Located at the far east end of Yosemite Valley, Mirror Lake is a beautiful, peaceful place to explore at any time of year. Usually a shallow lake, it is fullest in spring and early summer, when Tenaya Creek flows with fresh snowmelt. When the water is calm, Mirror Lake lives up to its name, offering a pristine reflection of Half Dome and Mount Watkins. The gently sloping trail around the lake is perfect for a moderate half-day hike.
The Mirror Lake trail offers something for every hiker. Travelling with babies and dogs? Strollers and leashed pets are welcome on the paved route as far as the lake. Looking for a good lunch spot? The lake’s shore is a popular place for picnics. (Don’t let the squirrels get any crumbs.)
If you’re in the mood for a few hours of wandering on a quiet trail, though, hike the whole 2-mile loop upstream in Tenaya Canyon. Since most visitors turn around at the lake, you will have the loop trail mostly to yourself. Tread quietly, and you may discover some wildlife on the trail, such as deer and birds. I did this loop by myself on a spring day, and encountered only three other hikers once I left the popular lake shore. I enjoyed listening to birdsong and indulging in quiet self-reflection (pun intended).
Naturalist note: Mirror Lake is in a state of transition. Sand carried by Tenaya Creek collects here, and will eventually form a meadow. Even now, the shallow lake disappears into the sand in late summer, transforming into “Mirror Meadow.” Exhibits along the trail tell the story of this transformation, and highlight some of the cultural history of the area.
Get Started: Take the free Yosemite Valley shuttle to stop #17, Mirror Lake Trailhead. Follow the paved path to the right (past the pit toilets) for 1 mile along Tenaya Creek. Cross Tenaya Creek on a stone bridge, then walk about a quarter-mile. At this juncture, you can opt to take a footpath off to the left, a quiet route that rejoins the main trail just before you get to the lake
A brown signpost along the road will mark Mirror Lake. Look to your right to see Half Dome looming above you. At the far east end of the lake, you’ll see the rounded top of Mount Watkins. When you get to the north side of the lake, take the horse trail at the base of the canyon wall. (Be warned – from here on out, you may have to watch for fresh piles of horse manure.) The gently -gradedtrail offers glimpses of Tenaya Creek. If you come across small creeks or puddles in the trail, common in wet weather, carefully use logs or stepping stones to keep your feet dry. Soon, you will be walking through tall green plants known as “horsetails.”
Follow the sign that says 0.5 miles to Snow Creek, then cross a small bridge. You will soon come to a larger wooden bridge over Tenaya Creek, rushing dramatically below. Continue through the trees, past an unshaded stretch of granite. The path will begin curving towards the south side of Mirror Lake. Pass the lake, and descend to the paved road and shuttle stop where you began.
Tips for the Trail: Although the trail is open year-round, the lake varies in appearance from season to season. By the end of summer, Mirror Lake might look like a pond,a marshy meadow or even a dry beach. In winter, the lake may be frozen and the path will be icy and snowy. No matter when you go, please stay on the trail. Tenaya Creek has fast-moving water, which is often deeper than it may appear.
The full loop is about 5 miles, so schedule roughly 3.5 hours of walking. While the path is mostly shady, with a mix of deciduous and evergreen trees, bring a hat if you’re hiking in sunny weather – the far eastern end of the trail includes an unshaded walk through the debris from a March 2009 rockfall. As always, be sure to bring plenty of water and snacks to keep up your energy, and remember to take breaks to enjoy the tranquil landscape!