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Mirror Lake Loop Hike

We were on the hunt for those beautiful big white blooms of the dogwoods. We headed to Yosemite Valley to see what we could find.

Where: Yosemite National Park
Distance: 7.25 Miles
Difficulty: Easy to Moderate
Elevation Range: 3,983 to 4,285′
Date: April 26, 2016
Maps: El Capitan and Hetch Hetchy Reservoir Topographic Quads

As we drove in, we were watching out for views of the waterfalls and were treated to a superb view of Yosemite Falls in the morning.


We parked at Curry Village (newly named Half Dome Village) to check out the dogwoods. Although they weren’t the explosion of dogwood blooms that last year had, they were very lovely. The flower is actually the middle part and bracts are the showy white portion that we sometimes incorrectly call the dogwood flower.

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There are many ways that you can get to Mirror Lake but we had ulterior motives in mind for this hike. We took a bit of a longer way up there, but we were also checking out the dogwood blooms. We parked at Curry Village, walking on the path that leads through the Upper Pines Campground. We crossed the bridge on Happy Isles Loop Rd., then started up the trail, following the east side of the Tenaya Creek. Sometimes we can get some beautiful dogwood blooms hanging over the river.

Photo by Gail Gilbert

Dogwood Blooms over the Merced River (Photo by Gail Gilbert)

We continued on the trail, following Mirror Lake’s eastern side. As soon as we approached Mirror Lake, the view opened up to reveal to us how it received its current name of Mirror Lake. Native Americans tribes such as the Paiutes lived and traveled though this area long before Yosemite National Park was created and it makes me sad that many of their names for geographical locations related to Yosemite have been lost to time. The Miwok Indians were asked what they called Mirror Lake the they said they called it A-wai’-a.

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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.

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.

Captain William HOWARD

Captain William James Howard

I got to wondering where life took these people and what happened to them.

In 1887, Leonidas G. Wharton was shot and killed by Avel Mann at his house at Cascades, described as roughly 7 miles down the Merced River. Several factors had a part in the killing — a woman and the Civil War. Mann was tried for murder in the Mariposa County Superior Court and was acquitted. Some years later he tried to kill his wife by cutting her throat. He was said to have committed suicide when surrounded by a posse. Wharton was born 1828 in Georgia. He shows up on the 1870 census in Township 3 in Mariposa County and lists his occupation as toll collector. He filed on a homestead of 160 acres where El Portal is now located, which an 1884 map of the area called “Wharton’s Ranch.”

Peter Gordon died in 1903 at the age of 70. His obituary in the Mariposa Gazette said that his death was “due to the decline caused by old age, and was not unexpected. In fact, it was thought that the end must come much sooner than it did, but his remarkable vitality postponed the end after he was beyond medical aid.” The obituary went on to describe some of his history. “In 1849, while a boy, he went to Monterey from Rochester, New York, with Colonel Steventon. The following year he came to this county, and followed mining here and at Sherlocks and Whitlocks for a number of years. He was one of the owners of a Yosemite Valley saddle train for a while, and also agent for the Yosemite Stage Company at Wawona. About twenty-eight years ago he had a hip broken in a stage accident, since which time he has been a cripple. Soon after he and his wife bought and conducted the building which had been used by General Fremont as his headquarters here, and conducted it as a hotel. Since that time it has been known as the Gordon Hotel, and most of the time Mr. Gordon was the host. He was a kind-hearted and generous almost to a fault. None was ever turned away hungry, and the number who were aided by his generosity is countless. A good citizen and a kind and indulgent husband and father, his death is regretted by his many friends who long remember him for his good deeds. He leaves a wife, five daughters and six sons to morn his loss.”

Captain William James Howard died in 1924 at the ripe old age of 97. At the age of 93, his story was captured in his book The Last of the California Pioneers. His biased accounting of history is an interesting read if you haven’t seen it (link at the bottom of the blog).

In 1879, the commissioners of the state board governing Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove bought the toll road, made it toll-free, and removed Mirror Lake House. From this point, the battle to “save” Mirror Lake began. The question of “preserving” Mirror Lake has risen time and again since the early pioneer years. Dredging has taken place repeatedly, the last time in the summer of 1971. At that time it was done to prolong the life of the lake and to obtain a source of native, granitic sand for sanding winter roads. Now, however, Mirror Lake no longer will be artificially perpetuated. In keeping with the vision for all National Parks, natural processes will be promoted and safeguarded.

In the coming years and decades, with each spring torrent, deposition will produce an increasingly shallower and smaller lake, until eventually it will become a meadow. This is identical to the process which has made the floor of Yosemite Valley as beautiful as it is today. It is believed that preservation of natural features, systems, and landscapes is a dynamic process, achieved by permitting all natural processes to occur undisturbed. Disturbance of natural processes yields unnatural results — thus the decision to allow the destiny of Mirror Lake to be naturally fulfilled.

We continued on up the trail, which had large puddles on it, that we easily negotiated. There was one larger tree across trail that we could walk around through the slash but we came across some horseback riders who were having some challenges with one of their horses negotiating one of those water crossings.


We continued up the trail, crossing the bridge over Tenaya Creek. The trail goes through a shady area where there are many dogwoods and we were looking forward to seeing how their blooms were. The smaller trees didn’t have any blooms left but some of the larger trees had blooms higher up. We reached Mirror Lake but the wind had come up and there were no reflections to be had, but we found a dandy spot to have our lunch.


As we were driving back, we could see that the non-native pink dogwoods along side of the Ahwahnee Meadow were in bloom, so we pulled over to get a closer view.

IMG_0136rGail took some closeup pictures of the blooms of this pink dogwood. And she took this amazing shot of Half Dome framed by the pink dogwood.

Photo by Gail Gilbert

Pink Dogwood Closeup (Photo by Gail Gilbert)

Photo by Gail Gilbert

Half Dome Framed by Pink Dogwood (Photo by Gail Gilbert)

There were also some beautiful white dogwoods in this area.

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If you are hunting for blooming dogwoods in Yosemite Valley, don’t wait too long as they are nearing the end of their showy blooming period but you may still find individual trees at this elevation with blooms.

Map and Profile

Mirror Lake Loop TopogMirror Lake Loop Profile


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

Mirror Lake Project Environmental Assessment 1996

Yosemite’s Historic Hotels and Camps Alice van Ommeren, 2013, Acadia Publishing

Guide to the Pioneer Cemetery (1959) by Lloyd W. Brubaker, Laurence V. Degnan, and Richard R. Jackson

The Last of the California Rangers (1928) by Jill L. Cossley-Batt

Yosemite Place Names Peter Browning, 1928

Yosemite Tales The Yosemite of Yesteryear – Part 4

Prior Blogs in this Area:

Leaf Peeping in Yosemite Valley October 23, 2014

Mirror Lake Loop Hike November 12, 2012

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