This article explores the Tioga Road and Tuolumne Meadows area of Yosemite National Park!
And, let’s not forget that we also took a good look at the best features of the park from Glacier Point.
Today, I want to take you through one of the less-visited gems of the park: the Tioga Road.
If you are not fond of crowds (and, let me tell, Yosemite is known for crowds), this is the place for you.
About the Tioga Road
The Tioga Road (Highway 120) offers a 47-mile scenic drive between Crane Flat and Tuolumne Meadows. The road meanders through forests, meadows, lakes, and granite domes. What can be seen there is a feast of the eyes (and soul)!
The area is easy to access and offers top-notch services (in terms of facilities, signaling, and ranger coverage). Now, for some reason, it only gets a small fraction of the overall park visitors. I have visited during holiday weekends. While it is impossible to find a parking spot in the Yosemite Valley, the Tioga area is basically desolated.
Therefore, it is the perfect place to spend some leisure time far from the crowds. I assure you are going to end mesmerized by the views you are going to find here.
Here are some things to take into consideration before venturing to this part of the National Park:
- This is considered Yosemite’s High Country. To place things in perspective, the Yosemite Valley is located at 4,000 feet above sea level. At the Tioga Road, you are going to reach altitudes of over 9,000 feet.
- Because of the altitude, some people experience mild altitude sickness or shortness of breath.
- Also, keep in mind this area is way cooler than the lower elevations in the park. Dress accordingly (in layers and carry a jacket).
- The drive time from the Yosemite Valley to the Tuolumne Meadows is 1.5 hours.
It is now time to explore the Tioga Road.
How to Access the Tioga Road
Access to this part of Yosemite Park depends on your starting point.
If you are staying in the Yosemite Valley, you have to drive west and take the Big Oak Flat Road. That road will connect you to Highway 120.
If you are coming from outside the park, the most direct way to access the Tioga Road is from the Big Oak Flat Entrance.
However, a lot of people enter the park through El Portal Entrance. Visitors tend to spend the night within close proximity to that entrance. If that is your case, you will have to enter the park, drive towards the Yosemite Valley, and connect with the Big Oak Flat Road.
If you are staying in the Eastern Sierra area (Mammoth Lakes, June Lake, Lee Vining), you can access the Tuolumne Meadows by climbing the Tioga Pass. This is not an option during winter and spring (the road is closed).
A free shuttle connects the Yosemite Valley with several points along the Tioga Road
There is another shuttle that takes people from Mammoth Lakes and June Lake to this part of the park.
The Tioga Road: What to See and Do
The recommendations in this article are for those who want to take it easy and/or are traveling with family. I am presenting you with an auto tour with plenty of stops and some easy walks/hikes. Most of my suggestions can be tackled in a day.
At the end of the article, I will present more ideas for those who want to spend more than a day in the area, are repeating visitors, or are hiking enthusiasts.
If you have never experience the majesty of giant sequoias, well, this is your lucky day.
The Tuolumne Grove, home to a decent number of old-growth trees, can be accessed through a 2.5 miles loop. The hike is considered easy even though the way out has some elevation gain.
This is a golden opportunity to see these trees unique to the Sierra Nevada. Just keep in mind the stop (and hike) can take up to 2 hours.
This lovely alpine lake makes a great photo stop or a lengthier stop for swimming. The water will be cold!
Yosemite Creek Picnic Area
This shaded area equipped with tables, chairs, and restrooms makes a good stop to rest, have a snack or explore the Yosemite Creek.
This turnout was named in honor of landscape architect, Frederick Law Olmstead, and his son when the Tioga Road opened to automobile traffic in 1961. Olmstead is considered the father of American landscape architecture and best known for his design of New York’s Central Park. He was the chairman of the first commission to manage the Yosemite Valley and Mariposa Grove and wrote a report recommending policy for the care and protection of the park’s scenery and wildlife.
The point affords views of the back face of Half Dome and the mass of granite surrounding it. You can see this symbol of the National Park from the parking lot area. However, if you walk 0.3 miles, the views get better.
With the correct camera zoom (or with a telescope), you can see people ascending the top of the dome through the cables.
In the other direction, you can see Tenaya Lake. Do you see the water in the next picture?
Maybe you can see it better now.
Also, this is a good area to take a look at glacial erratics. These are pieces of rock that differ from the size and type of rock native to the area in which they rest. They were carried over long distances by glacial ice.
There are a lot of them all around Olmstead Point.
For many, this is the most beautiful lake in Yosemite National Park. It was formed by glacial action and named after a chief who lived in the area.
It is not difficult to see why this lake is a favorite to many visitors. Just take a look at how clear are those waters!
You can walk around the lake, spend some time in one of the two picnic areas or go for a swim. The “beach” area is located on the eastern side of the lake. Non-motorized aquatic activities such as paddle boarding, laying or canoeing are allowed too.
I saw several people camping on the shores. It would be awesome to wake up to those gorgeous views.
We saw a lot of people climbing on the rocks located east of the lake. The area is popular with climbers because of the lake views from above.
Tuolumne Meadows is a large, open sub-alpine meadow graced by the winding Tuolumne River and surrounded by majestic peaks and domes.
The area is surrounded by domes with names such as the Pothole, Lembert, and Fairview. Some of these rocks can be climbed (and they are apt for all ages).
