Few than one-quarter of visitors to Yosemite National Park make it further than Yosemite Valley. The valley is certainly a highlight of the park, and the place where almost all of the visitor’s services lie, but Yosemite is a large park and there are vast, remote areas of natural beauty everywhere.
One of the benefits to a visit in September (as opposed to May, when I usually do my National Park trips) was that the only road to cross Yosemite, The Tioga Road, was open, where as in May it would still have been closed by snow.
I left my comfy campsite before sunrise, as I knew I had a busy day planned, and had wanted to leave as much time available for photo stops along this incredibly scenic route. A few miles north of main valley junction, along Big Oak Flat Road, is the right turn onto the Tioga road. The road slowly gains elevation on the first stretch, passing through dense forests and passing pristine mountain streams. My first stop was at Olmstead Point, named for famous American architect Frederick Law Olmstead. At this view point, Half Dome, Yosemite Valley’s most notable feature can been seen in the south from a completely different angle.
The main difference I found driving this road, as opposed to some of the other high elevation roads I’d driven (such as Glacier National Park’s Going-to-the-Sun Road and Rocky Mountain National Park’s Trail Ridge Road) is that the Tioga Road, doesn’t seem to have as many white-knuckle stretches. You are aware you are driving at elevation, mostly above 8,000 & 9,000 feet, but there are fewer precipitous drop offs.
I stopped briefly at Tenaya Lake, a crystal clear, glacier-carved lake at 8,150 feet above sea level. It was one of John Muir’s favorite spots in the park. Filled with water by snowmelt, I knew it would be cold, and sticking my toes in briefly confirmed that theory.
High elevation roads are not only scenic, but they are exhilaration, and not just from the lack of oxygen. The skies seem bigger, and the air is so clean and fresh that smells seem to be amplified.
One of the main attractions of the Tioga Pass Road is Tuolumne Meadows area. High mountain meadows are a fragile and complex ecosystem. The NPS has one of it’s visitor centers located here, and this area is the starting point for many fine hike from elevations of 8,500 feet above sea level to over 10,000 feet above sea level.
Past the meadows, the road pases through Tioga Pass, at an elevation over 10,000 feet, the highest point accessible by road in the park.
As the road begins it’s eastern decent toward US Highway 395, it passes two pretty mountain lakes, Tioga Lake and Ellery Lake. Passing by Ellery Lake in September, there was still some snow left in the shaded nooks of the mountains the bordered the lake.
The Tioga Road is only open an average of 3 months per year. Visitor services are limited, and tend to close earlier than the road itself. If you can catch it on open during your visit, the drive is highly recommended.