In Yosemite National Park, Mirror Lake draws many visitors due to its very accessible trail and the chance to see Half Dome perfectly reflected in the water. The loop around this beautiful valley up and down Tenaya Creek is a popular one with Yosemite’s visitors.
Very few hardy souls brave the steep switchbacks along Snow Creek to the canyon’s rim. Those that do, however, are amply rewarded with views.
After riding the bus shuttle to the Mirror Lake stop, I walked over to Tenaya Bridge where Tenaya Creek was roaring. This incredible snowpack (of 2017) made for fantastic waterfalls and fast, cold streams.
Instead of crossing over the bridge and heading up the road to Mirror Lake, I took the loop counter-clockwise. I figured the lighting would be better as the morning light would be lighting up North Dome across the valley and, later in the afternoon, the sun would be lighting up Half Dome when I was on the other side.
The trail followed closely along the creek through the trees. The east side of the valley was much less crowded, but I definitely wasn’t alone. Along the way, I could see the creek cascading below me, while the gray walls off North Dome rose above the canopy.
I followed the creek up to the lower pond of Mirror Lake. While the creek I followed up was a continuous cascade, the water here was perfectly still. There are a few spots to access the water… and this year, the water was accessing us!
The trail worked its way along the calmer water for a bit longer with more views of North Dome and Basket Dome before dipping into the trees and away from the creek. I exited the trees at the base of Half Dome, towering high above. A wonderful boulder field full of white rock extended across the path from a fall years ago.
After passing through the boulders, the trail, normally easy going, was submerged in about 6 inches of ice cold water. I took off my shoes and socks, and waded through the water praying that they would hurry up and go numb.
Once through the water the trail gained a bit of elevation before dropping back down to a lovely bridge that goes over Tenaya Creek. From there I continued on the loop through the trees and to the junction with the Snow Creek Trail.
While not perfectly level, the Mirror Lake Loop Trail is fairly easy going. The Snow Creek Trail, however, is the exact opposite. From the junction it begins climbing. The good news is, you start to get views fairly quickly which gives you something to look at as you catch your breath.
As I climbed up through Yosemite’s famous oak scrub, I spied a few different lizards and a Common Kingsnake. The views across the valley towards Half Dome became less and less obscured. Birds were singing, flowers were blooming, and I was sweating and breathing hard.
From the valley below, I was able to see the waterfall along Snow Creek and the trail teases on one of its switchbacks that it will go and visit it, but it didn’t (despite a bit of effort to do so). The trail broke out into the open with stunning views. Illilouette Falls can be seen cascading from it’s notch, then Illilouette Creek makes a hard right and cascades in your general direction from this perch.
Basket Dome towered above just before I turned into the trees once again… which was a delightful respite as the afternoon was getting hot with no cover. I followed a seasonal stream up through more vegetation and began getting into the taller trees signifying that I was at the rim.
The trail mercifully leveled off as I entered the cathedral forest. I had a heads up from someone hiking that one of Yosemite’s black bears was spotted in the area. I kept an eye out and was rewarded with it foraging along. It stopped at a stump harboring ants and began to tear it open and eat the larvae and eggs. I had seen plenty of torn up logs from these guys, but never watched them open one up.. impressive.
I continued through the forest, past deer and woodpeckers to the bridge over Snow Creek. This was my turnaround spot for the day. On the way back down, the sun had moved. The ridgeline from Half Dome, past Quarter Domes and up to Clouds Rest were wonderfully lit.
I hustled down the innumerable switchbacks to the valley floor. I hopped back onto the Mirror Lake Loop Trail and continued along. Eventually the trail came up to the reflecting pools of water. Half Dome was stunning, reflecting in the water. The surface was broken by a garter snake as it slithered across the water.
This section of the lake has remnants of settlements from some of Yosemite’s early pioneers. The trail loops out through peninsulas and is dotted with interpretive signs giving a window in how the valley was previously used.
I passed the couple of pools and made it over to the bike rack and the beginning of the road (accessible only by those with accessibility permits and park staff). I walked the road along Tenaya Creek which affords fantastic views of the cascading waters as it crashes around enormous boulders.
Eventually I arrived back at Tenaya Bridge where I closed up the loop and headed to the bus stop. Big day. Varied day. Lots to love.
If you are looking for a quick and easy hike in the Yosemite Valley, Mirror Lake is a great option. In dry years and later in the summer, don’t expect much “mirror” as it rarely has water. It’s a better springtime hike. The loop is nice and is less crowded.
Snow Creek tends to mainly have backpackers and is much quieter… but it’s a brutal slog. Thankfully it’s full of views and, for me, ample flora and fauna to make it all worth it.