Yosemite Postcards: Tioga Pass Roadtrip

Image: Tenaya Lake
Tioga Pass Road over Yosemite’s high country is open for the season. I shot these images at this time last year, a couple days after the road had reopened, while en route to Mammoth Lakes. If you’ve never taken this drive, start planning—it’s one of the most spectacular in all California.

The beauty shots begin in the foothills along Hwy 120, east of ugly Oakdale (the last chance for reasonably priced gas). Spring’s green grass has lately turned the color of lion’s fur, the color of summer. Century-old oaks dot hillsides where sheep and cattle graze—an image straight out of Virgil’s Eclogues.

The thing about the Sierra’s west slope is, you never know how high you’ve ascended until you reach an overlook, like this one, far above the Tuolumne River canyon. So subtle is the western rise, the only way to clock elevation change is to track the flora: oaks yield to pines, brown grass yields to green. Then you top out, the sky opens up, and distant blue ridgelines come into view.

Granite, trees, and water—the hallmarks of the Sierra. Now within the boundaries of Yosemite National Park, I pull off at mileage-marker 11 on Tioga Rd. Yosemite Creek cascades over granite slabs, bound for Yosemite Falls, the world’s fifth highest waterfall. Lying on a log wedged across the middle of the creek, I close my eyes and let the water’s roar surround me.

At Olmstead Point (mileage-marker 37), I skitter up a granite slab, sit tucked against a wind-gnarled foxtail pine, and watch the shadows play on Half Dome. The chiaroscuro of late-afternoon on the Sierra Crest is mesmerizing. After hurtling at break-neck pace across California, it takes time to apprehend such vastness, to expand my mind to accommodate grandeur. Yosemite is like that, mind-altering…trippy.

Tuolumne Meadows lies brown and muddy. The wildflowers have not sprung—summer comes late at 8800ft above the sea. Were it August, I’d scamper up Lembert Dome and watch the late-day sun paint the meadow orange. Instead I press on toward Tioga Pass—the highest stretch of pavement in all California—and plunge 3000 feet in 10 short miles toward Mono Lake. I’ll tell you more about that in a coming post.

If You Go: Staying in Yosemite Valley is the obvious choice. I recommend a simple rustic cabin with bath at Curry Village. Most rooms at the generic-motel-style Yosemite Lodge overlook a parking lot, but they have more amenities than Curry Village. The Ahwahnee is one of America’s great national park lodges; even if you don’t stay here, come for lunch in the grand dining room (dinner is overpriced). The Victorian-style Wawona Hotel feels like an old New England inn, but it’s far from Tioga Rd. The secret to scoring a room on short notice at all in-park properties is to telephone multiple times per day and ask about cancellations. You’d be amazed how often rooms open up. Alternatively stay at Evergreen Lodge, a compound of smartly decorated woodsy cabins near Hetch Hetchy Reservoir. I l-o-v-e this place.

More About Yosemite

Spring Day Trips – Bay Area

California wildflowers are in full bloom. Thanks to March’s torrential rains, this spring’s flower season is turning out to be one of the best in years. Up and down the state, the land is electric green, dotted with swaths of orange, white, purple and yellow flowers—even I-5 looks gorgeous right now. But hurry—in just a few short weeks, the hills will turn the color of lion’s fur, the color of summer. I’ll be overseas, but if I were home, here’s what I would do this April:
Trek the Marin Headlands for spectacular displays of bright-orange California poppies, clinging to the rocks above the crashing surf. On weekdays, when crowds are few, hike Tennessee Valley. On weekends, head to Gerbode Valley. Dogs are allowed on some trails. Read more.

Hike Table Rock Trail, in Robert Louis Stevenson State Park. The views of Napa Valley from Mount St Helena may be prettier in autumn when the vineyards change color, but springtime puts the beauty right at your feet. Literally. Look for purple lupine and popcorn flower poking up through the lush grass. The 2.2mi (one-way) trek begins at the south-summit parking area, off Hwy 29, north of Calistoga.

Bite into the season’s first ruby-red strawberries at Swanton Organic Berry Farm, on the San Mateo Coast. Pick your own—a great Saturday activity with the kids—or buy a basket at the old-fashioned self-service stand, which also carries homemade pies, strawberry lemonade, and terrific preserves. Swanton is the ideal stopover after a day exploring the beaches of the San Mateo Coast, or while driving northward from Santa Cruz on Hwy 1.

Spot newborn snowy egrets in the treetops of the Audubon Canyon Ranch. One of the Bay Area’s most sublime natural wonders, hundreds of egrets and great blue herons are courting and nesting in the treetops of the Audubon Canyon Ranch, in West Marin. If you’ve never seen these magnificent birds up close, now’s your chance. Read more.

I’ll be back in the States this May. Till then, happy travels! —John