Early morning reflections of Unicorn Peak, surrounding mountains and trees onto Elizabeth Lake’s glassy waters started our morning right. Wildflowers in all imaginable colors gave us quite the show along the trail, especially those pink one! And we had Nelson Lake all to ourselves!
Where: Yosemite National Park
Distance: 11.29 Miles (about 5 miles if you just go to Elizabeth Lake)
Difficulty: Moderate to Strenuous
Elevation Range: 8,649—10,194′
Date: July 26, 2013
Maps: Vogelsang Peak, Tenaya Lake
Highlights: Elizabeth Lake is such a beautiful Lake but since it is so close to Tuolumne Meadows, you usually see quite a few people up there. Not the case if you leave early enough, plus you get to see those glassy reflections on the lake before the wind causes some ripples. We experienced some smoke from the Aspen Fire but most of it had lifted by the afternoon when clouds started building. We saw many colorful wildflowers along the trail and couldn’t help ourselves to not stop and take some pictures. We had Nelson Lake all to ourselves and I also caught a nice 11 inch Brook Trout to boot!
The trailhead is located at the far end of the Tuolumne Meadows campground. We drove into the campground and as soon as you pass the entrance booth you’ll spot signs pointing you to the Elizabeth Lake trailhead.
This parking area has good bathrooms and bear-proof lockers where you can stash your snacks for your return. If you go all the way to Nelson Lake, trust me when I tell you that you will be needing those snacks and drinks after this workout.
The night before our hike, Tuolumne Meadows had quite the down pour and there were some puddles on the trail to cast nice reflections.
We started seeing some nice wildflowers along the trail, still with the water on them from the rainfall.
Elizabeth Lake did not disappoint us with those reflections. Yosemite National Park’s web page says that this lake is named after a geologist’s niece Elizabeth Crow Simmons.
After we left Elizabeth Lake, we headed up the meadow on a “trail” that doesn’t show up on the maps. After the rainfall the night before, the “trail” hardly showed up on the ground either. We had been up this way before but it had been a couple of years and we were able to follow the trail by double checking our GPS, map and lay of the land. If you aren’t comfortable with these skills, heading on to Nelson Lake may not be a good hike for you.
After going through the meadow, the “trail” climbs up the western side, then you head through “the notch”. As we approached “the notch”, we saw a little bit of snow still in a protected spot.
As you look south when you go through the notch, you can see the Cockscomb crest which is pretty dramatic. The “trail” became a little clearer as it followed down along upper Echo Creek along a valley floor, lush with many different colored wildflowers such as Lemmons paintbrush, little elephant head, pentstemon and red heather but those pink ones such as fireweed were the most prevalent.
About 2.4 miles south of “the notch” and after we passed a sandy spot in the creek, we left the trail, heading south east, skirting the toe of the granite ridge to Nelson lake.
We picked our way, taking the easiest path toward the lake. We crossed what looked like a rough trail that people had taken but we made our own route to the lower end of the lake. Nelson Lake is a very pretty lake, lined with grass and is named after William Henry Nelson, a ranger in Yosemite National Park from 1917 until 1936, and from 1943 until 1945.
We didn’t experience mosquitoes on this trip but have in the past. Even on this smoky day, it was beautiful and we had the place to ourselves.
I headed counter clockwise around the lake, crossing the outlet and did a little fishing while eating my lunch.
Gail Gilbert took this picture of a beautiful 11 inch Brook Trout that I caught.
As the thunderheads started building, we headed back. We wanted to make it back through “the notch” before they let loose. But we couldn’t help ourselves when we started seeing the different colored wildflowers along the trail. The butterflies and bees were very busy.
The high humidity made the climb out of Echo Creek tough, especially as we got to the steeper part toward the top.
Finally, back through “the notch!” Although we felt a few sprinkles and had gotten our rain gear ready, we didn’t need it.
Looking back through “the notch” to the south and where we came from.
Looking from “the notch” to the north and Tuolumne Meadows where the sun is peeking through the clouds.
I just love going to Nelson Lake and wonder why I don’t spend more time there. It is amazing that if you get off of the road in Yosemite, you can easily go to beautiful places where you have the place to yourself.
Yosemite National Park, A Complete Hiker’s Guide, Jeffrey P. Schaffer, May 2008