No trip to Yosemite National Park would be complete without exploring Tioga Road as it winds up through the higher elevations, eventually exiting the park through Tioga Pass and out of the eastern side of the Sierra Nevadas. It’s a trip across the top of the world, with scenery rapidly changing from thick forest with tall pines to huge granite domes to barren rocky mountains, passing sub-alpine meadows and beautiful lakes on the way. Due to the elevation and extreme avalanche danger at Olmsted Point, it opens very late in the season but usually by June. Even if you’re not going to do any of the hikes, it’s a must-see just for the drive alone.
The first area you pass after turning off of Big Oak Flat road is Crane Flat and the Tuolumne (pronounced like ‘too-all-oh-mee’) Grove of giant Sequoias. A interesting but quirky little find just west of this intersection is a small single lane road with a sign reading “Crane Flat Fire Lookout”. This road does indeed lead up to a working fire lookout, with panoramic views of the surrounding area, complete with a helicopter to drop its “smokejumper” fire crews into wildfires when necessary. Not what most people come to Yosemite to see, but very cool.
The Tuolumne Grove would be very cool to see if it’s your first grove of Sequoias, but as we’ve spent several weeks among the big trees in Sequoia/Kings Canyon National Park and have also spent a day hiking the Mariposa Grove in southern Yosemite, we’re jaded and found the hike somewhat anticlimactic. The trip down the mile road is easy and paved, but it’s a continuous uphill slope on the return trip – not for the faint of heart. If you have the time, the stamina, and the interest, it’s fairly easy to get to and without the big crowds that you’ll find in Mariposa Grove. Best option? Mariposa early in the season before the crowds arrive.
Back on Tioga Road, the next must see is Olmsted Point. You can’t miss the turnout for this, as there will be cars and shuttle buses galore, with people teeming about taking in the view. To the south, Half Dome and Clouds Rest provide the oohs and aahs, and if you have a telephoto lens or binoculars you may be able to see climbers heading up the ropes to the top of Half Dome like little ants marching in a row. Climbing is by permit only, so these are the lucky few who got a permit and had the stamina to make the grueling trip out of the Valley to Half Dome. My hat is off to them.
There is also a short paved 1/4 mile hike that you can take from the parking lot here, but honestly most people just take in the view from the parking lot before continuing on, and it’s a more interesting viewpoint in my opinion.
From Olmsted Point you can also see a beautiful lake off to the east, a glimmering oasis of azure blue among the green pines and mountain peaks. It’s a short drive from here to Tenaya Lake, where you’ll find people lounging on the sandy beach on the east end, and doing the easy 2.5 mile loop hike around the lake. Word of advice – put on the bug spray if you’re going to do the hike! There are clouds of mosquitos waiting on the south side of the lake for unsuspecting hikers, and if you’re petite they may just carry you away. They’re THAT bad. Also be advised – if the water level is high, you may have to wade across the river inlet and outlet on the ends of the lake. We got lucky and managed to stone step across, but another three or four inches of water would have changed the experience quite a bit.
Pressing east up Tioga Road brings you to Tuolumne Meadows, and the crowds there. Our advice – skip the meadow hike. Heavy crowds, and more interesting hiking elsewhere. Drive right past the meadows and visitor center, and head to the Lembert Dome parking lot.
From this lot, you pick up the trailhead for Dog Lake and Lembert Dome. Bring snacks and plenty of water, as well as good hiking boots and a good attitude. You’re starting the hike at a oxygen-diminishing 8,500 feet of elevation, and it’s only going up from here.
Dog Lake is a small lake surrounded by pines with a few picturesque mountains as a backdrop. While it’s certainly not the crown jewel that Tenaya Lake is, it’s well worth the 2.8 mile round trip hike, and if you do the loop around the lake you may have a section all to yourself just far enough away not to hear tourists who haven’t learned to use their ‘outside voice’. As with any freshwater source, mosquitos live here so bring your bug spray or pay the consequences.
Back on the trail, take the fork to Lembert Dome, and munch on a snack if you haven’t already. You’ll want the energy for the finish the 900 foot elevation gain headed up the dome. It’s not an easy climb, but the gorgeous panoramic views and the sense of accomplishment are well worth the effort. If you feel yourself huffing and puffing, blame the elevation!
From here you can continue driving seven miles east to the Tioga Pass entrance of the park, and a short drive further to the pass to see the barren desert east of the Sierra Nevadas. Keep in mind though, it’s 46 miles back to the junction of Big Oak Flat and Tioga Road, and then 10 miles to Yosemite Valley or additional time to wherever you started your trip. The roads are very twisty with lots of blind corners, and deer and other wildlife are prevalent in the area, so driving at dusk is always a hazard. Drive safe, and arrive alive!