Wednesday, September 6, 2023

Dana Lake

Mount Dana and the Dana Glacier rise above Dana Lake
5.5 miles loop, 1800 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Strenuous, route-finding and rock scrambling required
Access: Paved road to trailhead, no fee required

Although Glacier Canyon and its chain of lakes are just a stone's throw from the Tioga Pass entrance of California's Yosemite National Park, this area of Inyo National Forest receives fairly little attention despite its stunning alpine scenery, which encompasses not only deeply colorful Dana Lake and four smaller lakes but also tumbling waterfalls, meadows, stark plateaus, and the remnant of a once-mighty glacier, all under the shadow of Mount Dana's majestic pyramidal peak. The trail is tough: the ascent from Tioga Lake up to Glacier Canyon is punishingly steep and there's no formal trail that leads across the steep scree slopes of Glacier Canyon to Dana Lake, meaning that scrambling and route-finding skills are absolutely essential. While an ascent up the canyon to the lake and back is the most straightforward path to Dana Lake, a loop return via the trail up to Dana Plateau makes for a more rewarding day hike. This isn't a hike for novices, but experienced hikers looking for a quiet and beautiful alternative to the bustling trails in Yosemite will enjoy this rocky hike to Dana Lake.

The entirety of this hike is at high altitude, with the trailhead at about 9800 feet above sea level and Dana Lake itself at nearly 11200 feet above sea level. Be on the lookout for signs of altitude sickness if you have not had time to acclimate prior to the hike.

While there is technically no fee to park at the trailhead, many hikers will arrive via Tioga Road from Yosemite National Park and thus will have to pay the Yosemite entrance fee. The only way to avoid paying the fee is to approach on Highway 120 from Lee Vining and not entering Yosemite National Park.

I hiked to Dana Lake during an early October visit to the Sierra Nevada, before Tioga Road closed for the year. The trailhead is deceptively simple to reach: it is simply a three-quarter mile drive east of Tioga Pass at the eastern entrance to Yosemite National Park. Hikers coming from the Central Valley should follow Highway 120 through Yosemite and will reach the Tioga Lake Overlook, a pullout on the right side of the road, shortly after crossing Tioga Pass. Hikers approaching from Lee Vining will find the pullout on the left side of Highway 120 as the road climbs up alongside Tioga Lake, but before reaching Tioga Pass. The trailhead has a pit toilet and enough parking for at least 20 cars. The trailhead is typically accessible between June and October most years, although abnormal snow conditions can shorten that window.

From the trailhead, I followed the unmarked trail that led downhill right behind the pit toilet. This trail made a short but steep descent through the forest and quickly dropped to the shore of Tioga Lake. Less than a hundred meters from the trailhead, the trail came out into the open and there were clear views of Tioga Lake with broad and rocky Tioga Peak rising across the lake; a pointed ridge of Mount Dana rose in front of the trail. 

Tioga Lake at sunrise
Three hundred meters from the trailhead, I crossed the inlet stream to Tioga Lake. At this point, I came to a wooden sign pointing the way to Dana Lakes and Glacier Canyon; I followed the sign, which soon led me into the forest and the ascent up to Glacier Canyon. After crossing the creek that flows out from Glacier Canyon, I began the uphill climb, which generally followed the creek and steepened the further up that I went. The steep and direct trail here was made slightly better by the very pretty cascading creek, which was often decorated with nascent fall color in the forest understory.

Creek in Glacier Canyon
After 750 feet of elevation gain over three-quarters of a mile since leaving the shore of Tioga Lake, the trail finally flattened out for a brief breather as it came to the lowest of the meadows in Glacier Canyon. Late in the season, the meadow was golden in the morning light and the impressive wall of Mount Dana rose above the canyon, although the summit of Mount Dana was not visible.

Meadows in Glacier Canyon
At 1.25 miles, the trail flattened out as I entered a long and flat, meadow-filled valley. From the edge of this elevated valley, I had spectacular views to the north of Mount Conness and North Peak.

