Yosemite and Beyond: A Road Trip Through Mesmerizing Landscapes

Route Details Length: About 180 miles, plus side trips. When to go: Popular year- round, but note that Tioga Ro

Yosemite National Park
Yosemite National Park attracts millions of visitors each year. In the words of John Muir, Yosemite ‘is surely the brightest and the best of all the Lord has built.’

Route Details

Length: About 180 miles, plus side trips.

When to go: Popular year- round, but
note that Tioga Ro ad is closed in winter, as
is Glacier Point Road east of the Badger
Pass Ski Area.

Lodging: The Ahwahnee Hotel, Curry Village
(cabins), and Yosemite Lodge are in
Yosemite Valley. The Wawona Hotel is near
the Mariposa Grove.

Supplies: Food and fuel available at Crane
Flat, El Portal, Fish Camp, Lee Vining, Tioga
Lake, Tuolumne Meadows, and Wawona.

Words to the wise: Winter driving
can be hazardous.

Nearby attractions: Devils Postpile
National Monument, west of Mammoth
Lakes.
Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks.

Visitor centers: Yosemite Valley,
Tuolumne Meadows.

Further information: Box 577, Yosemite National Park, CA 95389; tel. 209-
372-0265, www.nps.gov/yose/

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.

3. Wawona

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.

7. Glacier Point
For its last two miles, Glacier Point
Road leads steeply down to Glacier Point, where the vistas
are among the park’s most spectacular.
From a dizzying granite precipice, the overlook takes in
the floor of the Yosemite Valley
some 3,200 feet below, Half
Dome, numerous
waterfalls (Vernal, Nevada,
Yosemite), and the High Sierra in
the background.

8. Wawona Tunnel View
Backtracking to Chinquapin and
heading north, the drive winds
through forests to
Wawona Tunnel, a passageway
nearly a mile long that was dynamited
through solid granite in
1933. Emerging from the tunnel,
visitors are treated to a classic
panorama as they enter Yosemite
Valley. An interpretive sign in the
parking area identifies by outline
the valley’s major features: Sentinel
Dome, Half Dome, Bridalveil Fall, and astonishing
El Capitan.

9. Bridalveil Fall
Plunging more than 600 feet
down a sheer rock face, the waters
of Bridalveil Fall are blown
by breezes into a fine mist that descends as a gentle rainbow-forming shower on spectators below.

10. Yosemite Valley
Just past the Bridalveil Fall parking
area is Southside Drive, a one-way
road that ushers visitors into
awesome Yosemite Valley. Formed
about a million years ago, the
U-shaped valley was scooped
from the Sierra Nevada by massive
glaciers. Following the
swift Merced River, the route
leads through the valley to the
Curry Village parking area, where
visitors can board free shuttle
buses that tour the valley floor,
including stops at several places
in the park where cars are not allowed — among them the Happy
Isle Nature Center.

11. Happy Isle Nature Center
Here the Merced River branches
into several channels, creating
small islands in the river that are
linked by footbridges. The nature
center, which features exhibits on
ecology and natural history, also
serves as the trailhead for hikes to
a number of Yosemite treasures.
A 1 1/2-mile trail leads to Vernal
Fall and continues another two
miles to the top of 594-foot Nevada
Fall. Happy Isle became a distinctly
unhappy place in 2001, when a
massive quarter-mile-long rockfall
decimated its forest and structures.
Fallen boulders and trees can be
seen there where they came to rest.

12. Yosemite Falls
Be sure to stop at Yosemite Village
(located on Northside Drive, the
westward-running part of the
one-way road that loops through
the valley), where a visitor center
offers information and exhibits.
From the visitor center one can
hike (about 3/4 mile) or drive to
Yosemite Falls, the highest waterfall
in North America. At 2,425
feet, this regal ribbon of white
water (actually three waterfalls in
one, with upper, middle, and
lower tiers) is more than a dozen
times higher than Niagara Falls
and twice the height of the Empire
State Building. A footbridge
at the base of the falls leads to
a seldom-traveled path through the
forest that skirts the site of John
Muir’s cabin.

