Wednesday, November 23, 2016

The End of Summer at Tenaya Creek

Date: September 18, 2016
Place: Yosemite National Park, California
Coordinates (of the Mirror Lake Trailhead): 37.739507, -119.560160
Length: about 5 miles (from the Mirror Lake Trailhead)
Level: easy

On the second day of my trip to Yosemite with my friends G, and Y, we woke up early enough to get going at a reasonable time. After yesterday's strenuous hike up Murphy Creek to May Lake, we were ready for something a bit easier. Both of my companions had not had enough of Yosemite Valley in previous visits I suggested we'd go there on our second day, take one of the common trails but continue it further than what is usually done when touring the park on a more general trip.
We departed our campsite early enough, but we had to drive the entire Tioga Road to get to the western side of the park.
on our way we stopped at Olmsted Point to take a look on Tenaya Canyon, its lowest part running right below Half Dome before merging with the Merced River. It was that lower part of Tenaya Canyon that I had planned to hike.
View south from Olmsted Point
After that short stop we continued driving west, not planning any more stops. We did, however, came upon a traffic jam, and I immediately knew what it was about and looked for a place to stop.
It was a bear jam. It had to be. No traffic jam would form for any other animal in the Sierra Nevada parks. A jam caused by a more sinister reason would not have all the excited people crowding the road shoulders, waving their cameras and pointing.
Within a few minutes we were also standing on the shoulder, straining our eyes to see the bear.
Bear Jam
I have visited Yosemite many, many times, but despite all the signs and warnings and all the local folklore, I have never seen a bear there. I held to the belief that Yosemite's bears are but a mirage that everyone else sees but me. I have seen bears plenty of times at Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, but never in Yosemite.
Last year I got to see my first Yosemite bear. It was a very thin mama bear with two cubs, along the road to Hetch Hetchy.
Now, for the first time, I got to see a bear in the main area of Yosemite National Park. I now believe that Yosemite's bears are for real :-)
Black Bear wearing a radio transmitter
Not three minutes passed since we had spotted the bear that a ranger came by, blowing his horn and yelling at everyone to get back into their cars. Satisfied, I obeyed the ranger's calls and made my way back to my car with my friend Y. On our way we saw the ranger run at the bear, yelling and waving his arms. The bear got the message and trotted heavily away.
We got to the car and found out that our friend G wasn't with us.
I remembered how concerned she was about the possibility of meeting a bear, to the point of insisting to sleep between Y and me. But there she was - striding happily towards us, wearing a huge grin and waving her phone - she had managed to film a short clip of the bear as it looked around.
When all the excitement was over we got into the car and continued the long way west and then south and entered Yosemite Valley.
We made straight to the eastern parking lot of what used to be called Curry Village and since my last visit there last January has been renamed Half Dome Village. From there we headed in the direction of Mirror Lake.
Our hike along lower Tenaya Canyon marked in yellow
We crossed the Upper Pines campground and continued to the trail and the bridge across the Merced River. On the way we made our first wildlife encounter on that hike - a very well fed ground squirrel.
California Ground Squirrel
Many other people were walking that village trail with us. some had asked for directions. None stopped to look at this pretty spider web illuminated by a ray of light that pierced through the pines.

There is a free shuttle that runs around Yosemite Valley. We took the shuttle one stop from the Happy Isles stop to the Mirror Lake stop, and continued on foot from there.
Mirror Lake lies between the North Dome and Half Dome about a mile before north of the merging point of Tenaya Creek and the Merced River. It used to be a year-round lake, a spectacle that was one of the main attractions to visitors of the Yosemite Valley. 
I wrote here before about the way to Mirror Lake, which is now seasonal. thinning down to a shallow, somewhat wider part of Tenaya Creek.
This hike we did in mid-September so I had no expectations to find a lake in the Mirror Lake location. I didn't expect, however, to find a dry gravel bowl. Not even a trickle of water was there. Nada.
I know it's seasonal but it was sad to see.
Mirror Lake
We sat for a few minutes, facing the dry lake. After that we continued north, somewhat lazily, along the trail on the eastern side of Tenaya Canyon.

Narrow groves of pine and fir trees lined the creek side and we were passing through intermittent sunlight. On one sunny spot sat a pretty butterfly and waited for me to take a photo before flying away.
California Sister Butterfly
At times the trail left the trees and the view opened up to reveal the lower Tenaya Canyon and the towering granite walls that close on it.

Except for the trees everything else seemed fairly dry and very still, under summer-fatigue spell, waiting for the rain and snow. A few hardy plants were blooming yet and naturally, I took the time to look at them, as closely as I could get without climbing out of the trail.
Cardinal Monkeyflower, Mimulus cardinalis
The reds dominated the flowering scene. In addition to the Cardinal Monkeyflower above (which was the first one I've seen in bloom) there were also a few shrubs of California Fuchsia in full boom, standing our in bright contrast with the pale granite rocks.
California Fuchsia, Epilobium canum
Although there was no serious slope to ascend the trail did go up in a steady grade that was mostly gentle, but every now and then it became steeper, with stairs. for the most part the trail on the eastern side of the canyon isn't too close to the creek, but it does, in places, get close enough to the dense riparian vegetation that lined creek.

After a good walk uphill along the edge of the vegetation the trail finally entered the shade of the trees again. Along with the pines and firs there were also many maple trees, wearing green still, yet looking very tired, that made part of the forest we were waling through.
Below the trees near the trail grew dense patches of horsetail - a plant of an ancient order that has evolved before the conifers and other higher plants did.

We reached another flight of stairs, this time leading down. We were finally descending to the creek itself and to the bridge that would take us from the eastern side of Tenaya Canyon to the west.

