Tioga Road (Hwy 120 East) is the gateway to Yosemite’s High Sierras and the only eastern entrance to the park. It is the highest elevation highway in California. The next road to cross the Sierra Nevada is located 200 miles to the south.
Tioga Road is usually closed between the end of October and the end of May. So we were pretty lucky that it opened in early May this year. Unfortunately due to a light snow year – more bad drought news. We planned a drive out the 46-mile road, known as one of the most scenic drives in America. Then we planned to drive another 13 miles out past the park gate to Mono Lake. But when one of the spokes on Hector’s bicycle broke, we realized that the closest place that had good bike repair shops (Yosemite only repairs the bikes they rent) was the town of Mammoth Lakes. Mammoth Lakes is another 30 miles south of Mono Lakes and now our drive was going to be a lot longer. So off we went with Angel in tow. There is some striking mountain scenery in this high elevation part of the park. Also meadows, mountain lakes and lots of smooth glacier scraped granite cliffs and domes. And there’s a grove of sequoia trees, which we skipped since we’d just been to Sequoia National Park. And we of course had to stop to see the famous distant overview of Half Dome at Olmstead Point. The elevation at this point is over 8,000 feet and the temperature had dropped considerably from that of the valley. We also spent a little time by the beautiful alpine Tenaya Lake. Tenaya Lake is the largest easily accessible lake in this area. Angel discovered some snow and had to eat some. Something she hasn’t seen much of during our adventure. Next along the road was Tuolomne Meadow, the largest meadow and a great place for spotting wildlife – where we saw a very handsome coyote, still apparently wearing his winter fur coat. The road continued to climb. Other lakes still had snow and ice on them. The road reached 10,000 feet at Tioga Pass, near the east entrance to the park. We left the park and headed down the steep grade to Lee Vining, then south to Mammoth Lakes. We found a bike shop in Mammoth Lakes almost immediately and thankfully they did the work while we had lunch. Perfect. But while having lunch, it began to snow! A light snow, but a real snow. I had a slight panic moment since the National Park is quick to close Tioga Road for snow and we were over 40 miles away from the park entrance. Some quick research on the internet showed that Tioga Road was clear, this weather was local. Crazy how altitude changes weather – we’d now been in weather from low 30’s and snow to low 90’s in one week! We headed back and stopped at Mono Lakes as planned. Another place we visited years ago, and we couldn’t wait to see this surreal place again. We hiked on the very nice (and dog friendly) one mile South Tufa Trail. Mono Lake is a saline lake that provides nesting habitat for two million annual migratory birds and also has the second largest population of California gulls. Many of these birds feed on the brine shrimp that thrive in the saline waters of the lake. Tufa is limestone that forms when underwater springs rich in calcium mix with lake water rich in carbonates. This forms calcium carbonate (limestone) which settles as a solid around the spring, and over time grows into a tower. The formations are very other-wordly. Unfortunately, our long day meant all we had time to do in Mono Lake was this short hike, so it was a quick visit. We returned to Tioga Road on a weekend when we figured the valley would be really busy, this time to watch the sunrise over Tenaya Lake. So, at 4 a.m. we packed sleepy Angel into the car and took off. It was a beautiful calm morning and the lake was like glass. Hector likes to say that karma rewards those who work for it. Our getting up early was certainly well worth it. We spent several hours there. The lake has some great picnic spots and we had a picnic breakfast and walked around the lake. Then we headed back to Tuolomne Meadows and took turns walking around since Angel is not allowed in the trails. The picnic area around Tenaya Lake we figured was a “developed” area.
Our day in the Sierras ended with a picnic lunch by Yosemite Creek, which ultimately becomes Yosemite Falls.
Tioga Road is a great place to get away from the crowds in the valley and experience the alpine environment that comprises the vast majority of Yosemite. And we were pretty lucky to experience a little piece of this beautiful area this early in the spring. ~ Brenda