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Mirror Lake: Yosemite’s Ephemeral Reflection

Ah, the looking glass of Mirror Lake. Picturesque yet ephemeral, this popular destination rests at the top of Yosemite Valley as Tenaya Creek takes a breath after cascading down through the boulder matrix of Tenaya Canyon. Though the approach is flat, short and highly accessible from a Yosemite Shuttle Stop the granite walls are steep here, and gazing up at Half Dome and Mt. Watkins as they square off like geologic prizefighters is sure to impress. But what if we told you that for most of the year Mirror Lake Yosemite is barely a looking glass — or even a lake — at all?

Yes, for a brief (and busy) spell in late spring through early summer this way station of snowmelt yields pixel-perfect reflections and a prime venue to cool your toes. But the rest of the year (and nearly year-round when winter is stingy with the white stuff) Mirror Lake transforms into Mirror Meadow, displaying unique seasonal moods and offering visitors the chance to get outdoorsy in creative ways with fewer people in this ephemeral “palace of dreams”.

Mirror Lake By The Seasons

The seasonality of Mirror Lake is its wild card. Transitioning from snowmelt-fed creek to still pond and then Mirror Meadow, each phase conjures up a fresh state of mind as well as new things to do.

Winter

couple below half dome at mirror lake


Serenity is the name of the game for winters at Mirror Lake. Snow and ice clinging to rock faces perched high above, leafless willows in feathery counterpoint to the dark conifers boughs, ghostly clearings where Tenaya Creek will soon pool. Winter brings the fewest people as well as an incredible opportunity for evocative photographs and winter wildlife spotting, not to mention a different type of reflection… self-reflection.
Whether you end up visiting Mirror Lake or Mirror Meadow, you’ll find other extraordinary scenery around you. This couple poses below Half Dome. Photo: Damian Riley

Spring

4 women pose for a photo on a rock in irror lakeAs winter eases into early spring, the days warm in Yosemite Valley and the range of activities opens up. This is a great time to walk the paved main route or bike with the family. If the conditions are right, there are opportunities for stunning reflections in early spring before peak season arrives in summer. On the north side of the Mirror Lake is a “secret staircase” to the “Cairn Garden” where visitors have stacked rocks over the years. Artful, yes, but please follow Nature’s Rules by refraining from adding to the collection and embrace the Leave No Trace ethos when visiting the Park. Mirror Lake Tip: Try visiting late in the day…there’s nothing quite like a golden Yosemite sunset lighting up the massive face of Half Dome. Experience the symphony of sounds that comes with visiting Yosemite in spring.

Summer

Late spring to early summer is when Mirror Lake lives up to its name. As the summer vacation season kicks into full swing be prepared for company, but less water in Mirror Lake, or possibly none at all if it was a dry winter. If you’re in excellent shape (emphasis on excellent), consider taking the Snow Creek Trail from the northeast corner of the Mirror Lake Loop for the very steep hike out of Yosemite Valley to Tioga Pass. The trail climbs 2,600 feet in the first two miles and is considered even more of a grinder than the Four Mile or Upper Yosemite Falls hikes. Offering a spectacular view of Half Dome and Clouds Rest, the path splits to the right where ambitious hikers can continue on to such High Country gems as Tenaya Lake (10.2 miles one-way) or even Tuolumne Meadows (19.6 miles one-way). Note: Due to the difficulty of these treks, it’s recommended that hikers either shuttle two cars or even better take the Yosemite Valley to Tuolumne Meadows Hikers Bus (July-September).

Fall

mirror lake surrounded by fall color

In recent years, the autumn foliage presides over Mirror Meadow, but in a particularly wet year, you’ll find beautiful color surrounding this ephemeral lake.