The meadows can be explored through a 2-mile loop. Please do not venture off these trails in order to protect this fragile ecosystem.
It is said that meadows are the best areas to see deer. And, guess what? We saw two of them not that far from us. They passed meters away from two ladies who were walking around.
Parsons Memorial Lodge
The Parson Lodge is the place where John Muir and Robert Underwood Johnson developed the idea of protecting what is today’s Yosemite National Park for posterity.
In the vicinity, you will find, Soda Springs, a spot where carbonated, cold water bursts out of the ground. In addition to witnessing the phenomenon, visitors can enjoy several exhibits detailing the history, flora, and fauna of the area.
You need to walk 0.75 miles (1.5 miles round trip) to reach the lodge.
Hiking to the top of the famous Half Dome is not an easy feat. But, those of us who are not expert hikers can still brag about climbing a granite dome in the park
The top of Pothole Dome can be reached by a 2.5 miles (roundtrip) trail. Since the elevation gain is 250 feet, this is considered an easy trail So, it is the best option to conquer a dome while having the opportunity to enjoy great views of the surrounding area.
.The top of Lembert Dome can be accessed through a 2.8 miles (round-trip) trail. The hike is steep but considered moderate (it can be completed by less athletic types). You can combine this hike with Dog Lake for a total 4-mile (round trip) loop.
Tuolumne Meadows Visitor Center
This is the place to visit to learn all about the Tuolumne Meadows. In addition, you can get information about ranger-led programs and other activities.
The nearby Tuolumne Meadows Wilderness Center is worth a visit too.
Tioga and Ellery Lakes
These two lakes are located outside the National Park. Once again, these are great spots for photos, picnicking and light walks.
Tioga Pass Road Valley View
The Tioga Pass is the highest highway pass in California and in the Sierra Nevada. It reaches a maximum altitude of 9,943 ft or 3,031 m.
By driving east from the Yosemite Valley to the Tuolumne Meadows, you are gradually gaining altitude until you reach the maximum elevation close to the eastern entrance (or exit) of the park. Once you exit the park, and after you have driven a few miles, you are going to see the sharp eastern Sierra descent.
Have to admit it is a very pretty view but, for people with a fear of heights (like me), this pass is a true nightmare.
There is a parking lot from where you can admire the view.
If you are staying in the western part of the park, it is time to turn and go back. Or, you continue to reach US-395 and Mono Lake.
Have to admit it is a very pretty view but, for people with a fear of heights, this pass is a true nightmare.
The road continues until it reaches US-395 and Mono Lake.
Tioga Pass Hikes
After providing details on how to explore the area by car, here is a list of trails that will allow you to explore on foot. You will notice a pattern here. Yes, most of the hikes take you to lakes (but the scenery is quite different).
Lukens Lake – Easy, 1.5 miles roundtrip hike (1 to 3 hours)
May Lake – Moderate, 2.5 miles roundtrip hike (2 to 4 hours). Consider combining the hike to the lake with Mount Hoffman (a granite dome). The combo has a length of 6 miles roundtrip.
Sunrise Lakes – The trail takes hikers to three lakes. To reach the first one, you have to walk 6.4 miles (roundtrip). Reaching the three lakes will take 8.8 miles of walking.
Cathedral Lakes – Chances are that you have seen pictures of these lakes. The picture of Lower Cathedral Lake with Cathedral Peak in the background is a classic. It is 7 miles to the Lower Lake and 8 miles (roundtrip) to see both lakes. This is a popular trail. Therefore, expect to bump into lots of people.
Elizabeth Lake – Moderate, 3.6 miles roundtrip hike (2 to 3 hours)
Gaylor Lakes – Moderate, 3 miles roundtrip hike (2 to 5 hours)
In addition, there are some awesome trails outside the park (past the Tioga Pass Entrance). You can consider the Gardisky Lake and Saddlebag Lake Loop Trails.
Another funs and unique option is to take a boat across the Saddlebag Lake (from the Saddlebag Lake Resort) and explore the 20 Lakes Basin.
Tioga Road Camping
I am a big fan of camping! That is why I need to include the camping options in this area of the park. I believe spending a night or two around is a bucket list experience. I mean, Yosemite is magical!
Some campsites allow advance reservations while others operate on a first-come, first-served basis.
Tuolumne Meadows – Over 300, half of the sites are on the reservation system, check availability here.
Yosemite Creek Campground – 75 sites, first-come, first-served
Porcupine Creek Flat – 52 sites, first-come, first-served
Tamarack Flat Campground – 52 sites, first-come, first-served
Campgrounds outside the park include Tioga Lake, Junction, Sawmill, and Saddlebag Campgrounds.
Stop by the Tuolumne Meadows Visitor Center to get more information about the area and the park in general.
There is a cafeteria and general store a mile away east of the Visitor’s Center.
It is a good idea to pack snacks and drinks for the day.
Restrooms are located at several points through the road. Bring your own toilet paper (just in case) and hand sanitizer.
Do not attempt any of the dome hikes if see rainy or stormy weather. Granite is an excellent electricity conductor. A lighting strike while over that type of surface can be lethal.
The Tioga Road is generally open to vehicles from late May or early June through sometime in November.
More of the Area
If you want to explore more of Yosemite National Park, check out the following articles:
There is more to explore in the Eastern Sierra area.
Would you like to drive Tioga Road?
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