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Hiking from Yosemite Valley up the Snow Creek Trail and Beyond

The Snow Creek Trail is the toughest trail out of the Yosemite Valley. It is steep and I while I was hiking up it, I was sure that the trail had about a million switchbacks, but the guidebooks say that it only has about 100. You just can’t get any better views of snowy Clouds Rest and Half Dome from this trail.

Where: Yosemite National Park
Distance: 15.2 Miles
Difficulty: Strenuous
Elevation Range: 4,002’– 7,742′
Date: January 14, 2015
Maps: El Capitan, Hetch Hetchy Topographic Quads

We started early, parking at the Ahwahnee Hotel parking lot and took the trail up towards Mirror Lake. About 1.1 miles past Mirror Lake is the junction to the steep, switch back trail I call the Snow Creek Trail. If you continue up to the top, the trail will split, the Pack Trail is the left fork that will take you towards Indian Rock and the right fork, known as the Tenaya Lake and Tuolumne Meadows Trail, which you can take up to Mt. Watkins, onto Olmsted Point and Tuolumne Meadows.

Steve is standing next to the sign that marks the Snow Creek Trail.
I am guessing it was in the high 20s as we walked through the Mirror Lake area but once we started the steep hike full of switchbacks, we started shedding layers. I was in short sleeves before too long. Stopping to get rid of some layers let us take in the early morning views of Clouds Rest up the canyon and Half Dome right across the canyon from us.

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Snow Creek 4

Did I mention that this trail is steep? In the first two miles, the trail rises 2,400′, making it the highest elevation gain of any trail out of the valley. Some words to describe this hike include strenuous, damn steep, brutal, butt-kicker, difficult and good workout.

Snow Creek 5

We started hitting snow at about the 6,700′ elevation. There were some icy places where we had to carefully watch our steps. We had brought ice traction devices but didn’t use them. When we reached the junction of the Pack Trail and the Tenaya Lake and Tuolumne Meadows Trail, we took the right fork towards Tenaya Lake and Tuolumne Meadows. The trail was well signed on this trip.

Snow Creek 6

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Snow Creek originates in May Lake to the north, and drops down the steep ravine to the east of the trail into Tenaya Creek, which goes through Mirror Lake, then empties into the Merced River near the Sugar Pine Bridge. When Snow Creek is running higher, you can see Snow Creek Falls, which is the second highest waterfall in Yosemite National Park.

Our trail crossed Snow Creek on a wooden bridge where we could look up and down the mostly frozen stream.

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After crossing the bridge, we hiked for about 3 more miles, finding a dandy spot to have our lunch. We took a short lunch because it was a long hike through snow and ice so we got moving, heading back down the same way that we came up. By afternoon, the creek had melted a little bit more and the look was a little different.

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The afternoon sun on Clouds Rest was very nice.

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The creation of Mirror Lake is a fairly recent event in Yosemite geological history, after the glaciers retreated. Geologists think that a massive rock avalanche fell from the walls just east of Washington Column, collapsing into Tenaya Canyon, damning Tenaya Creek and forming a large lake that once extended over 1 mile upstream from this dam. What is left of that lake is what we now call Mirror Lake. Galen Clark described the lake in 1910 as, “When seen in the morning before the sun rises it is an enchanting little lake environed by grand mountain scenery, all of which is seen mirrored in its apparently unfathomable depths.”

The lake used to dry up around late September and the National Park Service would excavate the lake, removing the sand and gravel. The procedure was stopped around 1971 and after that, Mirror Lake began to silt up. The Park Service expected that this area would evolve into a Meadow and started trying to call it Mirror Meadows, but it is more of a sand pit and nothing like a meadow. If you wish to try and capture the beautiful reflective pictures that show Mt. Watkins reflected in Mirror Lake, you need to do it when the water is high.

We took the lower trail on the way back, walking by what used to be Mirror Lake, and we had some wonderful reflections in that late afternoon light.

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As we started down the trail, we noticed that the cairns, or stacked rock sculptures, were plentiful. Sometimes there are many and sometimes it looks like someone has knocked them all down. There is such creativity in these cairns, each one of them unique.

This rock stacking is controversial though and some see it similar to graffiti. Although it isn’t as disruptive as someone who scratches their name or paints something on a rock, it is moving nature into an unnatural state. They are very artfully done, but is this acceptable to do? Is it crime or is it art? Your thoughts?

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We had the entire trail to ourselves on this day, meeting only one person in the late afternoon in the lower section and a few people at Mirror Lake. It was such a beautiful day and I wondered why more people weren’t out taking advantage of this dry spell that we were having. I prefer to do this hike when it is cooler because it is a south facing slope on those switchbacks and it can get darn hot going up those. This can be the perfect time of the year if you wish to tackle this trail.

Prior Blogs in the Area:



Glazner, Allen F. and Stock, Greg M., Geology Underfoot in Yosemite National Park, Missoula, Montana: Mountain Press Publishing Company, 2010
Schaffer, Jeffrey P., Yosemite National Park, A Complete Hiker’s Guide, Berkeley, California: Wilderness Press, May 2008

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