A view of Yosemite Valley as sunset nears. JOSH WRAY/MONO COUNTY TOURISM
As if 300 miles of premier mountain and desert scenery and recreation weren’t already enough, it’s just 12 miles from Scenic 395 to the eastern entrance of world-famous Yosemite National Park.
From Mammoth, it’s just 37 miles to the entrance, 45 miles to Tuolumne Meadows, and 105 miles to Yosemite Valley itself.
Highway 120 — the Tioga Road — is the connector that departs from Highway 395 at the gateway town of Lee Vining for the glorious climb up to Yosemite. Take it slowly, let your passengers enjoy the view, and stop at the pullouts so the driver can exit and take it all in— this is Lee Vining Canyon, 7,000 feet deep, glacier-carved, with a road perched delicately against its steep slopes.
Tioga Pass is seen on opening day in 2018. JOSH WRAY/MONO COUNTY TOURISM
Up top at 9,945 feet is the park entrance at Tioga Pass. (It’s $35 per car.) Meadows and trails beckon on either side. You’ll be short of breath because of the altitude, so take it easy and amble along. Mt. Dana is the reddish peak scraping the clouds at 13,053 feet just east of the pass. You won’t see much more of this colored metamorphic rock, because from here on out it’s glistening white and gray granite.
Eight miles downhill from Tioga, now on the western slope of the Sierra Nevada range, lay Tuolumne Meadows. By midsummer, this largest of Sierra subalpine meadows will be in bloom. Well-watered by snowmelt coursing through the Tuolumne River and its feeder creeks, the meadow grasses will be lush, fringed by a plethora of wildflowers. Well-kept trails, mostly flat or slightly undulating, provide routes along and through the meadow.
At the far west end of the meadow, the small granite formation on the right is Pothole Dome. If you are pressed for time, this is a short, fun walk for the entire family.Explore the dome, looking for huge crystals jutting out a few inches from the granite surface. Look at how the pine trees grapple to find purchase in the few areas with a thin layer of dirt, their roots exploiting every last crack in the granite.
Another six miles along Tioga Road is Tenaya Lake. This sparkling gem has an excellent sand beach along its north shore (parking is on the left in the lot just as the lake comes into view).
The Tioga Road is usually open from mid- June through October, weather depending. Call 800-427-7623 to get a road report. For more Yosemite National Park info, start at www.nps.gov/yose.