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The Out-of-valley Experience Iii : Tenaya Lake

September 30, 1990|Bill Stall

The largest of the many glacier lakes in sight, and the one with the finest shore scenery, is Tenaya, about a mile long . . . . All is bare, shining granite, suggesting the Indian name of the lake, Pywiack, meaning shining rock. . . . On the south side an imposing mountain rises from the water's edge to a height of 3,000 feet or more, feathered with hemlock and pine, and huge shining domes on the east, over the tops of which the grinding, wasting, molding glacier must have swept as the wind does today . . . . This is the most spacious and delightful high pleasure-ground I have yet seen. The air is keen and bracing, yet warm during the day; and though lying high in the sky, the surrounding mountains are so much higher, one feels protected as if in a grand hall. --MUIR

"My First Summer in the Sierra"

TENAYA NO LONGER is wilderness. A highway skirts the lake on the north, and where the ice-burnished granite gives way to a stretch of sandy beach on the western shore, there is a campground. On the afternoon of the Fourth of July, surprisingly, six or eight sites were empty and available. Campers sunned themselves; kids floated on plastic rafts. I swam the cold mountain lake, briefly, and wondered if John Muir had ever done the same.

The campground was silent and peaceful all night, and the mountain air was cool when I awoke at 5 a.m. and heated water for coffee. An hour later, no other humans had stirred, but a ground squirrel and a jay were out early in search of handouts.

The morning sun flashed golden on Tenaya Peak, which forms a wall on the south side of the lake--"dipping its feet in," as Muir wrote. The lake surface was still in shadow. Wisps of mist floated above the clear water like steam from a spa.

Tenaya is the heart of the granite range that stretches from Lembert Dome on the east to the great gorge of Tenaya Canyon, flanked by Half Dome and North Dome where Tenaya Creek enters Yosemite Valley. The names of the domes and other high country features roll from the tongue like lyrics to a mountain melody: Mariuolumne, Medlicott, Pywiack, Fairview, Clouds Rest, Tenaya and Tuolumne.

In the middle uplands back from the domes loom the peaks that once poked their spiky summits above the ice sheet that covered the region: Cathedral, Echo, Unicorn, Ragged and Hoffmann. And beyond them, along the perimeter of the park, are the higher mountains of the Sierra crest, where some of the remnant glaciers first discovered by Muir still can be found hiding deep within the cirques. On either side of Tenaya Lake's canyon are the other two great gorges sculpted by the ice and the high-country waters, the Tuolumne and the Merced.

Seen from the top of Mt. Hoffmann, Tenaya Lake is folded into a dark hollow within the shining rock domes. Walking Tenaya's granite banks in the sunshine, however, is like strolling beside a luminous lake in the sky. The shiny whiteness of the glacier-polished rock radiates the light with special intensity, reinforced by the reflections from the water. At higher elevations, Sierra peaks are jagged and broken. Around Tenaya, there are no harsh lines. All is rounded, smooth and graceful, complete and contained.

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