Yosemite National Park is simply splendid in the fall, and Mirror Lake is a shining example. As the summer visitors thin, the air gets a little nip and the golden and amber fall foliage begins to pop, Mirror Lake officially becomes Mirror Meadow revealing sand bars where visitors can drop their backpacks and soak up some Sierra rays. Fall picnics are a must as Half Dome appears so close it could reach down and steal a baguette, and the brightly colored leaves along the Mirror Lake Loop seem to glow between the pines when the light is just right. Magic.

Trails & Transport

There are several ways to reach Mirror Lake (elevation 4,098 feet) depending on preferred scenery and where you begin your stroll. Notice that we didn’t use “hike” for the simple reason that Mirror Lake is one of the most accessible destinations in Yosemite Valley with a paved bike/wheelchair route and very little elevation gain. Comfortable shoes of all stripes and swooshes are perfect for Mirror Lake. No serious gear required, just an affinity for well-framed Yosemite landscapes and fresh Sierra air.

couple walking on a trail near mirror lake

A narrower dirt trail parallels the easy-access paved trail to Mirror Lake, and you’ll find plenty to look at and discover on your way as you stroll beneath majestic conifers and past looming boulders.

The primary Mirror Lake Trail is the most popular route, mainly because visitors of all ages (leashed pets, too) can explore the first paved mile of the 2-plus mile out & back excursion any time of year. From the Mirror Lake Trailhead, the service road crosses the stony arch of Tenaya Bridge then follows the north side of Tenaya Creek to your destination. There are several informational plaques on the north side of Mirror Lake that describe the local fauna, history of tourism (yes, we’ve evolved) and the native American presence (including the Ahwahneechee name for Mirror Lake: Ahwiyah, meaning “quiet water”).

For those who want to call an alpine audible, there’s a dirt trail that runs parallel to the paved trail (to the north) getting visitors to/from Mirror Lake. This is technically part of the Mirror Lake Loop Trail (see below) and offers a more serene option with no bike traffic.

reflections of meadow grasses in mirror lake

While hiking, remember to keep your eyes open for small scenes of peace and beauty amidst the grandeur above. Photo: Chris Migeon

The Mirror Lake Loop is a satisfying five-mile circuit with gentle rise & fall as you weave along the forested, granite-lined path. If you’d like to loop counterclockwise, turn right just before the Tenaya Bridge and the path will follow the south side of Tenaya Creek, skirting Mirror Lake to your left. The farther you wander, the fewer hikers you’ll see. Reaching the far end of the valley (east), you cross Tenaya Creek on a wooden footbridge and follow the loop back on the north side of the canyon to Mirror Lake and its paved path. Note: Take caution in winter, as the south side of the Mirror Lake Loop can get icy with difficult footing due to its shady conditions.

Getting There: The free Yosemite Valley Shuttle provides convenient service to the Mirror Lake Trailhead (Stop #17) and is great way to keep the Valley vehicle traffic light. If driving is a must, the two closest parking areas are: Curry Village, which adds approximately 1.5 miles round trip to your walk; or the dirt Yosemite Valley Trailhead parking lot located on Happy Isles Loop Road, which adds approximately 1 mile round-trip. Note: To get an aerial view of your route, be sure to check a map of Yosemite Valley for directions.

Ephemeral Yet Lasting

The allure of Mirror Lake is undeniable. From the geological muscle that surrounds it, to its quaint landscapes and many moods, there are plenty of ways to enjoy its beauty. The Mad Hatter was right — Mirror Lake is indeed a palace of dreams, and a worthy meeting place for beloved friends and family any ol’ time of year. So visit Yosemite Mariposa County, take a break from the bustle back home, and gaze into the looking glass…we’re confident you’ll like what you see.

 

 

To explore lodging options, things to do and places to eat, visit Yosemite.com, the #1 trip planning site for vacations to Yosemite National Park and historic Mariposa County. To stay up to date, follow @YosemiteNation on social media and subscribe to our newsletter, “The Wanderer”. Be sure to subscribe to our YouTube channel for great videos on the people and places of Yosemite Mariposa County.

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