Yosemite National Park is one of the treasures of the United States. You will know why after only one visit. This hike takes place in an eastern tributary of Yosemite Valley's Merced River. This part of the park is marked by towering cliffs that give birth to thundering waterfalls in the spring. Yosemite Valley also bears the brunt of hordes of people who visit the park, so solitude is not an option on this hike. You will see a lot fewer people past Mirror Lake, however.
Yosemite is a kingdom of granite. While the Grand Canyon resembles a multi-layered cake with its varied geology, Yosemite Valley is a gigantic notch carved out of solid granite. This granite was formed far beneath the earth's surface many eons ago before being pushed to the surface by tectonic forces. The Pacific continental plate subducts under the North American continental plate, and forces rocks like the granite that make up the Sierra Nevada Mountains to the surface, and reaching heights of over 14,000 feet.
The Sierra Nevada Mountains soar high above California, and the precipitation they collect flow west towards the population centers in the Central Valley and Bay Area, but its rain shadow to the east makes Nevada a desert. The mountains' interception of eastward-moving precipitation caused large rivers to carve deep drainages that flow west out of the Sierra Nevadas into California's Central Valley. This uplifting steepened the the grades of Sierra Nevada rivers, and they flowed faster and faster. This caused the rivers to carve deep canyons and carry enormous amounts of the sediments that now underlie the Central Valley helping to make it one of the most productive agricultural regions on earth.
Roughly 1 million years ago the Sierra Nevadas were firmly in the grip of the Ice Age, and a series of glaciers roughly 270 miles north-south and 40 miles east-west covered the mountains. The ice covered the Sierra Nevadas intermittenly, but was always present at higher elevations. These glaciers advanced and retreated down the river valleys over the eons, and carved out places like Yosemite Valley. The ancient soil, and everything else, was scraped away and transported into the Central Valley. This glacial action also scraped against the granitic walls of Yosemite Valley causing it to deepen and assume its current notch-like character. Take a piece of wood, rub the narrow edge of a burr file on the same spot for about 5 minutes, and you mimic what the glaciers did to the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Consequently, Yosemite Valley is a very deep canyon with nearly vertical walls soaring over 2,000 feet above its floor.
I decided to start this hike at the Yosemite Lodge not only because that is where I stayed, but also because one's starting point is likely to be anywhere in the valley. One thing is definite: you will not be parking at the trailhead. The trailhead is easily accessed by taking one of the shuttle buses that move people throughout the valley. You can park almost anywhere in the valley, hop on the bus (free), and reach the trailhead. Starting at Yosemite Lodge is also logical because it gives a hiker the opportunity to visit Yosemite Falls, and enjoy grand vistas before entering the narrow drainage that leads to Mirror Lake and the lower Tenaya Creek drainage beyond.
Yosemite Falls is just 1/2 mile north-northeast from the Yosemite Lodge, and it is truly a sight to behold in the spring. There are signs everywhere in Yosemite Village that direct you to the falls. This past winter saw near-record snowfall in the Sierra Nevadas. The Sierra high country saw over 60 feet of snow this past winter. Even in early May some power lines only barely rise above the snow. 60 feet! This ain't powder, folks, but very wet snow. California's drought is over for the time being. The upshot for hikers in Yosemite is that the famous waterfalls in Yosemite are roaring as of May 2011. Yosemite Falls is the 7th-highest waterfall on earth, and this year it was unbelievable. The amount of water flowing down its 2400-foot drop was staggering. It was loud from over 3 miles away. Unfortunately, I didn't get any good close-up shots because any attempt at photography meant that my camera's lens would instantly be covered in water.
