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Yosemite’s Tioga Road

Sami walking along Tenaya Lake off California 120

My favorite entrance to Yosemite National Park is consistently the eastern entrance, about 12 miles from Lee Vining on California 120, the Tioga Road. This road is in the High Sierra, and connects U.S. 395 to Yosemite National Park. The road continues west into the park and gives access to many fun landmarks within the national park.

There are four main attractions along Tioga Road. I am happy to say that we have done three-and-a-half, and have hopes that we will complete number four on our next park excursion. In this post, we’ll journey from east to west, starting at the Tioga Road Entrance.

The first stop on our trek is one of my favorite spots in the park, Tuolumne Meadows. I have written about Tuolumne before, in a past blog post. The meadows are in the High Sierra, with an elevation of about 8600 feet above sea level. It is an area of hydrologic importance. Three creeks feed the meadow’s store of groundwater, and the Wild and Scenic Tuolumne River flows through it. The river’s waters are so clean and clear, it is easy to see the river rocks beneath the surface. The waters also need only minimal treatment to make it ready for drinking.

Tuolumne River

We’ve visited Tuolumne Meadows on several other occasions. On our visit in 2019, Sami earned her junior ranger badge at the Tuolumne Meadows Visitor Center. There are a number of easy hikes that are kid-friendly, such as the hike to Soda Springs and Parsons Lodge. There are some fairly easy domes to hike as well. Pothole Dome and Dog Dome are just two that can be hiked close to Tuolumne Meadows.

Tuolumne Meadows as seen from CA-120.

Stop two on our journey across Yosemite is Tenaya Lake. This lake, located about seven miles from Tuolumne Meadows, is a popular swimming spot within the park. However as it is pretty far from the more crowded Yosemite Valley, in our experience, it has never been so crowded to detract from the experience. This alpine lake is the largest lake within the national park, with a surface elevation of 8150 feet above sea level. The water in the lake is clear and deep blue, with the forest and granite domes rising above it. If sunbathing is more your preference, there is a nice beach that is perfect for relaxing in the summer sun. There are also picnic tables at the east and west ends of the mile long lake.

The beach at the western end of Tenaya Lake

A swim in the lake was the main thing Sami had on her agenda for this trip. She had been looking forward to a swim in another alpine lake, and this time around, we finally remembered to bring our towels. The water was as cold as would be expected, but after we got acclimated to the cold water, it was quite pleasant. The scenery, though, was what made the experience even more unforgettable.

The prettiest swimming spot on earth.

After swimming for about 45 minutes, I was worried that Sami would end up getting hypothermia. Of course, my little polar bear was fine, but we were making our way west and it was time to get out. Still, it was tough getting her out of the lake. She was having a great time swimming and splashing, and even with the other fun we were planning in the park, Tenaya Lake was where she wanted to be. We sunbathed a bit to dry off, then headed back to the car, which was parked on the wide shoulders along Tioga Road.

Stop three is Olmsted Point, a scenic spot along Tioga Road. From here, you can see Clouds Rest, Half Dome, and Yosemite’s high country. It is an amazing spot to take in Yosemite views.

Olmsted Point

Stop four, furthest west and just before the turn off to Big Oak Flat Road and the route to Yosemite Valley, is the Tuolumne Grove of Giant Sequoias. The hike to Tuolumne Grove is a steep 1 mile hike down to the grove, with an easy guided nature trail once down. The hike back to the parking lot is all uphill, with a moderate 500-foot elevation gain. While not as strenuous as many of the hikes that Sami and I have taken, she was in no mood for a hike after the morning’s other activities. We only get half credit for this one, and I hope to return to see the two dozen giant sequoias growing in Tuolumne Grove, as well as the dead tunnel tree that we can walk through. Maybe once Sami gets past her hostility toward giant sequoias

The trail leading down to Tuolumne Grove

There are many other points of adventure along Tioga Road. Be aware that the road closes around November, following the first significant snowfall, and reopens in the late spring. During the summer and early fall, however, it is a beautiful road, and remains my favorite trek through the park. It is easy to find many a happy trail when traveling Tioga Road.


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