Driving / Roads, Yosemite National Park
As the URL below notes, the carrying and use of chains by all vehicles, including rentals and those with all-weather tires, can be required at any time there is snow or ice. This can occur both on the road to the Park and within the Park -- decisions on use of tires are made independently. In other words, you may be allowed to drive to the entrance of the Park without chains, but not be allowed to enter.
Two things to realize: the word "required" means "required," and the words "No exceptions" means "No exceptions." Neither the California Highway Patrol nor the National Park Rangers will allow you to violate their decisions on the use of chains, so don't waste your breathe disputing them!
Weather in the Sierras can change very drastically, very quickly, very unexpectedly -- driving conditions can go from perfectly clear to blinding, icy snow in a matter of hours, and without any warning. If going to Yosemite during the winter, you should carry chains even if the forecast is for no precipitation.
If you arrive at a chains checkpoint without the mandatory devices, there will inevitably be dealers who will "help" you by renting you chains at an exorbitant price. Why do they do this? Because they can!
I earlier suggested buying chains and then returning them for a refund if you don't need them. I have since found out that this may not be possible, as auto supply stores have caught on to people doing so! If you buy chains, they are yours to keep. What do you do with them afterwards, if you don't use them to get into the Park? I have no idea!!
Buying chains as you leave the airport may or may not be more than the price to rent them as you get to Yosemite. Just remember: the closer you get to being absolutely required to have chains, the more likely you are to suffer extortion prices.
Highway 49 provides access to the south entrance of the park from Fresno and Oakhurst. Highway 140 allows access to the Arch Rock entrance from the west in Merced and Mariposa. Highway 120 enters the park from the northwest at the Big Oak Flat entrance and provides access from Manteca. Highway 120 provides the only access to the park from the east. It hits U.S. 395 in Lee Vining about 9 miles east of Tioga Pass. The highway is closed between Tioga pass and Crane Flats during the winter.
NOTE: (Updated 9/4/06) Highway 140 between Mariposa and the Arch Rock entrance of Yosemite is now open 24 hours a day. The actual roadbed is still buried under rock from the massive rockslide that continues to be active, but two temporary bridges now allow for passage around the slide. Only one way traffic is allowed through the detour, alternating between westbound and eastbound in ten minute intervals. Thus expect some delays. Vehicles over 28 feet in length are not allowed.
It is time to leave the park. I planned to go over the Sierra Nevada by taken the Tioga Pass. Unfortunately the Tioga Pass was still closed. I had to make a big detour to get over the Sierra Nevada. I had to go a long way to the north to Lake Tahoe, it was the first available pass I could cross. But I had to hurry, that pass could be closed at any time because it was snowing a lot in the mountains.
As soon as I got out of the park the sun started shining. I had a lot of miles to go, but who cares in this kind of weather :-)
Okay, in California, the best way to get around is in a convertible! Pictured here is my Volkswagon Cabrio. The location of the photo is in front of the Larkspur Ferry Terminal, not far from where I live. The car was 4 days old, and just about to go on its first road trip, to Yosemite! For the entire trip, the only time the top was closed was when the car was parked for the evening.
Make sure to keep sunscreen, towels and bottles of water with you when you go on a long, convertible road-trip!
In April you should be faily safe regarding snowless driivng Highway 140 to Yosemite, it is the lower elevation route.
The valley floor and sites are also clear unless a freak storm. Coming up highway 41 from the south goes of chinquipin pass which can have snow sometimes. If you are there during precipitation, the glacier point road also may be snowy/icy.
The Tioga Pass road is beautiful, but does not open until May (Labor day) most years.
The shuttle bus in the valley is free and very good. It gets you within walking distance of the main valley features. Check with the hotel about getting their transport to the valley floor.
State Route 120 is the only route through Yosemite National Park. From the west it provides the northern entrance from Manteca through a few small towns includign Goodland. This route is scenic and relatively fast except for one section just west of Groveland where the road has a mess of switchbacks, hairpin turns, and bad drivers. Get behind a camper or two, and this section of road would be treacherous. Just before entering the park from the west, you can turn off to Hetch Hetchy Reservoir and the northern edge of Yosemite. After entering the park via 120 at Big Oak Flat, you can continue on to White Wolf, Yosemite Creek, and Tuolumne Meadows. Your other option from the west is to take Big Oak Flat Road into the Yosemite Valley.
From the east Hwy 120 enters Yosemite from Nevada through the Tioga Pass Entrance. Many facilities along this route are open only during the summer, so winter visitors continue on to Yosemite Valley.