Mirror Lake Hike…
The Mirror Lake Hike is about a 2 to 5 mile hike depending on how you take it. Part of it can be traversed on a bike, but not all the way around. Hiking to the lake and back makes it a 2 mile trek with an elevation gain/loss of 100 feet. By hiking all the way around the canyon, it is a 5 mile haul and an elevation gain/loss of just short of 200 feet.
It is an easy hike by almost any account. It is not, totally, wheel chair friendly, but it is paved most of the way to the lake. Even if you take the trip all the way around the canyon, the gain/loss is less than 200 feet. It is scenic.
When I took this hike (April of 2002), it was showing signs of “meadowing.” Though it was early in the season, the lake was low and grasses where popping up. It didn’t look so some much like a lake as it did as a swamp (albeit, a scenic swamp).
As I rounded a corner, I saw a tree stump that looked like it was guarding the lagoon.
The “lake” (which is more like a swimming hole) is not natural nor is it a remnant of the park’s glacial history. It is the consequence of somewhat frequent rockslides that dams up Tenaya Creek at some point or another and a “lake” is created. Because the canyon walls protect the lake from wind, the surface stays placid (at least, in the morning hours) and it affords some nice reflections, most notably that of Mount Watkins.
Because of this feature, the lake was “maintained” by dredging the lake of a natural silt build-up and the water from the lake would be used to make ice. In later years, the silt was used within the valley to “salt” the roads for winter travel. This practice was started in the early 1880s and discontinued in 1971 for conservation reasons. It was decided to end the practice of dredging the lake and let nature take its course.
This means that year after year, the “lake” gets smaller. It is expected to be gone, altogether in, maybe, ten years. But what IS happening is that every spring, with the snow melt, the lake (pond, swimming hole, mud puddle, whatever) is re-created because the rockfall is still there. Because the dredging is no longer taking place, it is beginning to silt up so that each season the “lake” is shallower than the season before and not quite as big around. The anticipation is that eventually, it will just be the creek and no pond as the silting up will leave “Mirror Meadow” (for the lack of a better term). That will be, almost immediately, followed by grasses and eventually trees. All of this is in an attempt to let nature be nature.
Okay, okay, okay. Soap Box time. I get that. But, I wonder if Nature for Nature’s sake is always a good thing. It is Nature that gives purification that smell. It is Nature that killed the dinosaurs. It is nature that allowed the microbes from the ancient earth to breathe the primordial atmosphere of methane, expelling that toxic, gas, Oxygen, and “polluting” it beyond their ability to survive.
Don’t get me wrong. I am not against nature. Nature has done some marvelous things, not the least of which is Yosemite as a whole. I’m just saying that part, no, MUCH of our goals in life are centered around protecting ourselves FROM nature. I don’t see anything wrong, at all, in trying to “push back sea”, just a little.
I can’t help wish they would start dredging again. Mirror Lake has drawn tourists for well over 100 years. Why not preserve THAT aspect of the park? Not everything the park service does must come under the heading of “protecting nature.” Putting in trails does not protect nature; it stomps all over it. Continuing to dredge Mirror Lake is no different than cutting trails around a vista. We “violate” nature all the time. It is just a matter of degree. The silt that is dredged up can, once again, be used to cover the roads in winter rather than trucking in other gravel.
If it is left to fully return to a meadow, Mirror Lake will go away then the hike will be pointless. Well, let me amend that. No, the hike is not pointless. But it would be left as just a nice trail wondering around a creek that has no special reason to be visited. That would be too bad.
But, back to the point at hand. Mirror Lake won’t be there forever. You should put the hike on your must-do list sooner than later.
 Mt Watkins is named after Carleton Watkins, an early Yosemite photographer who first shot this scene.