Tioga Pass Road (Route 120): A Beautiful Summer Road Trip

Visiting Yosemite in the summer brings flowing waterfalls, beautiful views, lush meadows, and some of the best hiking the United States has to offer. While Yosemite Valley is where the main attractions are, a lot can be said for the often overlooked beauty of Yosemite’s High Country, accessed by the road that leads from Highway 395 into the valley known as Tioga Pass.

During the winter, this road gets snowed in and is not passable, but during the summer its 45-mile length provides an adventure all on its own. Traveling this highway will take you from the base of Yosemite at 4,000 feet of elevation all the way up and over the pass the road is named for at around 10,000 feet of elevation. These elevation changes provide for beautiful views and vistas so make sure you take your time and to pull out when the road shows you something beautiful, which is often. Below are some of my favorite stops in order from Yosemite Valley to Highway 395.

May Lake

May Lake is an easily accessible high altitude lake that sits at the base of Mt Hoffman. Hiking from the parking lot is a short 1.2 miles each way, and the lake provides an incredible payoff, especially in the summer. Read about it here.

Olmsted Point

This pull out is about 20 miles from Yosemite Valley and is called Olmsted Point. It provides an incredible vista of the surrounding area which is covered in sparse trees and granite.

You can scramble up a small rock and even see views of Clouds Rest and Half Dome far in the distance, as well as a lot of the backcountry Yosemite wilderness only accessible by hiking.

Tenaya Lake

As you make your way from Olmsted Point, you will immediately notice Tenaya Lake appearing in the distance. This high altitude lake is dotted with campsites along its shores. It is utterly breathtaking and provides an almost serene and relaxing retreat that you would not expect to see so close to civilization.

During the summer months when it is hot, the water is refreshing enough to take a dip in, fish at or paddle a kayak over.

Tuolumne Meadows

This lush meadow jumps out at you after a bend in the road and it stretches as far as the eye can see. It is often so green and beautiful that you won’t have a choice but to stop and take pictures or walk along one of the many trails. The meadows also have a small lodge and a lot of camping if you want to spend a couple of days there hiking and fishing.

Soda Springs

Soda Springs is one of the most popular hikes in the Tuolumne Meadows region mostly because it is really easy and lets you walk through the meadow on the way to the spring.

The springs are located inside a small cabin and are almost constantly boiling. I wouldn’t say this is a must stop attraction but if you are looking to walk a little, check it out.

Lembert Dome

On the East side of Tulamee Meadows, there is a granite slab much like Half Dome but much smaller in size. Lembert Dome provides a stark contrast with the earth tones of the meadows and the grays of the granite dome. Accessible via a moderately easy hike, the summit offers fantastic views of the fields below. Read about the hike here.

 

Tioga Pass

The pass itself is the official entry point to Yosemite from the east side. If you are entering from here, you will need to pay the park fee, but just for a day driving Tioga Pass alone, it is worth it. This is also the highest point on this road, and here you will be close to 10,000 feet.

Ellery Lake

Right before you start your steep descent into the Mammoth area, there is one last lake you can turn out at. This lake allows you to spend some time walking around or just to sit and think about the amazing experience and beauty you just drove through.

This was my first trip through the pass, and I couldn’t recommend it more. It is a beautiful way to experience the wilderness even while driving. While it was out of my way, I felt it was worth it for the amazing views of what the untouched areas of California have to offer. Check it out if this sounds like something you would enjoy, but make sure to take your time, you will want to.

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About JoshMc

Thanks for checking out the blog, I am happy to be sharing my adventures with you! You can get to know me by reading my about me, which includes a video and additional information on the site, myself and my full disclosure. Also, follow along on Twitter here or read all of my posts on this blog here.

  • Wow – beautiful photos! I’d love to take this trek with my boys one day.

  • RBorchard

    Thanks Josh, I would like to use some of your pictures, with credit, for my Yosemite Gold Country App. Email, robborc@sti.net

  • Anne Fisher

    I used to live in Mammoth, and one of the most memorable and secluded hikes I took was the lakes loop, starting from Saddlebag Lake. Turn off 120 onto Saddlebag Lake Road, then take the water taxi across the lake to the trailhead. Its about a 6-mile loop, with at least one lake per mile. Gorgeous!

    • Oh man that sounds amazing, especially with a water taxi. Thanks for sharing!