13. El Capitan
Among the best known and most
revered of Yosemite’s wonders,
this sheer granite monolith rises
to a height of 3,593 feet above El
Capitan Meadow.

14. Ribbon Fall
Just to the west of El Capitan,
Ribbon Fall plummets some 1,612
feet to the valley floor. The park’s
highest single waterfall (that is,
the longest uninterrupted stream
of water), Ribbon Fall is also the
first to dry up in the summer. The
reason: it drains only four square
miles of land. Nevada Fall, in
contrast, drains 118 square miles
and flows year-round.

15. Valley View
A sister site to the Wawona Tunnel
View to the south, Valley View
(sometimes called Gates of the
Valley) encompasses stunning
panoramas of Yosemite’s great
stone monuments, the Merced
River, and Bridalveil Fall. Unless
one stops at the turnout, it is also
a good-bye view over the shoulder,
because the drive now continues
west out of Yosemite Valley. After
passing through a tunnel, the route
heads north on Big Oak Flat Road,
winding through valleys and crossing
creeks, until it approaches the
Crane Flat area, where visitors
are able to hike in to explore two
groves of giant trees.

16. Tuolumne Grove
Although not as large as the Mariposa
Grove, Yosemite’s other two
groves of giant sequoias — the Tuolumne
and nearby Merced — invoke
in onlookers the same sense
of reverence for the ancient trees,
remnants of a lineage dating to
the dinosaurs. In 1878 a vehicle
tunnel was cut into the stump
of one of the larger trees in the
Tuolumne Grove. Dubbed the
Dead Giant, the stump — tunnel
and all — endures to this day, but
is no longer drivable.

17. Tioga Road
Threading through an unpeopled
expanse of wilderness — the “other”
Yosemite — Tioga Road traverses
some 45 miles and climbs almost
4,000 feet between the meadows
of Crane Flat and lofty Tioga Pass
to the east. As the road ascends,
the dense forest gives way to stands dominated
by handsome, 100-foot
California red firs. At various spots
along the way, such as the camping
areas at White Wolf, Yosemite
Creek, and Porcupine Flat, backpackers
begin their treks through
pristine forest, discovering hidden
lakes, rocky chasms, and remote
mountain peaks. Even those who
stay close to the car will learn
about the natural history of the
area from numerous roadside exhibits.
Keep in mind, though, that
snows close Tioga Pass and the
road during the winter. It usually
opens in late June.

18. May Lake
About midway along Tioga Road’s
meander across the park’s high
country, a two-mile spur turns
north toward May Lake. This
side route winds past a meadow
called Snow Flat, where deep
snows accumulate in winter. The
spur terminates at the May Lake
Trail, where a mile-plus hike leads
to the lake, one of Yosemite’s
five High Sierra campsites. Here
visitors will find backcountry
trails that afford commanding
views of nearby Mt. Hoffmann.

19. Olmsted Point
About two miles farther along
Tioga Road, Olmsted Point
provides some of the park’s most
stunning panoramas. To the south
is the glacier-polished granite expanse
of Tenaya Canyon, 9,926-
foot Clouds Rest (a rocky peak
often wreathed in mist), and in
the distance a relatively unfamiliar
back view of Half Dome’s enormous
rounded bulk. The view to
the east encompasses beautiful
Tenaya Lake and, looming above
it, 9,800-foot Polly Dome.

20. Tenaya Lake
Its clear alpine waters surrounded
by massive domes of polished
granite, Tenaya Lake was named
Pywiak — “lake of the shining
rocks” — by the native Americans
who once lived there. Lovely
picnic spots dot the road along
the lake’s northern shore, and
fishermen angle for trout from
motorless boats. Many visitors,
lured by some of the finest rock
climbing available anywhere in
the country, scale nearby Pywiak
Dome, Stately Pleasure Dome,
and other rounded peaks.

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.

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Originally Published in Reader's Digest