Last summer's "road guides" for exploring the Sierra Nevada on Highways 4, 88, and 395 produced a lot of positive feedback from readers, so this weekend's planned opening of Highway 120 through Yosemite's high country and some of the most jaw-dropping mountain scenery in California is the perfect occasion to continue the series.
We'll start out journey at Crane Flat, just inside the western boundary of Yosemite. This is where the road closes during the snowy months. Crane Flat has a small gas station and minimart the last stop for gas until you reach U.S. 395 on the other side of the mountains, 61 miles east. From June through September you can also usually fill your tank at Tuolumne Meadows, but it's generally safest (and most affordable) to top off your tank in Groveland or Buck Meadows, before you enter the park. Groveland is the last major stop for food, lodging, gas, and supplies.
From Crane Flat, the highway begins climbing into the high country. Campgrounds along the way at Tamarack Flat, White Wolf, Yosemite Creek, and Porcupine Flat are less impacted than those on the floor of Yosemite Valley and are available on a "first-come, first-served" basis.
Thirty miles east and more than 2,000 feet higher than Crane Flat is a "must-stop" view at Olmstead Point. From Olmstead you can see Half Dome, Clouds Rest, Tenaya Lake, and many other Yosemite landmarks.
One of the best easy hikes in the area starts about three miles before Olmstead. Look for signs indicating a side road to the May Lake trailhead. An easy one-mile hike will bring you to a beautiful high country lake and the tents of one of the park's legendary High Sierra Camps.
From Olmstead Point, the highway makes a quick descent down to gorgeous Tenaya Lake, one of the largest subalpine lakes in Yosemite. The eastern edge of the lake has a sandy beach that is popular on hot days. An easy trail follows the far side of the lake.
Seven miles farther down the road is Tuolumne Meadows, a large and stunning subalpine meadow complex that usually turns emerald green by late June. Ringed by sharp peaks and traversed by the Tuolumne River, it is one of the top California destinations that is accessible by car. It offers endless hiking possibilities whenever the highway is open. Half of the 304 campsites are reservable in advance; the others are "first-come, first-served."
Some of the best short hikes around Tuolumne Meadows include:
Tuolumne Meadows, Parsons Lodge, and Soda Springs: An easy 1.5 mile loop through the heart of the meadows.
Lyell Fork of the Tuolumne River: This easy trail follows the river on its nearly level course through Lyell Canyon. You can hike up to four miles into the canyon with hardly any elevation gain.
Lembert Dome: It's only 1.2 miles to the top, but you climb 850 feet in very thin air. Get acclimated and take it easy the view of the surrounding country is worth it!
Tioga Pass, the highest point on any state highway in California, is eight miles east of Tuolumne Meadows. Highway 120 climbs through breathtaking granite and meadows where winter lasts a long time and the trees look short and stunted.
Stop at the parking area at the Tioga Pass entrance station to enjoy the view of sharp, bare peaks. For a sample of the highest regions of the park, the trail to Middle Gaylor Lake climbs 1,000 feet in a mile.
After passing out of the park at Tioga Pass, Highway 120 begins a gradual descent past Tioga and Ellery Lakes and a side road to Saddlebag Lake before dropping into Lee Vining Canyon. The road hugs the edge of a steep talus slope. I've had passengers hold onto the sides of the vehicle on this part of the drive, no matter how carefully I drive.
Tioga Pass Resort offers rustic cabins and warm meals. Campgrounds can be found outside the park at Tioga Lake and Saddlebag Lake and also in Lee Vining Canyon. The canyon's huge groves of quaking aspen trees put on a breathtaking show in the fall. At the far end of the canyon, the small town of Lee Vining offers gas, supplies, and several options for lodging and dining.
While you're there, check out adjacent Mono Lake a salty inland sea surrounded by otherworldly limestone "tufa" formations. Lee Vining's Mono Basin Scenic Area Visitor Center is a great place to start.
You could easily spend many weekends along Highway 120 and still barely scratch the surface of everything there is to see. For an enjoyable drive with jaw-dropping views, you can enjoy it in a weekend or even a day. If you spend the night at Tuolumne Meadows or Lee Vining, you can opt to drive north on U.S. 395 from Lee Vining and return home via Highway 108 (Sonora Pass) for more of the most scenic country in the state.
Adam Blauert is an avid outdoorsman who enjoys fishing, backpacking and exploring the western states. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org