As you roll down the windows of your vehicle and let the crisp, refreshing air of the park flood in, you will be overcome with an undeniable sense of freedom. As the road meanders through the ever-changing landscape you will cruise past rolling meadows and hidden streams on your tour of Yosemite.
There are few drives throughout the USA’s many states that match up to the scenic bends of Route 120. Known as Tioga Road, this incredible drive offers comprehensive views of the Yosemite National Park and will take you on a day-long journey through some of the park’s most popular destinations.
The road is open for you to take a tour of Yosemite between May and November every year. Take a look at the Yosemite National Park website for opening and closing dates as well as useful information for your trip.
Yosemite National Park is in California, and a 3 hour drive east of San Francisco. It is well known for its unique and impressive vegetation, particularly the spectacular Sequoia tree. The expansive views that surround you at any point along this great road will be sure to leave you breathless.
Tioga Road Drive
While the drive along Tioga Road certainly offers fantastic views and brings you to some incredible locations, the sights only just scratch the surface of what the park has to offer. Nonetheless, if one day is all you have, then I can assure you that there is no better way to spend it than to take a tour of Yosemite along route 120.
1. Tuolumne Grove
The first stop of your Yosemite tour will be the Crane Flat Gas Station because this is your last opportunity to fill up on petrol in the Yosemite Valley. Be sure to arrive at around 8 or 9 am to get ahead of the traffic since the gas station gets busy during peak hours.
The trailhead for Tuolumne Grove begins from the parking lot just off Tioga Road a short distance up from the Gas Station. It’s a 45-minute walk along a meandering footpath (previously a road) to Tuolumne Grove and this will be your first taste of hiking in Yosemite. The Giant Redwood tree, also known as the Sequoia has been an icon for tourism in Yosemite because of its impressive size and unique photographic setting. Give yourself at least 30 minutes of additional time to appreciate the magnificence of the colossal trees.
Up to 250ft tall and 3000 years old these majestic trees are the world’s oldest and largest living trees. Their bark can grow up to 2ft thick and this protection allows them to withstand direct lightning strikes; it is this natural defence which has helped protect these giants from the threat of wildfire, ensuring their longevity.
These sequoias are a phenomenal sight to behold all year round, but they truly stand out in Autumn when the deciduous trees begin to change colour. Tuolumne Grove is well known for the Tunnel Tree, the remarkable husk of a single Sequoia which is hollowed out and provides visitors to the park the unique opportunity of walking through the tree itself.
2. Lukens Lake
Lukens Lake is the first of the 3 spectacular Yosemite lakes along Tioga Road. You’ll walk from the small parking lot with little undergrowth around you, allowing for an easy and clear walk along the path.
The earth around the path is a rich orange-brown, adorned with several fallen trunks under the shade of the canopy above. After 30 minutes of walking, the path will open up into the stunning oasis that is Lukens Lake with soft green meadows along its quiet shores.
This is the perfect place to stop and breathe for a moment, with very few tourists around you’ll be sure to get lost in the tranquil atmosphere.
3. Olmsted Point
At 7500 ft above sea level, this viewpoint offers the first real glimpse at the park’s immense size. Gazing out across this breathtaking landscape is an experience like no other, you’re really able to appreciate how this landscape has been carved out by the weight of the glaciers from the previous ice age.
The viewpoint is on the roadside and requires no walking to experience the staggering beauty of Olmsted Point.
On the distant horizon, you will catch sight of one of the park’s most famous granite rock formations, Half Dome. Olmsted Point is one of the best lookouts in the park for viewing Half Dome, and certainly an excellent opportunity for some photographs that will capture the beauty of your surroundings and lead to unforgettable memories of your visit to Yosemite National Park.
4. Tenaya Lake
The next stop will bring you to another one of the incredible Yosemite Lakes. Tenaya Lake is named after Chief Tenaya, the chief of the Yosemite tribe of Native Americans who once called Yosemite Valley home. After driving along the northern shoreline of the lake, catching glimpses of the water through the trees, you’ll be able to pull over at one of the many lay-bys and set foot on a tiny beach.
Your view will be filled with the majesty of the lake and the landscape that towers above it on the horizon. The crystal-clear turquoise waters glisten in the sunlight and set an almost unprecedented beauty when framed by the green trees and grey cliffs. Across Tioga Road from the lake there are sheer granite cliffs which are a popular site for rock climbers, one can only imagine the captivating beauty of the views from such a perfect vantage point.
5. Tuolumne Meadows
Tuolumne Meadows will serve as a marker for a halfway point along Tioga Road as well as displaying a landscape not-yet-seen on your journey so far.
As you drive through the trees that frame the roadside you will find that they begin to thin out, until eventually, they fall away entirely, leaving you with a jaw-dropping view of your surroundings. The road undulates alongside the line of trees, with the expansive meadow spread out before you on the other side. As the grass ripples in the breeze up here at 9500 ft you will be in awe of the fascinating beauty of the site.