View towards Mount Conness
The trail skirted the left side of the meadow in the valley and after about a hundred meters it turned left and began to head uphill through a talus slope. At this point, the established trail was heading for the Dana Plateau; to get to Dana Lake, I left the trail and continued traveling cross-country up the bottom of the valley. There was no established trail here and for the most part no clear social path, either; however, the path was fairly straightforward since I was just following the creek upstream.

At 1.7 miles, the flat meadows ended and I came to a talus slope at the treeline. The first of the Dana Lakes lay behind the talus slope. I scrambled up the loose rock and then trekked across an ensuing flat stretch of talus to reach the first of the Dana Lakes at about 2 miles into the hike.

Scrambling across a talus slope towards the first of the Dana Lakes
The first of the Dana Lakes (or Dana Lake No. 1) was small but had an absolutely stunning turquoise color: the color was more remniscent of glacier-fed lakes of the Northwest or the Rockies than of the more typically blue lakes of the Sierra Nevada. The color was indeed a result of glacial melt: the Dana Glacier lies above the main Dana Lake and melt from the glacier gives the Dana Lakes their unique and astonishing color.

Dana Lake No. 1
Dana Lake No. 1 was hemmed in on three sides by steep talus slopes. Reaching the other lakes required surmounting these slopes, which rose 250 feet above this first lake. At first glance, it was not too obvious what the easiest route would be; it was clear that no routes would necessarily be "easy" here. I chose to scramble up the slopes to the north of the lake, but in retrospect believe that this was a mistake: the upper stretches of this slope were quite treacherous and put me in a few positions with non-trivial exposure. It's likely that simply going up the slope at the far (east) end of the lake would've made the most sense and been easier, but as I did not follow that route, I can't vouch for it. I ended up having to do some Class 3 rock scrambling but I think it's likely that a Class 2 route exists up this talus. All I can say here is that the north wall felt like a bad choice once I was halfway up that scramble! 

Regardless, once atop this second talus slope, I headed east along a flat table of scree to reach Dana Lake No. 2 at 2.3 miles (mileages are estimates in the scramble portion as there is no set route). Dana Lake No. 2 was also quite small and shallow and had the same brilliant color of the first lake; additionally, Dana Lake No. 2 featured the first views of Mount Dana's great summit pyramid. Dana is the second highest peak in Yosemite National Park and it is the first 13000-foot peak of the Sierra Nevada when coming from the north. Dana's eastern face is extremely impressive but is typically not visible from any road-accessible area as the Dana Plateau blocks off views of the east face from the Mono Basin. This hike up Glacier Canyon to Dana Lake is a rare place to actually study this great rock face.

Mount Dana rises over the second of the Dana Lakes
I skirted the north side of Dana Lake No. 2 and then crossed a rocky isthmus between Dana Lake No. 2 and Dana Lake No. 3, which was very close by. I skipped over a closer look at Dana Lake No. 3 for the moment, instead climbing up the rocky moraine behind lakes no. 2 and 3 to head towards the main lake of the basin, referred to as Dana Lake No. 4 in some sources and alternatively just Dana Lake in others.

Once I was atop the spine of the moraine at 2.5 miles into the hike, Dana Lake came into view, nestled at the head of Glacier Canyon with Mount Dana's great east face towering above and the Dana Glacier cradled at the foot of Dana's cliffs. Dana Lake was much deeper than the previous lakes and thus had a much deeper blue color that almost appeared like a beautiful ink.

Mount Dana and Dana Glacier over Dana Lake
There were excellent views of the lake from the lakeshore already, but to get a clearer overview of the lake and the Dana Glacier, I chose to scramble up to a large boulder a hundred feet above the lake's northeast shore that had tremendous views of the lake itself, Mount Dana, and back out Glacier Canyon to Mount Conness.

