Leisurely Hikes in Yosemite

Tuolumne Meadows to Nelson Lake
Soda Springs in Tuolumne Meandows, a field amidst the mountains
Soda Springs in Tuolumne Meadows, a field amidst the mountains
Distance : 11.8 miles.
Type : Out and back trip.
Best season : Mid or late.
Topo maps : Tuolumne Meadows, Vogelsang Peak.
Grade (hiking days/ recommended layover days) :
Leisurely 2/1
Moderate 3/0
Strenuous Day.
Trailhead : Tuolumne Meadows Campground (26).

This interesting and varied route visits the scenic Elizabeth Lake basin and then crosses the serrated Cathedral Range to Nelson Lake. No trail route offers finer views of those geologic wonders called Unicorn Peak and the Cockscomb. Open, meadow-fringed Nelson Lake makes a pleasantly fitting end to this exciting trip, and anglers can look forward to good brook-trout fishing on the placid waters of this subalpine gem.

Trail Description (Leisurely trip)

1st Hiking Day (Tuolumne Meadows Campground to Nelson Lake) 5.9 miles. To reach the trailhead, walk to the Group Camping Section of the Tuolumne Meadows campground, where the trail begins across from a masonry building. In a few hundred feet we cross the Tenaya Lake/Lyell Canyon Trail and then continue a steady southward ascent. The shade-giving forest cover is almost entirely lodgepole pine as the trail crosses several runoff streams that dry up by late summer. More than a mile from the start, our route veers close to Unicorn Creek, and the music of this dashing, gurgling, coldwater stream makes the climb easier. When the ascent finally ends, the hiker emerges at the foot of a long meadow containing Elizabeth Lake, at the foot of striking Unicorn Peak.

Past Elizabeth Lake, the meadow gives way to a moderately dense forest cover of lodgepole interspersed with mountain hemlock, and the trail climbs, steeply, then moderately, and steeply again. A few hundred feet before you reach the ridgecrest, you come to a late-lingering snowbank where the trail splits. If you go left, you will pass through a narrow gully between granite walls. If you go right, you will walk up a bare granite-sand slope. We recommend that if you have a full pack, you take the right trail going to Nelson Lake and the left one returning, because of some steep places on the left trail just beyond the crest.

Because of the close proximity of the Cockscomb, about 1 mile due west, the hiker has excellent views of that knifelike spire from just beyond the left pass. Well-named by Frangois Matthes, this slender crest bears clear marks of the highest level reached by the ice of the last glacial episode. Its lower shoulders reveal the rounded, well-polished surfaces that betray glacial action, while its jagged, sharply etched crest shows no such markings. Further evidence of glacial action may be clearly seen on the steep descent into the head of long, typically U-shaped Echo Creek valley. The shearing and polishing action of the ice mass that shaped this rounded valley is evident on the cliffs on the west side.

About 1/3 mile from where the trail split, and several hundred yards beyond the crest, the forks come together again on a steep, tree-dotted, ravined hillside. As our route descends along winding, clear, meadowed Echo Creek for about 2 miles, the valley floor is lush with wildflower growth. During midseason the passer-by can expect to see Davidson's penstemon, Douglas phlox, groundsel, red heather, lupine and swamp whiteheads. At the end of the second large meadow in this canyon, our trail leaves Echo Creek and veers east up a low, rocky ridge, undulating through sparse forest. We are almost at Nelson Lake (9605') before we can see our destination, meadow-fringed at the foot of imposing granite Peak 11357. Good campsites may be found on the southeast and southwest sides. Anglers will find the lake's waters good fishing for brook trout (7-11").

2nd Hiking Day. Retrace your steps, 5.9 miles.

View: Overview Map

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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