Waterfalls, Lakes and Rivers

Lakes in Yosemite National Park

Among the most beautiful natural attractions in Yosemite are its pristine lakes. While many remote alpine lakes are seen only by backcountry hikers and backpackers, Yosemite also has some aquatic gems that you can either drive right up to or visit on a leisurely morning or afternoon hike with the kids. The following are just a few of our favorite lakes and reservoirs in the park.

Mirror Lake

Mirror Lake.
Mirror Lake. Photo by Kelly Bounchareune

An easy two-mile round-trip stroll from the valley floor, Mirror Lake (elevation 4,098 feet) is famous for its reflection of Half Dome. Your chances of capturing that photogenic image are best in spring and early summer, when the lake’s water levels are at their fullest. At other times of year, it may be look like little more than a marshy meadow, though the scenic backdrop of Half Dome still makes it worth a trip, especially if you’re an avid birder.

Tenaya Lake

Polly Dome (left) and Medlicott Dome (center) bordering Tenaya Lake in Yosemite.
Polly Dome (left) and Medlicott Dome (center) bordering Tenaya Lake in Yosemite.Dollar Photo

In the Sierra Nevada high country off Tioga Road, Tenaya Lake (elevation 8,150 feet) is a literally breathtaking sight. Ringed by craggy Sierra Nevada peaks, this is the largest natural lake in Yosemite National Park. The clarity of its waters, at the bottom of which you can see trees and granite rocks, is astounding.

Even in summer, the surface of the lake may be partially covered with ice, but that doesn’t stop swimmers from taking a dip or kayakers from paddling their way across the glassy waters. Just be careful to only enter the lake from sandy beaches or gravel beds, to protect the shoreline’s fragile riparian habitats. To get to the lake, take Tioga Road, which is usually only open from early June through mid-October.

Lakes Around Tuolumne Meadows and White Wolf

The Tuolumne Meadows highlands are dotted with many petite alpine lakes. West of Tenaya Lake, Tioga Road passes the popular trailhead to May Lake, just a 40-minute walk each way from the road. Backed by Mount Hoffman, it’s a favorite picnic spot for families.

May Lake with Mount Hoffmann Reflection
May Lake with Mount Hoffmann ReflectionPublic Domain

Starting farther west near White Wolf, the hikes to Lukens Lake and Hardens Lake are also popular for picnicking, plus swimming at the latter. Northeast of Tuolumne Meadows, Dog Lake is a three-mile round trip offering high-country peak views.

Backcountry enthusiasts have dozens more options to choose from, all leaving from Tioga Road, including the routes to Cathedral Lakes and Sunrise Lakes, the latter being a convenient stopover en route to Half Dome and Yosemite Valley. (Note that Tioga Road is usually only open from early June through mid-October, depending on the weather.)

Upper Catherdral Lake. Photo by Grant Ordelheide
Upper Catherdral Lake. Photo by Grant OrdelheideGrant Ordelheide

Hetch Hetchy Reservoir

Kolana Rock from Wapama Falls at the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir. Photo by David Krause
Kolana Rock from Wapama Falls at the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir. David Krause

Hidden in the far northwest corner of the park, Hetch Hetchy once resembled a miniature version of the Yosemite Valley, with waterfalls leaping off cliffs and grassy wildflower meadows carpeting the valley floor. Unlike the Yosemite Valley, however, Hetch Hetchy was intentionally drowned when the O’Shaughnessy Dam was built in 1923 to supply water and electricity to the San Francisco Bay Area.

The dam was built after many decades of political campaigning both for and against the dam, the latter forces led by influential conservationist John Muir. Today, the artificial reservoir at Hetch Hetchy is often the quietest place in the park, with its access road only open during daylight hours. Interpretive signs along the walkway atop O’Shaughnessy Dam tell about the history of the valley, including the controversial building of the dam itself.