Hiking the toughest trail out of the Yosemite Valley provided an outstanding workout but also treated us to some views of snow dusted Clouds Rest and Half Dome that you can see no other way. A bonus was the Merced River reflections on the way home!
Where: Yosemite National Park
Distance: About 12 Miles
Elevation Range: 3,993 – 6,763′
Date: November 1, 2013
Maps: El Capitan, Hetch Hetchy
Highlights: The Snow Creek Trail isn’t as popular as some of Yosemite’s other trails but once you get to the top, you have incredible views of Clouds Rest and you will feel like you can reach out and touch Half Dome. . .well almost.
While I was climbing, I was sure that the trail had about a million switchbacks, but information that I located later says that it only has about 100 switchbacks. I am sure they must be way off. 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.
Before we reached the parking area for our hike, we decided to make a pit stop at the restrooms by the swinging bridge. We took a quick peek up and down along the Merced River to find misty reflections.
We parked at the Ahwahnee Hotel parking lot and took the high trail up towards Mirror Lake, then up the steep, switch back trail called the Snow Creek Trail. It was about 32 degrees when we started our climb but it wasn’t too long before we were stripping off layers and sweating pretty good. Personally, I wouldn’t want to hike this trail when it is hot. Photo by Gail Gilbert.
When we made it to the top, we were talking and not paying the attention that we should have and walked a little too far, past our cross country cutoff to Snow Creek Point. But it was all good because we saw some beautiful slabby rock and small waterfalls on Snow Creek.
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 emptying 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. It was much too dry for us to see it on this hike though.
We backtracked a little and walked through snow out to Snow Creek Point, where we found our lunch spot with a wonderful view of snow dusted Clouds Rest, Half Dome and if you walked out to the edge you could see the upper part of Yosemite Valley. The deciduous trees that were turning fall colors in the valley really stood out.
Someone had built this small rock monument but there was no sign of why.
Small patches of snow hugged the more shady areas around rocks and plants.
After our lunch, we took some pictures, then headed back down the steep switch back trail. Some of the tree covered parts of the trail were covered with leaves and very pretty. Photo by Gail Gilbert.
Once we reached flat ground, there was a portion of the trail that we just loved. In the spring, dogwood blooms put on quite a show and this time of the year, we had the fall colors to treat us. The afternoon sun backlit maples and dogwoods for us to try and capture their beauty.
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 as you can see from the picture of it on this hike, 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 might still be able to in a wet year when the water is high.
We took the lower trail on the way back, passing by what used to be Mirror Lake. If it weren’t for the sign, you may not know that you had arrived at Mirror Lake.
For comparison, here is a picture that I took of Mirror Lake on January 25, 2011.
As we drove home, we decided to make a quick stop along the Merced River to see what the afternoon reflections might have in store for us.
After my mom had seen these pictures, she asked if the trees grew upside down in Yosemite. Well, it sure appears that they did on this day.
We had a fantastic time on this hike. We really felt like we got in a good workout, but the icing on the cake was the gorgeous fall colors that we saw on the way out of the valley.
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