A small river runs through the meadows, its faceted surface glistening in the sunlight as it flows through striking green fields. Tuolumne Meadows has several parking lots, a restaurant and the National Park Office which provide information and paper maps for day hikes around the meadows.
This will be your first stop to enjoy the scenic experience of hiking in Yosemite and with 8 main trails to choose from you’ll be spoilt for choice. Be sure to keep an eye on the time, some of the hikes are long and you wouldn’t want to miss out on any of the other attractions that Tioga Road has in store.
The meadows are beautiful all year-round, but they truly come alive during July when colourful wildflowers pierce the green grass and bring a picturesque vibrancy to the landscape. You may also be lucky enough to catch sight of some wildlife, with deer grazing in the meadows and lapping up the river’s sparkling water. If you’re feeling particularly adventurous you can even take a dip in the river, but be prepared for the ice-cold temperature of the water.
Tuolumne Meadows also has quite a curious attraction by the name of Soda Springs, where naturally carbonated water rises to the surface and spreads across the ground. The water is an earthy shade of red and pink mingling with the bright green grass and creating a unique photograph opportunity.
6. Dana Meadows
After the captivating beauty of the Tuolumne Meadows you’ll be eager to see more, and sure enough, Tioga Road delivers!
Dana Meadows are your next stop and will leave you feeling somewhat breathless, due both to the thin air at the towering elevation of 9950 ft and the stunning scene that is laid out before you. From your incredible viewpoint, you will have a panoramic view for miles around, with sights such as the snow-capped mountain Mammoth Peak rising spectacularly on the horizon.
7. Tioga Lake
After leaving Dana Meadows you will begin your gradual descent toward the Park Entrance Checkpoint which you will have to pass through before you are able to reach your next stop, Tioga Lake. The park entrance can become very busy since it only has one lane, so if you arrive here during peak hours, particularly in the summer, then be prepared to wait a while before passing through.
Tioga Lake is another one of the incredible Yosemite Lakes, having been formed millions of years ago by a glacier carving out the land and then melting to fill the basin.
While you may no longer be in Yosemite National Park you’ll still be travelling on Tioga Road through the Inyo National Forest of Mono County, California. At 9500 ft the lake lies alongside route 120 in the Sierra Nevada mountains of northern California, providing sensational, panoramic views of the surroundings. With more evident granite features and mountains as well as patches of meadows around the lake being put on display.
8. Tioga Pass
After spending some time enjoying the scenic views of Tioga Lake you’ll be ready to begin your descent through Tioga Pass. As you drive, the ground around you falls away into a large valley and you’ll find yourself facing the steep angle of the road that curves down the slope. Along this section of the road overlooking the magnificent valley, there is a lay-by with a commemorative plaque marking the Tioga Pass as a Californian Historic Engineering Landmark.
9. Mono Lake
Once the road has levelled out and you have reached the bottom of the valley you will find the awe-inspiring sight of Mono Lake coming into view. Your last stop at the largest of the Yosemite lakes along Tioga Road will make you feel as if you have been transported to another planet. Formed over 760 000 years ago, the lake has built high levels of salts over time making the water alkaline and providing a thriving ecosystem for a number of unique creatures. The waters are filled with brine shrimp and blackflies which serve as a feast for close to 2 million annual migratory birds.
The beauty of this unusual landscape cannot be overstated, with small volcanic cones rising from the shallow waters of the saline soda lake. Mono Lake is a quiet and mysterious expanse of deep blue water who’s glassy surface reflects the jagged peaks of the Sierra Mountain Range. The volcanic cones are known as tufas, which are formed when calcium bubbles up from the springs and combines with the carbonate in the alkaline waters, helping to produce the distinctive landscape that Mono Lake has become so well known for.
If you’d like to explore these tufas further, then you’ll have the chance to stop at the parking lot which grants you entrance into the area known as South Tufa, the lake’s biggest tufa grove along the southern shoreline. Your final experience of hiking in Yosemite will be through this otherworldly landscape that mingles with the beautiful green meadows of the Yosemite National Park.
Tioga Road is a stunning Drive through Yosemite
With all of these remarkable sights along Tioga Road, it’s evident that it truly is the perfect way to spend a day in Yosemite National Park. From the might of sheer granite cliffs to the tranquillity of hidden lakes, this drive provides you with one of the most comprehensive views of this spectacular landscape.
The feeling that washes over you as you drive along Tioga Road beside the dazzling meadows is remarkably peaceful. Although, while the drive may show a great deal of the park, it doesn’t even make a dent in the number of unforgettable sights that can be found scattered throughout Yosemite. With a plethora of mesmerising locations to choose from, you’ll be planning your trip and packing your bags in no time. Though the park may be beautiful, it also has immense historical significance to the Native American tribes who called it home. Taking a full tour of Yosemite will not only leave you with pictures of staggering sights but also an insight into the rich tapestry of the past. For more US road trip inspiration check out this Epic National Park Road Trip article.
To find out more about spectacular Yosemite National Park and what it has to offer, read our Ultimate guide to Yosemite National Park.
Yosemite Tioga Road Map