Tioga Road, Yosemite National Park
Tioga Road is a 46 mile mountain road that peaks at nearly 10,000 feet at the Tioga Pass which happens to be the Tioga Entrance Station to Yosemite National Park. This is one of the most scenic drives in America and only open in season which is generally late May to October. It all depends on the snow. For those not really capable or interested in walking, this drive is perhaps more scenic than the Valley itself which does require a bit more effort to see its sights.
Stop at Olmstead Point for great views down into the Valley and is pretty much the midway point.
Tenaya Lake is a great place to stop for a picnic or just to soak in the beauty of this fair-sized mountain lake. This is just beyond Olmstead Point.
Tuolomne Meadows is an incredible scenic area on the Tioga Road. It is a great spot for contemplation and there are hiking trails originating in this general area as well.
While a lot of people don't equate California with beautiful fall colors, there are a few spots in the Sierra that can put up a nice display of turning leaves. One such area is just east of the Tioga Pass, along Hwy 120. There are several groves of aspens and other deciduous trees that line the highway area, and come September-October they turn a wonderful golden color. Easy hiking (mostly driving to the areas), but a good treat for those who are in the western part of the nation.
We were staying in Mammoth Falls the night before, so we were "forced" to drive this road. It's about 55 miles or so cutting straight across the park. The scenery here is phenomenal, with plenty of beautiful lakes, meadows, and mountains. We barely saw anyone else during this portion of our visit, a stark contrast to the Valley. It takes a little over an hour to see, but that's if you don't stop anywhere. There are plenty of turnoffs and wide shoulders where you can pull off and take in the scenery. You're well up into the mountains, so be ready for some brisk (but refreshing) mountain air. Keep an eye open for a long-distance view of Half Dome.
Please see my travelogue for addtional Tioga Road pictures.
Between Tuolumne Meadows and Dana Meadows, there are two very nice spots either near or above the Dana Fork Tuolumne River offering superb views. The first spot is not too far past Tuolumne Meadows, where you'll find a grassy area by the side of the Tuolumne River, with great views to Mt. Dana, Mt. Gibbs, and Mammoth Peak. A little farther on, a second, more open viewpoint has a view of a wide meadow on the Dana Fork Tuolumne River, with the Sierra and Kuna Crest peaks behind it.
From Ellery Lake, Hwy 120 makes a turn, and the whole scene changes. One moment, you see snowcapped peaks surrounding lakes; the next moment, the dry, arid, stark, but still beautiful Lee Vining Canyon. The byway begins a harrowing descent through this amazing and scenic section, with great views of surrounding granite peaks, waterfalls, cliffs, meadows, forests, and the Great Basin in the distance. Eventually the road reaches a Mobil Gasmart at the edge of Lee Vining; there you'll find a spur road that leads to an excellent view of Mono Lake. Nearby Lee Vining can be reached from the junction with US 395.
For more detailed information on these lakes, see my Lee Vining page.
From Tioga Pass, Hwy 120 (now the Lee Vining Canyon Scenic Byway) descends to the Tioga Lake Overlook, which has a good view of Tioga Lake from above. A bit farther down the road you'll find a parking lot with lakeshore access; the lake is very reflective and absolutely stunning. The byway continues downhill pass the Tioga Pass Resort, and then reaches the first turnout for Ellery Lake. Don't spend too much time here; just a little down the road you'll find another point of access for Ellery Lake, where the scenery is just as beautiful. Ellery Lake is an artificial lake made to exploit the water of Lee Vining Creek for the city of Los Angeles.
Tioga Pass lies 9945 feet above sea level, windswept, desolate, and beautiful. It is the highest automobile pass in the state of California, and one of the highest paved roads west of Colorado. Not only is the scenery amazing, but the fact that you can drive up to it is amazing, too. Mountains everywhere are covered by a blanket of snow; rocky, red peaks in the east contrast sharply with the western Sierra Nevada's grey granite mountains.
Just before you reach Tioga Pass, Yosemite National Park's boundary with Inyo National Forest, you'll come upon a small parking lot where you can walk a little ways to a small pool of water. It reflects the entire scene perfectly; and if you think the scenery around you is already magnificent, see it when it's multiplied by 2.
Not only are Lying Head, Mt. Dana, Mt. Gibbs, the Kuna Crest, Mammoth Peak, and Gaylor Peak visible; you can also see Tioga Lake in the distance, Lee Vining Canyon, and the mountains of the Eastern Sierra. Very few trees remain at this elevation; most of what's around you is meadow.
