Every seasoned traveler knows the value of slowing down and discovering the nuanced rewards of a single locale. There’s a heightened respect for the sweep of scenery, an opportunity to ponder fascinating history, plus more time to try out all the exciting activities that destination has to offer. Tenaya Lake fits this bill to a capital T.
Located 77 miles (124 km) from the Gold Rush gem of Mariposa, the blue snowmelt-fed waters of Tenaya Lake send out a clarion call to visitors who want to explore Yosemite in one day while still having the option of comfy accommodations outside the Park. The surrounding granite peaks and domes add a striking visual backdrop whether you’re picnicking, swimming or strolling its postcard-perfect shoreline along the Tenaya Lake Trail.
Note: Tioga Road opens seasonally from approximately late May to November depending on winter snowfall. Always check current road conditions before heading up to Tenaya Lake.
Your first view of Tenaya Lake (8,150 feet/2,484 m) can be a bit startling. Emerging through the pines, its waters look as though they’re poised to lap over the road while up ahead the steep, smooth granite of Stately Pleasure Dome meets the unrelenting rise of Tenaya Peak (10,306 ft/3,141 m) forming a gauntlet of granite where Tenaya Creek feeds the lake with pure snowmelt in spring. Fun Fact: The name Stately Pleasure Dome is derived from the Samuel Taylor Coleridge poem “Kubla Khan” and is technically the southwest flank of larger Polly Dome (9,806 ft/2,989 m).
Named after Chief Tenaya (leader of the Ahwahneechee people), Tenaya Lake is additionally fed by Murphy Creek and its stunning beauty makes it a must-stop when visiting the High Country of the Northern Yosemite region. The lake sits along Tioga Road — an impressive feat of engineering and skilled labor primarily performed by early Chinese immigrants in 1883. Taking only 130 days to complete with nothing but hand tools and blast powder, Tioga Road spans the Sierra divide providing expansive vistas, geologic wonders and lush conifer forests with every turn.
There are fewer more fulfilling pursuits than Yosemite Mariposa picnicking. Tenaya Lake makes a strong case for baskets with a designated picnic area at its east end (parking/restrooms available) plus a view-packed shoreline where visitors can snack to their heart’s delight. In addition to a sturdy table, find a sun-warmed slab of flat granite or even a patch of sun-warmed Tenaya Lake sand to lay out your picnic blanket and enjoy those High Sierra sips & spreads.
Visitors to Tenaya Lake earn their splash rewards with a refreshing Yosemite Mariposa swim in a High Country pool unlike any other. The sandy shoreline on the northeast end of the lake brings the beach a little closer to the heavens, while sunbathing on the toasty rocks brings the Vitamin D levels to peak wellness. Pro Tip: The UV index tends to soar with elevation, making a Sierra sunburn something to actively avoid. Use sunscreen and if you’re planning to swim, choose one of the many eco-friendly sunscreens on the market.
The Tenaya Lake Trail: The interplay between land and water at Tenaya Lake is something to behold. If you don’t feel like taking a dip, the hiking options range from a flat, shoreline stroll to challenging forays into the surrounding wilderness. The can be done in part or in full (2.5 mile loop/4 km) with minimum elevation gain and maximum views. Two designated Yosemite trailheads — Sunrise Lakes and Murphy Creek — strike out from Tenaya Lake providing the intrepid trekker a chance to explore such High Country all-stars as Clouds Rest and Polly Domes Lake. Pro Tip: Bring waterproof boots or take off your shoes & socks to cross the shallow outlet at the southwest end of Tenaya Lake, especially in spring and early summer. If doing the full loop the western portion follows the shoulder of Tioga Road so be aware of vehicles (though the views here are incredible).
Kayaking on Tenaya Lake is an exercise in tranquility. Though just over a mile long, its granite-encircled shores provide paddlers with flat water (beginners welcome!) and unique views, not to mention the chance to drop a line for High Country trout. From mid-lake gaze northeast for the unmistakable Pywiack Dome, a 600 foot temple of granite rising from a dark ring of pine forest. Name Game: The Ahwahneechee name for Tenaya Lake is Pie-we-ack, or “Lake of the Shining Rocks.” Shine on. Note: Kayak rentals are not available in Yosemite National Park, so it’s strictly B.Y.O.K (bring your own kayak).
The gauntlet of granite that surrounds Tenaya Lake is a fine collection of the world-class rock climbing in Yosemite Mariposa County. Stately Pleasure Dome, Piwiak Dome, and Tenaya Peak call for the cams amidst a framework of alpine beauty that’s hard to match. For those who like big rocks but aren’t super fond of scaling them, visit the Yosemite Climbing Association Museum & Gallery in the charming Sierra Gold Rush town of Mariposa to get a feel for the rope. Why? Because, as the saying goes, it’s there.
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Due to its geologic heavy hitters, water features and wildlife, photography in Yosemite Mariposa satisfies shutterbugs of all stripes. Whether you’re a pro trying to capture a storm moving through the canyon, creating a Christmas-card-worthy family portrait, or simply sharing your good time on social media, the “range of light” at Tenaya Lake never disappoints. The west side of the lake along Tioga Road offers postcard quality shots with Tenaya Peak in the background, or try the south end of the lake focusing northeast to the aforementioned granite jumble that kisses the water’s surface.
Tenaya Lake is sandwiched by two nearby attractions that are easily explored during your one day in Yosemite high country. Just 2 miles (3 km) west of Tenaya Lake along Tioga Road, the rocky lookout at Olmsted Point provides visitors with a unique aerial view of Yosemite Valley and iconic Half Dome. Located 7 miles (11 km) east of Tenaya Lake is the High-Country hub of Tuolumne Meadows. This meadow appears almost prehistoric with the Tuolumne River winding through its grassy expanse, punctuated by granite domes rising from the surrounding pine forest. A great place for strolling, swimming, fishing or just imagining a time long, long ago.
With a cool Sierra breeze skimming its cerulean waters and a bounty of things to do, Tenaya Lake is the perfect spot for a deep dive when one day in Yosemite Mariposa is your travel du jour. Easy roadside access makes this “Land of Shining Rocks” perfect for seniors who can’t walk great distances, not to mention kids who can but don’t want to. So while other harried visitors are attempting the impossible goal of seeing the 1,200 square miles (3,100 square km) of Yosemite in one day, consider taking a slower, more civilized approach and immerse yourself in the alpine glory of Tenaya Lake.
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.