21. Tuolumne Meadows
As Tioga Road ascends from Tenaya Lake, it heads east past Medlicott Dome, Fairview Dome, and other granite peaks. At about 8,600 feet above sea level, the drive reaches Tuolumne Meadows, the largest subalpine meadow in the Sierra Nevada, where rolling grassland provides a pleasing contrast to the greatest concentration of granite domes in the world. Numerous ponds and streams attract mule deer, black bears, coyotes, and other wildlife. The area’s natural wonders are best appreciated along the network of trails — such as the Pacific Crest Trail, the trail to Elizabeth Lake, and the John Muir Trail to Cathedral Lakes — that lead from the visitor center.
22. Tioga Pass
With Lembert Dome visible to the north, the route runs alongside the Dana Fork of the Tuolumne River and climbs through forests toward Dana Meadows and Tioga Pass. At 9,945 feet, Tioga Pass is the loftiest highway pass in all of the Sierra Nevada. At its summit sits the eastern entrance to Yosemite National Park. A mile-long trail leads through forests to sparkling Gaylor Lakes to the west.
23. Lee Vining Canyon
From Tioga Pass the drive descends eastward past creeks that attract trout fishermen and meadows that offer views of rock wrens, bobcats, and yellow-bellied marmots. The road skirts Tioga and Ellery lakes, then spirals down the slopes of Lee Vining Canyon. Between lofty Tioga Pass and the desert town of Lee Vining, the road drops some 3,000 feet in about 14 miles. To the east an impressive panorama takes in the arid landscape below, including the Mono Craters, a chain of dormant volcanoes, and the snowcapped White Mountains in the distance.
24. Mono Lake
Just northeast of Lee Vining lies a natural wonder unlike any other on the drive: ancient and mysterious Mono Lake. Nestled in a basin of sagebrush, with volcanic hills rising around its borders, the salty, million-year-old body of water is bedecked with bizarre natural statues, called tufa towers. The exquisite calcite sculptures were formed under the surface when carbonates in the water combined with calcium from freshwater springs feeding into the lake. Over time the hardened minerals piled up inch by inch, forming hundreds of knobs, spires, and minarets.
This surreal moonscape is a wonderland for birds. The salty water , much denser than seawater, affords swimmers a delightful sensation of buoyancy. Concluding the drive with a potpourri of eerie marvels, Mono Lake serves as an intriguing coda to the splendor and spectacle of California’s Yosemite National Park.