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Leaf Peeping in Yosemite Valley and Hiking Mirror Lake Loop

I had been chasing fall colors at higher elevations on the eastern side of the Sierra, but I was curious what those fall colors were doing in Yosemite Valley, so I took a little drive to see how they were shaping up. I arrived before the sun came up and it was pretty smoky but there was still a lot of fall happening. The big leaf maples were the stars of the show on this day with their brilliant yellow leaves. I also got a hike in on this adventure. The Mirror Lake Loop had beautiful fall color and I had a surprise critter greet me.

Where: Yosemite National Park
Distance: About 6.78 Miles
Difficulty: Easy
Elevation Range: 3,996′ – 4,184′
Date: October 19, 2017
Maps: El Capitan and Hetch Hetchy Reservoir Topographic Quad
Dog Hike? No

Mid-October to mid-November is the time of the year for the best fall colors in the Yosemite Valley. I had heard of traffic delays due to the construction occurring in the valley and knew it would be smoky but wanted to check out the fall colors in Yosemite Valley enough to brave the conditions. I thought it would be interesting to arrive at the valley early and I mean way early, before sunrise, and at least beat some of the construction delays. I drove in from the El Portal side and arrived at Fern Springs just before official sunrise.

Fern Springs

Walking across the road, I wandered along the path downstream to the Pohono Bridge and upstream a bit. It was a little too dark to get a nice contrast between the landscape, water and the fall vegetation. A flash on my camera lit up the path, highlighting those fall colors but this is much brighter than my eye saw the path in the wee hours of the morning.

Southside Drive was lined with yellow big leaf maples.

I drove up a little more to check out smoky reflections in the Merced River.

Then I made a quick stop at the Swinging Bridge.

I headed up the road and parked at the Happy Isles parking area, then hiked up to the Valley Loop Trail to make a looped hike to Mirror Lake. Those big leaf maples were a brilliant yellow and the dogwoods were just starting to turn their fall red colors.


When I reached the bridge, I followed the sign to Mirror Lake.


In some areas, the big leaf maple leaves carpeted the trail.

From the south side of Mirror Lake, there wasn’t much left of it but the last few years there has been nothing at all. Today’s Mirror Lake far different and smaller than it used to be. It is all that remains of a large glacial lake that once filled most of Yosemite Valley at the end of the last Ice Age, and is close to disappearing due to the accumulated sediment. Today’s lake can dry up in the summer, leaving no lake at all.








As I headed up the trail that follows Tenaya Creek, it was obvious to me that some of those dogwoods were trying their best to impress me.

The trail crossed the bridge over Tenaya Creek then parallels the creek heading downstream.

Smaller big leaf maples were beautiful as the sun started to peek into the canyon, casting light on the leaves.

There were also a few dogwoods and oaks coloring up on this side.

There was a bit more water visible in Mirror Lake from the north side, enough to get some nice reflections.

How about a little history related to Mirror Lake? Captain William James Howard was a member of the Mariposa Battalion that some credit with “discovering” Yosemite Valley in 1851. In the 1860s, he built a toll road to Mirror Lake, then a summer house on the lake’s shore. In 1870, construction was completed of the Lake House, a frame building open for public lodging and providing “fine liquors and Havana cigars.” A one-mile toll wagon-road led up to the lake from the Valley. It is said that Leonidas G. Wharton and Peter Gordon were partners in the Lake House in 1870. In 1875, Howard completed construction of his “shake shanty” cabin on the shores of Mirror Lake and at the end of the carriage road. He took over the operations of the Lake House as a saloon and added a dance floor over the lake. This dance floor measured sixty feet by forty feet, extending out over the water. The Mirror Lake House, as it became known, was a favorite night spot. In 1881 Howard’s cabin was demolished by orders of the Yosemite Commissioners as being unsightly. In 1890, the Yosemite Stage and Turnpike Company built a frame icehouse at the lake.

And as I was leaving Mirror Lake, these deer wanted their pictures taken for the blog so how could I say no?

Yosemite National Park sure has recently gotten a lot of work done on the roads in the valley and if you haven’t been up there in a while, the routing on the roads has likely changed. There are delays with the road construction and several areas that had delays on this trip. Many of the old spots where you may have parked are not there. My advice to you is get there early, find a place to park and leave your vehicle there, then walk or take the shuttle to where you want to explore. Once these road construction issues are completed, I bet it will look very nice. That roundabout will take a bit of getting used to to me though.

Dog Hike?

Dogs are not allowed on the Mirror Lake Loop Trail. There are some areas along this leaf peeping route where dogs are allowed:

  • In developed areas
  • On fully paved roads, sidewalks, and bicycle paths (except when signed as not allowing pets)
  • In all campgrounds except walk-in campgrounds (e.g., Camp 4) and in group campsites


  • pets must be restrained on a leash not more than six feet long or otherwise physically restrained
  • leashed pets may not be left unattended
  • for the courtesy of other visitors, human companions are responsible for cleaning up and depositing pet feces in trash receptacles
  • remember that pet food is also bear food: store pet food as if it were human food.

Where Pets Are Not Allowed

  • On trails, including the trail to Vernal Fall (however, pets are allowed on the Wawona Meadow Loop)
  • On unplowed roads covered in snow
  • In undeveloped and wilderness areas
  • In public buildings
  • On shuttle buses
  • In lodging areas
  • In all walk-in and group campgrounds/campsites, including Camp 4
  • In any other areas, as signed

These regulations protect both pets and wildlife from disease and each other. The National Park Service has prohibited pets on trails for many years. In particular, some pets chase wildlife, pollute water sources, and can become defensive and dangerous in unfamiliar surroundings. Pet owners have the burden to assure their pet does not damage the park values for others in those areas where pets are allowed.

Yosemite Hospitality operates a dog kennel in Yosemite Valley from approximately late May through early September. Written proof of immunizations (rabies, distemper, parvo, and Bordetella) must be provided. Dogs must be at least 20 pounds (smaller dogs may be considered if you provide a small kennel). You can get more information about the kennel by calling 209/372-8326.

Maps and Profile:

Mirror Lake Loop Doarama

Mirror Lake Loop Hike Topographic Map

Mirror Lake Loop Hike Profile

Prior Blogs in this Area:

Mirror Lake Loop Hike April 26, 2016

Leaf Peeping in Yosemite Valley October 23, 2014

Mirror Lake Loop Hike November 7, 2012


Yosemite Nature Notes 46(2) (1977) Mirror Lake

Yosemite National Park Pet Regulations




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