This is one of those awkward hikes that do not come back to where you began. Actually, most of them are like that. Well, I guess it could if you went out and back. But I’d rather not do that. I like my hikes to be down hill as much as possible. So you’ll want to use the buddy system and have a car at each end of the hike or take liberal advantage of the shuttle system. As always, click on the image for a better view of the picture.
So, let’s say, we’ll leave from Tenaya Lake. If you haven’t done it, you might start off by walking the perimeter of the lake. Or, more conveniently, walking the wooded shore from the picnic area (the other side is just Tioga Road, and you’ve probably seen the lake from that vantage point more than you can stand). This is an easy 1.5 mile section with an elevation gain/loss of, maybe, 50 feet (but, be advised, you are at 8000 feet to begin with[i]).
Once you arrive at the southwest end of the lake, you have two options for getting to the valley (well, actually, you have a near infinite variety of choices, but I’m only interested in two of them). One is to take the Cloud’s Rest trail to the foot of the Half Dome trail then continue down to Nevada Falls, Vernal Falls and to the Valley. The other option is to take Snow Creek route down to Tenaya Creek and Mirror Lake, then to the Valley. I’ll leave the Cloud’s Rest route for another time.
I have given the Snow Creek option this name as a matter of convenience. Snow Creek itself comprises only about 2 miles of the 9.5 mile trail. The trail that leaves Tenaya Lake is not named on the maps I see, but after about 7 miles the trail hooks up with the Snow Creek Trail. So, since Snow Creek is the only named trail, I used it here. The hike for the most part is comparatively boring, although there is a treat near the end. It follows Tioga Pass Road down below Olmstead Point, skirts north of Hidden Lake and north of Mt. Watkins. The elevation gain/loss along the trail is difficult to determine with the resources I have. For sure there is a net loss of about 4000 feet from Tenaya Lake to the Valley Floor more or less. Estimates vary on how long the hike is. They range from 9 to 11 miles. But I think the difference in these estimates is where it is considered the start and end of the hike is set. By my observation, it is about 9.5 files from the southwest end of Tenaya Lake to the Mirror Lake Loop. If you add the far side of the Tenaya Lake Loop, then call it 10 miles. If you add the jaunt out to view the Pywiack Cascades, add another mile. And hiking the Mirror Lake loop will add another mile or two.
There is an elevation gain of about 500 feet in the first mile and a half, but most of it (about 300 feet or so) is in the quarter mile past Olmsted Point and it all is taken back with in the next half mile. For the next couple of miles it is comparatively flat until somewhere just north of Mt Watkins. At that point it is pretty much all down hill. The terrain is treed.
Leaving from Tenaya Lake, you’ll be hiking within a few hundred feet of Tioga Pass Road. The going affords views of the upside of the road (to the right) and Cloud’s Rest on the left. There is a small elevation gain (less than two hundred feet) by the time you get even with (but just below) Olmsted Point. Then you will start a steady incline of about 300 feet until you reach the top of a ridge at about 1.5 miles into the hike. From the ridge, you may get a glimpse of Hidden Lake. Otherwise, the view will, again, be of Cloud’s Rest one way and the rocky exposure just below and to the west of Olmsted Point. These rocks show obvious evidence of glacial flow.
After the ridge, you descend down into a valley that is treed and comparatively flat. Your trek after the ridge will turn away from Tioga Pass Road and head southwest toward the Valley’s North Rim. You’ll pass to the north of Hidden Lake, but you will not be able to see it. The elevation in the valley is about 8100 feet; the elevation at the lake is 8400 feet. I am no geologist, but I suspect that if the lake was oriented such that you could see it, it would spill.
About a mile and a half farther, you’ll begin to ascend a small ridge (behind Mt. Watkins). When you crest the ridge you should be able to see a couple falls over in Tenaya Canyon. They comprise part of the Pywiack Cascades. It is not clear how much of the cascades you can see from here, but it appears that a short one mile out and back hike would get you to a better vantage point.
In the image from Google Earth, the red line in the lower left is the trail as it comes from Tenaya Lake. The yellow line is the projected route of a ½ mile out (and ½ back) to a ridge where you might get a better view of the cascades. This detour will have an elevation gain of about 70 feet
About a mile farther (with a general decline in elevation), you’ll come to a junction to a trail that heads back up to Tioga Pass Road. Take the fork to the left to continue toward the North Rim.
In 1.8 miles, you hit the junction with Snow Creek Trail. This trail starts from Tenaya Canyon and goes up toward Tioga Pass Road, but cuts around the back of Indian Rock and terminates at the top of Yosemite Falls. But we are going down Snow Creek Trail. For just a few hundred feet, we may be able to see Snow Creek before it flows on the far side of Basket Dome as our trail heads down the other side of the dome. The top of the switchbacks begins about a mile and a half from the canyon floor. When you get to the floor, you can beat feet to the right to head out of the canyon and back to the valley, or go to the left to continue the loop around and, possibly, see the Snow Creek Falls. Your best opportunity to see the falls (both Pywiack and Snow Creek) are in the late Spring or early Summer when there is still snow melt feeding these tributaries.
The following elevations are extrapolated from Google Earth[ii] and I cannot vouch for the accuracy of my extrapolation, so, with a grain of salt…
Trailhead at Tenaya Lake 8169
½ Mile 8175 .5 Miles +6
Olmsted Point 8355 1.25 Miles +186
Top of the Ridge After Olmsted 8520 1.5 Miles +451
North of Hidden Lake 8179 2 Miles +10
North of Mt Watkins (Up slope) 8261 3.25 Miles +92
Junction 7723 5.5 Miles -446
Junction w/Snow Creek 6781 7.3 Miles -1388
Top of Switchbacks 6547 8 Miles -1622
Junction with Mirror Lake Trail 4139 9.4 Miles -4030
This hike is attractive to me because it is comparatively easy with regard to elevation change. And, as it happens, there is a nice waterfall view. In fact, it looks so compelling for me that I think I could tackle it alone. But I won’t. Alas, I think it would be foolish to take on any trek out of the public eye that is over 4 miles in length.
So I pine for a partner.
[i] Yeah, I know, you shouldn’t end a sentence with a preposition. So, about this, “…you’re at 8000 feet to begin with, Dude.”
[ii] I have taken the liberty of augmenting some screen shots created of Google Earth. But you would probably want to use your own copy of Google Earth to explore for yourself. On my copy, the red trails are provided by Google Earth, itself. The yellow is my augmentation. You can, as of this writing, download Google Earth for free, from http://www.google.com/earth/download/ge/agree.html. You will also want, handy, a topo map of the area.