Near the eastern border of California, in the heart of the Sierra Nevada, lies the wondrous dominion known as Yosemite. Beginning near the park’s southwest corner, the drive heads north to Yosemite Valley, the most-visited section of the park, where El Capitan, Bridalveil Fall, and other famed attractions predominate. The route then winds northeast across an expanse of subalpine wilderness — replete with meadows, ponds, and granite domes — before leaving the park and descending steep slopes to an eerily beautiful lake.
1. Yosemite National Park
Heading north from Oakhurst, Rte. 41 meanders into the evergreen-scented Sierra National Forest, a vast domain that abuts Yosemite National. For a unique way to sample the forest, take the 45-minute ride on the Yosemite Mountain Sugar Pine Railroad, which hauled timber out of the woods beginning in 1899 but now restricts its load to visitors. About seven miles north of the railroad, the southern entrance to Yosemite National Park beckons like the gates of Eden. First declared a national park in 1890, thanks in large part to the efforts of John Muir, Yosemite attracts millions of visitors each year.
2. Mariposa Grove
Just beyond the park’s entrance, a two-mile spur winds east to the Mariposa Grove of giant sequoias. No ordinary trees, these noble giants — among the largest of living things — can grow more than 300 feet tall, with trunks that measure up to 27 feet across. The venerable Grizzly Giant is about 2,700 years old. Another Goliath, the Wawona Tunnel Tree, was made famous when, in 1881, an opening was cut in its base to allow stagecoaches and, in later years, cars to pass through — until the tree toppled in 1969. A tram tour and museum inform visitors about the magnificent trees.
Located in a broad, pleasant valley on the south fork of the Merced River, the village of Wawona was once a favorite stop on the old stagecoach route to Yosemite. The era is recalled by the elegant 1870s-vintage Wawona Hotel, while the Pioneer Yosemite History Center re-creates the park’s early days with a stagecoach ride, period buildings, a covered bridge, and a variety of exhibits.
4. Badger Pass
Beyond Wawona the drive winds north Chinquapin. Here Rte. 41 meets Glacier Point Road, a 16-mile spur that encompasses some of Yosemite’s most stunning vistas. In winter Badger Pass, the first stop along the way, attracts thousands of downhill and cross-country skiers. During the snow season Glacier Point Road is closed east of Badger Pass, but in spring and summer the road descends to bloom-sprinkled meadows.
5. Taft Point
Following Glacier Point Road a few miles to the east, the drive reaches the trail to Taft Point. After walking about a mile, hikers arrive at the lofty rim that overlooks Yosemite Valley. From an isolated lookout they have a breathtaking preview of three-tiered Yosemite Falls, monumental El Capitan, and many other world-famous wonders that can be viewed from a closer perspective when the drive continues through the valley below.
6. Sentinel Dome
Exceptional vistas await those who walk the nearby one-mile trail to Sentinel Dome, the last leg of which takes hikers up the curved side of this massive mound of granite to its 8,122-foot summit. In spring Sentinel Fall cascades down cliffs to the west of the dome.