Because of snow, many people will never get to experience the backdoor to Yosemite National Park. The park is usually able to keep at least one road on the west side open year-round, but reaching Yosemite from the east side of the Sierra Nevada is much trickier. If you’re fortunate enough to visit when Tioga Road is open, across Tioga Pass and into Tuolumne Meadows, you’re in for a real treat. This drive proves that there is much more to Yosemite than just the valley.
From US 395 and the town of Lee Vining, take California Route 120 westbound. You’ll quickly climb up to Tioga Pass (just shy of 10,000 feet), then amble through Tuolumne Meadows, before dropping down into the valley.
It’s a whole lot of fun to drive into Yosemite National Park from the east side. Route 120 quickly climbs up from Lee Vining (elevation 6,781 feet) to Tioga Pass (elevation 9,943 feet) in about 12 miles.
The two-lane road hugs the side of Mono Dome and Lee Vining Peak, as Tioga Peak looms ahead.
This road might be pretty intense for anyone with a severe fear of heights. It will be better if you’re headed uphill, because you’ll be on the inside lane. There are plenty of places without guard rails, but there are also spots that allow you to pull off and take some pictures.
Looking back to the east, the view gets better and better as you climb higher and higher.
At one viewpoint, you can see several miles of Tioga Road, which is cut into the mountainside.
At Tioga Pass, you enter Yosemite National Park. Just beyond the entrance station…
… you’ll probably be tempted to stop at Dana Meadows. Dana Fork of the Tuolumne River runs through this area, before meeting up with Lyell Fork near Lembert Dome.
You’ve arrived at Tuolumne Meadows when you drive past Lembert Dome. I’d recommend the hike to the top of Lembert Dome, if you have the time.
Another great hike is just beyond Lembert Dome (in fact, you can see it in the photo above). The trail to Soda Springs is short and easy, and gives you a great taste of Tuolumne Meadows.
Yet another great hiking option is Pothole Dome. This granite dome is pretty easy to hike up, and once you’re at the top, you’ll have a nice view of Tuolumne Meadows, including the Soda Springs area and Lembert Dome.
Pothole Dome is also a very nice place to be during sunset, when the alpenglow lights up the distant mountains.
Once you’ve left Tuolumne Meadows, the road runs alongside Tenaya Lake. There are several places to stop and relax along the lake’s shoreline.
You’ll also find some other big chunks of granite in this area…
…and some opportunities for off-trail hiking on the boulder-covered slopes above the roadway.
The final great attraction on Tioga Road is Olmsted Point, where the backside of Half Dome comes into view. More great off-trail hiking opportunities can be found here, too.
From Olmsted Point, the road continues west. You have a few more minutes to enjoy great views, before you plunge into a forest…
… at which point, I’d suggest some more off-trail hiking. I wandered up into the woods and found a strange garden of boulders, trees, and other plants. Best of all, I was the only one around.
The Bottom Line
Is Tioga Road open? Then you should drive it. The view from Olmsted Point is worth it, by itself. Added hiking opportunities turn this road into an all-day excursion from the valley, or a two-day option (drive over to Lee Vining one day, spend the night, then drive back the next day).
Here’s a time-lapse video of the drive from Lee Vining to the Tioga Pass entrance of Yosemite National Park…
… and from the pass through Tuolumne Meadows and beyond: