Photographing Tenaya Lake, Tioga Road, Yosemite

Ray Anderson - travel photographer and writer, living in the Sierra Nevada foothills
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Latitude: 37.834179 Longitude: -119.461417 Elevation: 8188 ft
the best travel advice comes from the people who live here
Ray Anderson


"Up and away to Lake Tenaya, another big day, enough for a lifetime.  The rocks, the air, everything speaking with audible voice or silent; joyful, wonderful, everlasting, banishing weariness and sense of time.  No longing for anything now or hereafter as we go home into the mountain's heart."         John Muir - "My First Summer in the Sierra"

Located next to Tioga Road, 32 miles east of Crane Flat, is Yosemite National Park's largest lake - Tenaya.  Named in 1851 after Yosemite Ahwahneechee Chief Tenaya by the Mariposa Battalion, who protested the lake already had a name, Pie-we-ack, meaning "Lake of the Shining Rocks".

Full Explanation

The Tenaya Glacier created the Lake and other Yosemite features  like Half Dome during the early Ice Age.  At its peak, the Glacier encompassed 140 square miles and was 2,200 feet deep at nearby Tuolumne Meadows.  The principle water inlet and outlet to the Lake is Tenaya Creek, flowing west from Cathedral Lakes and departing the Lake through Tenaya Canyon, descending into Yosemite Valley.

The Tenaya Campground on the shore of the Lake was closed in 1992, due to overuse of the fragile shore line and septic system failure.  Today the adjacent parking area off Tioga Road is a good beginning spot for day users by following the hiking trail with numerous photo scenic opportunities of granitic domes surrounding the Lake.  To the north is Polly Dome at 9,790 feet high, and to the east, Tressider Peak at 10,600 feet.  At the Lake's east end is a beach ideal for photographing sunsets, or enjoying water sports - kayaking, canoeing, and sailing.  No motorboats permitted.

Hiking with camera is popular.  The designated trail to the east goes to Cathedral Lakes, and the longer and more strenuous trail to the west heads for Clouds Rest and Half Dome.  Tenaya Canyon a steep and treacherous descent to the west looks spectacular, but hiking is not advised due to the dangerous slick slopes and poor footing.  A fall here could be fatal.

Utilizing polarizing and neutral density filters for photography is advisable due to the intense sunlight.  Early morning and sunset times are usually best for subdued lighting.  Storm clouds can also provide more photographic opportunities with varying light and shadows enhancing the geological features.

Because of the lack of lodging, camping is a good alternative, and closer access for sunrises and sunsets.  Porcupine Flat campground is located on Tioga Road, 16 miles west of Tuolumne Meadows.  It has 52 spaces with a maximum RV length of 24 feet, no reservations.

Currently Tenaya Lake is undergoing an Environmental Assessment due to its popularity and over use.  The favorite recommendation is to remove paths and trails through the sensitive ecological areas.  Maintain a trail between East Beach and Murphy Creek, and Sunrise trailhead.  Include informative signs assisting the public to stay within the designated trail.  Public support of protecting the environment is essential to restoring the Tenaya Lake area.

Reminder, Tioga Road is California Highway Route 120 and is usually only open late Spring until early Autumn. Check with the California State Department of Transportation - Caltrans to check if Highway 120 is open. Their road conditions may be verified by calling 1-800-427-7623, then request Highway 120. Or the highway condition may be checked via Caltrans internet site -

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