Wedged between the granite walls of Half Dome and North Dome on the east end of Yosemite Valley, visit an enticing body of water that doubles the Yosemite splendor. Mirror Lake, which is not actually a lake but rather a shallow seasonal pool, is famous for its reflective beauty.
Due to it’s popularity and easy-to-reach-ness, a few trails lead to Mirror Lake. The most traveled option is a one-mile paved walkway and bike path along Tenaya Creek to the north side of the lake. Additionally, an unpaved trail goes the south side of the lake and connects to a larger loop. A third route to Mirror Lake leaves from Ahwahnee Hotel and crosses below the Royal Arches and North Dome to arrive at the north side of Mirror Lake. Since you can utilize the park shuttle system, this trail can be combined with the popular paved trail to form a 2.8-mile one-direction stroll.
What is Mirror Lake like? Imagine a stunning Yosemite landscape with granite cliffs rising over pine forests. Then double that vision by adding tranquil reflective water below the imagined landscape.
Once you walk out to Mirror Lake, you won’t need to just imagine in anymore. The serene surface mirrors the surrounding rocks and trees, along with the blue skies above, to deliver a delightful venue for a short nature walk. Mount Watkins, Ahwiyah Point, and the sheer side of Half Dome rise over Mirror Lake.
On hot spring days, swimmers can enjoy Mirror Lake as well, but by fall the seasonal pool disappears.
It is unlikely to bother you, but Mirror Lake is actually misnamed. An informative panel by the lake explains that:
Mirror Lake was once regarded by park scientists as a stream-fed lake slowly filling in to become a meadow. As hydrologists have developed a more complex understanding of the water’s dynamics, they now theorize that the “lake” is a pool in a seasonal stream. Changes in the volume and speed of the stream’s water cause sand to be deposited and scoured from the pool in cycles.
Correcting the name to Mirror Seasonal Stream Pool seems unlikely, but the good news is that Mirror Lake is no longer expected to completely fill with sediment. Mirror Lake was created by a fortuitous rock fall, as another panel explains:
Perhaps only three or four hundred years ago, an enormous rockfall dumped boulders across this canyon, damming Tenaya Creek. During spring and early summer, the stream backs up into the two pools on either side of the dam. Nineteenth-century tourists admired the reflections on the surface of the upper pool of Mirror Lake. To enlarge the pool and reflection, early entrepreneurs piled boulders onto the natural dam. Ironically, this helped the pool fill with sand and silt, leading to the regular dredging of the lake. Today, the National Park Service maintains Tenaya Creek and Mirror Lake as natural systems. Sediment continues to build in the upper pool, which is gradually becoming shallower. The force of springtime water scours out most deposits in the undammed lower pool.
The views looking up Mirror Lake are beautiful. Looking east up the lake, you’ll see Mount Watkins rising from the north side of the valley. This mountain probably gets Mirror Lake’s best reflections. Ahwiyah Point rises from the south side of the valley, just east of Mirror Lake. Above that is a massive granite dome, or at least half of one, that will be easy for any visitor to identify. The vertical face of Half Dome rises over Mirror Lake, looking truly daunting from this perspective.
Three routes to Mirror Lake
Ready to start hiking? Mirror Lake can be reached by multiple routes. Because a park shuttle travels around Yosemite Valley, hikers can venture out on one trail to Mirror Lake and return by another.
Mirror Lake Trail
The main hiking and biking route is a one mile paved road up to the west shore of Mirror Lake on the north side of Tenaya Creek. From the shuttle stop, hike over the stone Tenaya Creek Bridge and make a right at the next paved junction to reach Mirror Lake. This second paved route can also be used to cycle to Mirror Lake from Yosemite Village. At the end of Mirror Lake Trail, there are bathrooms and plenty of areas to sit and gaze out at the nature’s mirror.
Mirror Lake Loop (now also known as Valley Loop Trail)
A 2009 rockfall below Ahwiyah Point temporarily broke this loop (but the trail seems to be reopened. The loop travels up and down both sides of Mirror Lake and Tenaya Creek. The north end extends beyond the Mirror Lake bike path and can be used to connect to Snow Creek Trail, which heads into the Yosemite backcountry and connects to North Dome Trail.
The southern section of the loop crosses a charming forest on the banks of Tenaya Creek to reach Mirror Lake. Beyond that, single tracks break off to the left across the grassy area above the lake. This is a good place for a picnic or to explore the banks of Tenaya Creek, but no official trail travels through this area.
To hike the southern half of Mirror Lake Loop Trail to Mirror Lake, walk a quarter mile on the main paved trail from the Mirror Lake Shuttle Stop. Just before the stone bridge, turn right and pick up the dirt and rock trail to remain on the south side of the creek. With just a bit more elevation gain to contend to, about 100 feet, this is a nicer hiking option than the main paved trail. The south end of the loop trail reaches Mirror Lake after just over a mile.
Valley Loop Trail from Ahwahnee Hotel
Next to the valet parking for The Ahwahnee Hotel (also known as Majestic Yosemite Hotel), Valley Loop Trail heads east along the north side of Yosemite Valley. Another section of this trail heads west in the opposite direction toward Lower Yosemite Fall, allowing for grander loops in Yosemite Valley.
From Ahwahnee Hotel, it is a 1.8-mile one-way hike to Mirror Lake on a very nice section of the trail. A few paces past the trailhead at the Ahwahnee, the trail crosses just below Royal Arch Cascade, a waterfall that only truly flows in the spring. You can venture off trail right up to the base of the falls. When Royal Arch Cascade is turned on, it is an impressive side attraction.
Between the hotel and Mirror Lake, Valley Loop Trail (formerly North Valley Hiking Trail) crosses through old forest with tall pines and boulders covered in piles of golden pine needles. Look up to see the Royal Arches, striking bow-shaped bands of dark granite caved into the rock through differential erosion.
After the Royal Arches comes the stark face of North Dome. With a keen eye or binoculars, you can spot climbers tackling the ascent. This peaceful sylvan trail offers a lot to observe!
Proceed through a couple early junctions (follow signs for Valley Loop Trail) and come to a junction, 1 miles from the start, where a path to the right drops down to a bathroom along Mirror Lake Road. Here, you can proceed to the left up Valley Loop Trail, or drop to the bathroom and turn left up the paved road used by cyclists and vehicles with handicapped visitors.
Valley Loop Trail passes through more lovely forest while the road borders Tenaya Creek and passes the Lower Pool of Mirror Lake before approaching the famed upper pool.
At 1.8 miles from Ahwahnee Hotel, Valley Loop Trail comes to a T-junction. To the left, Valley Loop Trail (Mirror Lake Loop Trail) proceeds along the north side of Mirror Lake toward Snow Creek. Turn right to connect to Mirror Lake and explore the shore of Mirror Lake. The hike from Ahwahnee Hotel to Mirror Lake and down to the Mirror Lake shuttle stop is 2.8 miles one-way (compared to a 3.6-mile round trip hike from Ahwahnee Hotel). This is an easy hike along the valley floor that is perfect for families and less agile hikers. Despite the ease, the scenery is quite rewarding.
To get to the trailhead: Drive into Yosemite Valley and park at either Curry Village or the park visitor center. Take the free park shuttle to stop number 3 for Ahwahnee Hotel or stop number 17, the trailhead for Mirror Lake (where parking is not available).
Trailhead address: 9041 Happy Isle Loop Road, Yosemite National Park, CA 95389
Trailhead coordinates: 37.739278, -119.560016 (37° 44′ 21.40″N 119° 33′ 36.05″W)
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