More beautiful than Tuolumne Meadows, Dana Meadows is just below the tree line near Tioga Pass. It is at an elevation of over 9500 feet and is surrounded by the soaring peaks of the Sierra Crest. The most impressive mountain is Mt. Dana, which towers over the meadow; Lying Head, Mt. Gibbs, Mammoth Peak, and the various snowcapped summits of the Kuna Crest can also be seen. When I was at Dana Meadows in late June 2006, the Tioga Pass Road was clear, but there was still up to 3 feet of snow on the ground on the meadow. There were also no wildflowers yet.
It was possible to walk onto the meadow when I was there, mainly because there was plenty of snow you could walk on; since I didn't see any trails (they were probably snow-covered, if there were any), I'm not sure if you can walk onto the meadow after the snow has melted.
Before coming to Yosemite, I read a lot about the hike up Lembert Dome, and all of it was good. Sadly, I didn't have the time to do the hike, since instead of spending four days at Tuolumne Meadows, I could only spend one (the closest lodgings were at Lee Vining, which is actually about an hour away).
Even from below, the dome is very beautiful. It is rather oddly shaped, but still attractive; from the Lembert Dome parking area off Tioga Road, you can see climbers making their way up the face of the dome. If you wander around the area near the base of Lembert Dome, you can get some views of the Cathedral Range.
Tuolumne Meadows was sort of a plan that failed for me; originally, I wanted to spend four days here hiking, but because of the 2006 snowpack, I spent about no time there hiking. The meadow itself didn't live up to my expectations (sort of muddy and yuck), but I arrived too early for wildflowers. What really surprised me was that a lot of the snow on Mt. Dana and Mt. Gibbs had all melted. Also, it was impossible to hike anywhere anyhow, since the meadow was literally a puddle of mud.
When we drove to the meadow, we were in for an unpleasant surprise; not only were the lodge and campgrounds not open, but the visitor center wasn't open, the general store wasn't open, and water and sewage weren't up yet (this meant that except for pit toilets, restrooms weren't open either). We only saw two rangers in the area around the meadow. The scenery was nice... but I really would've liked some wildflowers (which usually don't come until July).
Halfway through on Tioga Road, you'll come to Olmsted Point, one of the best views in the park. From here, you can see a stunning array of granite peaks and domes, including a side view of now distant Half Dome, Clouds Rest, Tenaya Peak, Mt. Hoffman, Tenaya Lake, Stately Pleasure Dome, and Mt. Conness. Climb onto the granite, where you'll find ancient Jeffrey Pines and glacier erratics scattered about. Watch for marmots, cousins of the woodchucks. You can easily identify them by their shrill whistle, which warns others when possible predators approach. There is the Olmsted Point Nature Trail that leads to a view of a sort down from the parking area; I did not take that trail, but instead, climbed the dome behind (north of) Olmsted Point.
If you head east on Hwy 120 (Tioga Road) from Crane Flat, you'll eventually (and soon) reach beautiful and tiny Siesta Lake; since it's right by the roadside, viewing requires just about no effort at all. More a pond than a lake, you can see good reflections of the surroundings when you're here in early morning. Siesta Lake is gradually silting up; eventually, it will become a meadow, and afterwards a part of the forest.
The Tioga Pass is the Eastern entrance to Yosemite National Park, connecting the park to Route 395, the major north/south road in Eastern California. Route 120 is the road which crosses the Tioga Pass. You get onto it from Route 395 at Lee Vining near Mono Lake. The Tioga Pass road is cut into the steep hillsides of the pass. A single guardrail separates you from a 2000 foot fall as you drive down the hill. The Tioga Pass is closed by heavy snowfalls for most of the year (October-May) due to its high altitude (9000 feet).
In order to arrive in Yosemite from the East, you must drive through Tioga Pass. With it's magnificent views of the Sierra Nevada Mountain range, it is very hard to keep your eyes on the road! But watch closely, you may even see a mountain goat clinging prevariously above your car.
The Tioga Pass.
The incredible place I remembered since I last saw it five years ago.
The best end for our visit to the Yosemite National Park.
This place is enchanted, so silent, so quiet.
The thin air here (about 9000 feet above sea level) requests you not to run or move fast or you'll remain without breath.
We stayed for a while here enjoying what is becoming more and more rare to find in this world: the silence.