Yosemite Falls are easily reached from the lodge via a well-signed paved path. After visiting the falls head east along the north side of Yosemite Valley. This trail winds through a dense forest of incense cedar, ponderosa pine, sugar pine, and black oak with intermittent views of the south side of the valley. You'll pass a few buildings that help the National Park Service operate the park including a court (just like going to a Philadelphia Eagles game). The first mile or so is up-and-down, and can present a workout to those not used to hiking at the 4,000-foot elevation. The trail flattens as you approach the world-famous Ahwahnee Lodge. You pass Indian Canyon and Royal Arch creeks, and they feature small waterfalls in the spring. These drainages have upper falls that through the top of the canyon rim 3,000 feet above you, and they're sometimes visible in the spring. You will see towering cliffs to your left, and open meadows to your right. I recommend heading down to one of these meadows to catch a glimpse of Glacier Point rising 3,000 feet above you to the south and the canyon that delivers the Merced River into Yosemite Valley.
Always veer left at any junction, and you eventually reach the Tenaya Creek drainage. This is an 3000-feet-deep drainage that's just as deep as Yosemite Valley, but only about 1/2 mile wide. You will enjoy great views up at Half Dome 3,800 feet above you to the right as you continue to follow the north side of the canyon. You reach the signed junction down towards Mirror Lake which is only about 50 yards off the trail. You will see a lot of people. If you head right down Tenaya Creek you will see people. A lot of people. Enjoy the view, and return to the trail.
The Tenaya Creek Trail heads up the Tenaya Creek drainage through a dense forest that offers occasional views of North Dome and Tenaya Creek. This creek resembled a raging river when I was there in May 2011, but turns into a trickle in the fall when Mirror Lake becomes Mirror Meadow. I ran into a ranger who told me that Tenaya Creek was flowing at around 2,000 cubic-feet-per-second that day. There are huge granite boulders along the trail, and the sport of bouldering is very popular here. Don't be surprised to see people hauling crash-pads up the trail. The entire portion of the hike between the trail and the canyon wall to the north is a gigantic bouldering opportunity. Indeed, Yosemite offers perhaps the finest climbing and bouldering opportunities in the country.
I even saw one of the famous Yosemite black bears here. Little yearling who looked pretty confused. Yosemite is a tough place for bears. There are a lot of tenderfoots who don't properly take care of food, and the Park Service has aggressively tried to keep Yosemite's bears as wild as they can be. In fact, you must take extreme care with potential bear-attractants in your vehicle. Do not leave food items, sacks from fast food restaurants, toothpaste tubes, or anything else a bear might conceivably want to consume in your vehicle. If any such items are visible you are likely to receive a warning placed on your windshield. You will receive a federal ticket if you don't correct the problem by the time your vehicle is inspected again.
Eventually the trail reaches a nice wooden bridge heading to the south about a mile above Tenaya Lake. The Snow Creek Falls Trail branches off to the left towards the Yosemite high country a few hundred yards before the bridge. The great bouldering opportunities in Yosemite owe to the large number of boulders that fall off of the canyon walls, but they also occasionally cause problems. The Tenaya Creek Trail crosses the bridge to the south, then heads down the creek. However, the trail is currently closed about a mile down from the bridge due to a rock slide. I decided to check it out, and the trail goes through a riparian Sierra Nevada forest. It would probably be a lovely stretch when it isn't inundated with numerous water/mud/swamp crossings as it was in May 2011. The feds have erected a barrier just north of the rock slide, and I decided that I could get past it. How bad could it be? Needless to say, attempting to cross that rock slide would be life-threatening. It was thousands upon thousands of granite boulders piled loosely on top of each other.
Return the way you came.
You can also enjoy Tenaya Creek on the south side. From the trail that I described above, go right at the signed junction that directs you to the shuttle bus stop. Take the directions for Mirror Lake on the south/east from the bus stop. In other words, veer right. The trail here is super-easy for the few hundred yards to mirror lake as you travel through a nice riparian forest of maples, cedars, and thick brush. There are a couple of nice vista spots after about a mile that give a view of 7,525-ft. North Dome to the north and the reason why Mirror Lake is named as it is. You reach the southern end of the rock slide a mile up from Mirror Lake.
WARNING! Hiking and outdoor related sports can be dangerous. Be responsible and prepare for the trip. Study the area you are entering and plan accordingly. Dress for the current and unexpected weather changes. Take plenty of water. Never go alone. Make an itinerary with your plan(s), route(s), destination(s) and expected return time. Give your itinerary to trusted family and/or friends.