Dana Lake
The Dana Glacier once filled the entire back of the basin at the head of Glacier Canyon and nearly reached down to Dana Lake when European American observers first documented the glacier in the late nineteenth century. It has since shrunk over 90 percent, with just a sliver of ice left at the base of Mount Dana itself. In the past few decades, it retreats further almost every summer, and the glacier is likely to disappear entirely in a matter of years, a victim of climate change. It is possible to continue scrambling southeast through the talus along Dana Lake until reaching the moraine at the toe of the glacier, but after so much scrambling to reach Dana Lake itself, I was in no mood for an extended hike across talus.

Dana Glacier above Dana Lake
After getting my fill of glacier and lake views, I retraced my steps down the moraine from Dana Lake to the isthmus between Dana Lakes No. 2 and 3. Here, I departed from the route that I had taken on the way up to complete a loop with the last two lakes and briefly visit the Dana Plateau. After crossing the isthmus, I followed the western shore of Dana Lake No. 3 scrambling along its rocky shoreline until I got to the northwestern corner of the lake.

Dana Lake No. 3
Dana Lakes No. 3 and No. 4 were sequential lakes in a shallow, rocky gully; once I passed the end of the third lake, I continued following the rocky gully for two hundred meters and reached Dana Lake No. 4 at just over 3 miles into my hike. Past Dana Lake No. 4, the gully opened up into a rocky shelf; I continued traveling down this relatively flat (though rocky) shelf until it ended at 3.3 miles.

At this point, the shelf merged into a steep talus slope that overlooked the flat meadows of Glacier Canyon that I had hiked through earlier in the day. The Dana Plateau rose above and to the right. Here, I had to cross scramble about a tenth of a mile across the steep talus slope, angling slightly upwards as I moved forward so that I ascended about 50 feet and reached the flat top of the Dana Plateau, at about 3.4 miles from the trailhead.

View back towards Mount Dana and the basin of Dana Glacier
Looking back from the rim of the Dana Plateau, I had a sweeping view down into Glacier Canyon. While I could no longer see any of the lakes, this viewpoint still allowed me to see the glacier at the base of Mount Dana.

I encountered the first trees that I had seen in hours on the plateau. I traveled north, heading in a direction perpendicular to the rim of the plateau. After passing through the trees, I came to a large and flat meadow, where I spotted the Dana Plateau Trail on the other side of the meadow. I crossed the meadow and finally rejoined a formal trail at 3.6 miles into my hike.

Trail across Dana Plateau
The Dana Plateau is a large and flat subpeak that is connected to the much higher Mount Dana; the trail heading towards the right led to the top of the plateau, while the trail to the left led back down to Glacier Canyon and the trailhead. While I've heard great things about the views of Mount Dana and Mono Lake from the Dana Plateau, I was short on time so I chose to head left and begin my return down to Glacier Canyon.

The trail stayed just briefly on the flat plateau before beginning its descent, dropping first gradually and then steeply down a rocky gulch. At the top of the descent, there was a unique view across the ridge of Gaylor Peak into the Yosemite National Park high country. I could see many of the peaks in the Tuolumne Meadows area, including Unicorn Peak in the Cathedral Range and Mount Hoffman and Tuolumne Peak.

View across Tioga Pass towards Mount Hoffman and the Cathedral Range
The descent became quite steep as the trail plunged about 500 feet downhill from the Dana Plateau to reach the meadows at the bottom of Glacier Canyon. At the bottom of the hill, now just over 4 miles into my hike, I came to the point where I had left the Glacier Canyon Trail in the morning to get to Dana Lake No. 1, closing the loop. The final 1.4 miles brought me down along the stream back to Tioga Lake and then the trailhead.

The hike to Dana Lake is an excellent High Sierra outing that sees limited visitors despite being so close to Tioga Pass and Yosemite National Park. I saw a handful of other hikers on my hike, almost all of them headed to Dana Plateau rather than the lakes. The necessity of some Class 2 to 3 rock scrambling and navigation skills means this hike is not for everyone. But those with the confidence and skills to tackle this hike will see some of the Sierra Nevada's most stunningly colored lakes and may have a chance to catch a once-great glacier before it takes its final bow.

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