which was owned by one of rock music promoter Bill Grahams' top creative directors, Peter Barsotti, until his death in 2012.

The place is typical small-town bar kitsch, with dollar bills stuck to the ceiling and mounted elk and deer heads. There's a stage for live music on weekends and, above the doorway leading to the bathrooms, framed photos of rock icons Mick Jagger, Jerry Garcia and The Who.

But John Muir is everywhere in the restaurant, bar and billiards room. Muir's affinity for Hetch Hetchy is what still inspires people to make the trip, which keeps the Iron Door's business booming.

Tom and Kerry Webb, of Walnut Creek, make mandatory stops for a libation at the Iron Door. When told that the late owner was an intimate of the Grateful Dead, Kerry perked up, saying, "I love the Dead. We'll keep coming."

Directions: Miles from Jamestown: 21. Take Fifth Avenue south to Highway 49 south/Highway 108 west. Go left for 3.4 miles. Turn left on Highway 120 east for about 15 miles into Groveland.

Evergreen Lodge

Maybe it was during my 30-minute, deep-tissue massage amid stately pines, or perhaps it was when I was reclining in a hot tub to watched the sun set, or even when I was fiddling with the Sirius XM satellite radio (available in each cabin) to find the all-'80s Hair Bands station, but it eventually hit me: I'm out in the wilderness, but it sure doesn't feel like it.

You know, a guy can get used to this "glamping" thing. At this 22-acre lodge, cabin and tent-cabin facility, which also boasts a high-end restaurant, handsome oak-paneled tavern, pool, spa, bocce courts, foosball and many other diversions, like the nightly s'mores roast, the weekly movie night and, yes, bingo, the owners have somehow managed to blend the ritzy with the rustic.

But Evergreen, built in 1921 for dam construction workers and turned into a lodge in the 1950s, doesn't let tourists forget they are a mere 1.5 miles from the Yosemite entrance. The lodge offers an array of guided outdoor recreation options for guests without experience or the gumption to venture into the park by themselves.

There's the eight-hour "Naturalist Tour," led by, of course, a naturalist, that hits nearly all the highlights, such as waterfalls, rock formations and includes a hike and picnic lunch ($115) and a private fly-fishing trip with guides who won't yell at you if you hook them on your cast. And, in season, you can raft on the Tuolumne and Merced rivers.

David and Julie Dumingan, of Worthing, England, were in the midst of a whirlwind trip of national parks in the West and had only one day to visit Yosemite. They chose Evergreen's eight-hour hike.

"We only did it because we wanted to maximize what we needed to see and let someone who really knows the park lead us, and it certainly was a help," he said. "We stopped at all the pertinent scenic points to take our pictures. We did do a 3-mile walk and ate well."

Lest you think you're not roughing it at Evergreen, do note this great, great sacrifice: no cell service and spotty Wi-Fi. Good thing Twain had a cabin of his own to write "Roughing It," because it might have been impossible here.

Then again, he might never have left the hot tub.

Directions: Miles from Groveland: 29. Take Highway 120 east for 23 miles. Turn left on Evergreen Road and drive 6.9 miles to the lodge.

Hetch Hetchy and its trails

"Did you see the bear?" an elderly man asked me just as I was about to reach the tunnel leading back to O'Shaughnessy Dam, in the final stages of an 18-mile trek along the north face of Hetch Hetchy Reservoir.

Damn, I thought. I missed a bear sighting. But that was the only highlight that eluded me on this must-do hike.

There are three out-and-back options, varying in length and terrain, but all include the natural wonder that is Wapama Falls. It's a 5-mile round trip to the falls, but you could opt for the 13.5-mile option and get to see Rancheria Falls, as well as some gorgeous sights of the reservoir, with sheer granite cliffs not 5 feet from the single-track trail.

The third option is for the hard-core. At Rancheria Falls, you make a left for about 2 miles (gaining almost 1,000 feet in elevation) on the Tiltill Trail leading to a valley dotted with pine, cedar and black oak as well as the omnipresent granite faces.

Those wanting even more climbing can do to the 13-mile Smith Peak trail, away from the reservoir. But at the top (elevation: 7,750) you can take in the entire reservoir.

The most popular option, of course, is the shortest. But it's also something of a natural tourist attraction, which you can hear (a roar like a low-flying airplane) before you can see.

In early May, the falls were overflowing from its falloff point 1,200 feet above. The flow was so strong that visitors weren't just misted by the combination of water and gravity; they were soaked.

But the weather was so warm, high 70s, that in about 2 miles your clothes were bone dry. This main Hetch Hetchy Trail is one of the most technical (meaning, difficulty of footing) I've encountered since the Desolation Wilderness in Lake Tahoe.

Be sure to take it slow over the granite boulders, especially over "rock gardens" that hug the sheer cliffs, lest you wind up a story on the evening news when they recover your body from below.

On the return trip, you get a peek of O'Shaughnessy Dam from a distance, and it sends you into a reverie about what Muir saw back before the dam project construction was started to give thirsty San Franciscans their water.

But here's something Sierra Club types might not like to hear: Even with the dam in place, Hetch Hetchy is beautiful. Perhaps the best part is the absence of touristic overcrowding, a la Yosemite Valley.

I had traveled almost 11 miles on my morning run before even encountering a sentient being. Misanthropic as it sounds, it was bliss being out in nature without a soul around – except the bear, which I never saw.

Directions: From Evergreen Lodge, turn left and go to Hetch Hetchy Road and turn right. Drive 1.3 miles to the entrance station then continue about eight miles to the end of the road.

The O'Shaughnessy Dam visitors lot was closed for construction in early May, but cars could park near the ranger station and make the quarter-mile walk on the paved road to the dam.

Call The Bee's Sam McManis, (916) 321-1145. On Twitter: @SamMcManis

Related stories from Sacramento Bee