I have hiked this loop tail about 15 years ago with Pappa Quail, before we became Mamma and Pappam and before we knew the significance of the Quail to California. On that high we were like the wide eyed tourists, taking in the sights, but not photographing much. It was on that trail when we first saw our first western tanager bird. It was also the first time we've seen and American Dipper, and we were awed by the little gray bird which dived again and again in the rushing rapids under the bridge.
On this hike we saw no dipper. In fact, we barely saw any stream. A shallow and thin ribbon of water gleamed between the pebbles - the remains of a greater spring flow. I don't know if this trickle is normal for the fall season or if this is an outcome of the long California drought.
Tenaya Creek, view south from the bridge
The flow was low but lovely. It was the perfect place to have a nice, long break. We climbed down to the water and sat on the rocks, enjoying the afternoon sun. We had peace and quiet, for very few hikes made it all the way to the north bridge whilst we were there.
Water of Tenaya Creek
Eventually it was time to go. I was eager to finish the trail early enough to catch the sunset at the Tunnel Viewpoint to Yosemite Valley. We gathered ourselves, climbed back to the trail, and started downhill on the west side of Tenaya Canyon.
We were walking at a quicker pace now. The mild downhill slope made it easier to go faster. This side was closer to the creek and much more shaded. There were many pine and fir trees like on the east  side, but also broadleaf trees such as maple and poplar.
Some of the trees we saw there were marked with the activity of sapsucker birds.
Feeding wells drilled by a sapsucker.
For most of the hike we didn't get to see the creek itself. At the places where we got really close to it, however, the vegetation became thick and dominated by horsetail.
Horsetail, Equisetum sp.
Farther from the water the trail was dry and had much thinner undergrowth below the trees. The air fas still and no breeze came into the narrow canyon. Little lizards darted from under our feet. One stopped and and looked back at us.

The creek came back into view and we could see the narrow, brown stream flowing lazily through the sand sediments and piles of driftwood.
Tenaya Ceek
Fall time can be a very dynamic season but here it may not have truly started because everything seemed still and waiting. Leaves of deciduous plants were changing color, but not in an healthy autumn manner, but in spots and blotches indicative of fungus consumption.
Fall Maple
We came back to the Mirror Lake Area. The western side of the canyon has the best view of Half Dome from below.
Half Dome
As we approached Mirror Lake we came upon an interesting place: on a flight of stone stairs leading I don't know where there where many cairns built by I don't know who. Artistically speaking, the result was quite interesting and shrine-like, even pretty, but I'm not sure a National Park is the place for such a display.

From the west side there is an easy access to the lake bed, now a dry gravel bowl. We walked on the dry earth where there should have been water, and I wondered what had happened to the water we've seen earlier flowing down Tenaya Creek. Flowing under the gravel, I assume.
Mirror Lake sans water
We stayed for some time at the site of Mirror Lake, until the time came to finish our hike. Somewhat reluctantly we detached ourselves from this serene place and started down the paved road to the Mirror Lake trailhead.
There were many of people waiting for the shuttle at the Mirror Lake bus station. As we arrived there we saw a shuttle arrive and pass by without stopping: it was already jam-packed with people. We had no intention of taking the shuttle: its route is a one way loop, which meant we would have had to ride through the entire Yosemite Valley just to get to the one stop before Mirror Lake. So we crossed the road and continued on the dirt path that paralleled it on the west.
Along the way we encountered this lovely doe who didn't mind us at all :-)
Black-tailed Deer
There, along that path, I found one of the last remaining flowers of the summer.
Sierra Lessingia, Lessingia leptoclada
Less than a mile down the road we were once again walking along the flow of water - this time it was the Merced River into which the Tenaya Creek flows, when it flows.
Merced River

The Merced did flow, but very poorly compared to what I have seen in previous years.  I had expected that after finally having a good rainy winter there would be more water in the creeks there, but apparently the temperatures have been too mild and there was no good snow pack to continue feeding the stream through later in the year.
Merced Reflections
We made it back to the car and immediately took off to catch the sunset at the Wawona Tunnel Viewpoint, for that place is the best spot to see the whole of Yosemite Valley, in all of its majesty.
When I came to Yosemite for the first time I had arrived from the south, seeing the Valley for the first time from the Wawona Tunnel Viewpoint. I will never forget how amazed I was, and how awe-struck at that view, of one of the most breath-taking places in the world. I have never failed since to take there any of my visitors for whom it was the first time seeing this park.
Yosemite Valley was no less majestic last September, painted red and orange by the last rays of the setting sun. But it takes no expert to see that something was wrong there. That so many trees in that magical Valley were dead. From the drought, or from the attack of the boring beetle, I don't know. Either way it was sad to see.
Yosemite Sunset
We finished our trip to Yosemite. The long road home was still ahead of us, but we weren't so quick to leave - we had to make another round through the Valley to verify a few things that were on our minds before finally leaving towards El Portal and the way home. 
It was about midnight when I was back home, but the views and the feelings remained with me for a long while. For years I had been taking my mountain getaways in other places, wishing to avoid the crowds that hoard Yosemite's trails. This trip, however, had finally whetted my appetite to further explore Yosemite's backcountry. I made up my mind to enter the lottery for a Yosemite wilderness permit for next summer. I have one to several hundreds chance to get it. Keep your fingers crossed for me please!  


  1. Yosemite is a wonderful place, but probably more when there are water there...

    I'll keep my fingers crossed.

    1. The lake is now seasonal and we were there at the very latest of the dry season. I believe it'll be just fine soon after the rains get serious.