It was the morning of Friday, May 27, and the National Park Service had reopened the Tioga Road through the Yosemite High Sierra. The road had originally opened for the season the week before, but a storm front that had passed through over the previous weekend had forced its closure. As the week had advanced, we’d waited for it to reopen. And then on our final full day in the Park, it did.
There was no question but that we would do a scenic drive along the Tioga Road. When I had been to Yosemite as a youth in July 1993, the northern part of the Park, including the famous road, had been closed because of a manhunt for an escaped convict. And with the delay in reopening the road, I’d almost missed seeing it again. But soon we were in the Jeep and ready for one of the most famous auto routes of the National Park system.
The Tioga Road began in the nineteenth century as a mining road into the Sierra Nevada. By the time the National Park Service was established in 1916, the road was regularly used by tourists visiting early high country lodges and camps. It was Stephen Mather, the first director of the Park Service, who created a fundraising drive to purchase and improve the road.
Like so many ideas and innovations, what happened in Yosemite National Park influenced Parks across the system. The early decades of the Park Service were a time of great development within the National Parks and saw NPS dedicated to providing comfort and ease of access. It was also a time of road building from Going to the Sun Road in Glacier National Park to Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park.
Although the initial plans for realigning and smoothing the grade of the Tioga Road were developed in the early 1920s, it wasn’t until 1961, in the midst of the Park Service’s second great wave of development, Mission 66, that the improved road would open to the public. By then, with passage of the Wilderness Act only two years away, a significant pushback had developed within the conservation community against the building of too many roads in the National Parks.
Many advocates were horrified, in particular, at the impact a widened and straightened Tioga Road would have on bucolic Tuolumne Meadows in the heart of the high country. In fact, resistance to the improvement of the Tioga Road inspired a full-throated cry against the widening and paving of the Park Road in Denali National Park. That resistance succeeded, with the paved portion of Denali’s road extending a mere thirteen miles into the Park.
So while Yosemite got its improved and developed road, other units were spared such an intrusion. Once more, Yosemite National Park was the great laboratory of the system.
At an early pullout, Sean spotted a Marmot. It vanished when we got out of the car, so we waited patiently, taking in the view and the breathing the cool air.
Then out it came, emerging from the scree beneath the road grade to have a look about in the sunshine.
From its junction with Big Oak Flat Road, the Tioga Road climbs rapidly into Yosemite’s High Country, providing sweeping vistas almost immediately. The road runs largely east-west north of Yosemite Valley. It runs straight through thick forest at times, but often it curves dramatically along slopes, carrying motorists some 5,000 feet up and ultimately through Tioga Pass at the Park’s eastern boundary.
Traveling west to east, the first major viewpoint is Olmsted Point, named for early Park advocate Frederick Law Olmsted. Olmsted Point provides an enormous view down Tenaya Canyon toward the upper end of Yosemite Valley.
And famously Olmsted Point is the opposite view of Half Dome from Glacier Point, the back end of Half Dome, as it were. The perspective, aided by a telephoto lens or binoculars, also allows a glimpse of the cables that allow a hair-raising ascent up the back of Half Dome. At some point that morning, Adam and Randi, our campground neighbors, would be using those cables.
Olmsted Point also provides a tantalizing glimpse of Tenaya Lake, below and to the northeast. It’s a bit of what is yet to come along the Tioga Road.
The road runs directly along the shore of glacier-formed, absolutely clear Tenaya Lake, making it by far the most accessible of Yosemite’s innumerable lakes. Even on this very early spring morning, there was a fair amount of traffic on the road. I can’t imagine how packed this area must get at high summer when the high country campgrounds are open.
We continued on and passed through the Tuolumne Meadows area without stopping. Our intention was to go the length of the road and then make some more stops on the way back.
Presently we arrived at the Park’s Tioga Pass Entrance. From the Big Oak Flat Entrance near our campground, it had taken us just about two hours.
The difference that directional exposure made to the level of snow still on the ground was perhaps most dramatically demonstrated by the restroom building at the entrance, with the south side of the building (above) entirely free of snow and the north side of the building (below) boasting snow up to our shoulders.
In the environs of the entrance station, it was clear why the road had only recently opened. From this parking lot, we saw two pretty hardcore hikers set out into a wilderness rendered trail-less by the snow. Their plates indicated that they were from Alaska.
We drove on through the entrance station and into Inyo National Forest. Immediately, we began rapidly descending through the craggy, forbidding eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada.
We stopped briefly at Ellery Lake beneath the Dana Plateau. Sean remarked that this stark, snow-covered landscape was what he’d thought Alaska would be like before our trip there. And while certainly parts of Alaska look like this, much of what we saw was far more lush and filled with life.
The eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada is in the range’s rain shadow. Moisture is carried in from the Pacific Ocean. The moisture is carried easily over California’s coast ranges, but it does not rise high enough to cross the heights of the Sierra and becomes trapped. The western slopes therefore receive an enormously higher amount of precipitation each year than the eastern slopes. The precipitation feeds the huge forests and ultimately waters the fertile Central Valley of California. The far-drier eastern slops ultimately look out upon the Great Basin Desert of California, Nevada, and Utah to the east. The dryness of the desert is largely caused by the Sierra Nevada’s trapping moisture from the Pacific.
Soon we had emerged from the Sierra Nevada and stood on the very edge of the Great Basin with sagebrush flats, Mono Lake, and the first of the dozens of low north-south trending mountain ranges that cross the Great Basin in the distance.
We decided it was time for lunch at the Whoa Nellie Deli on a slope overlooking Mono Lake. We sat outside and gobbled up our surprisingly tasty fish tacos.
Along the edge of the road, I gathered some sage to take back with us.
As we began the return trip, Sean turned on our “American Pastoral” playlist, dominated by Aaron Copland, instrumental folk music, and other instrumental art music and film scores that conjure up a particular idea of the grandeur of the American landscape. It seemed more than appropriate. And a complete listen carried us all the way back into Yosemite Valley.
Soon we were being welcomed back into the Park by the rangers at Tioga Pass.
We stopped more frequently in the high country on the way back, taking in other gorgeous lakes and gazing out over high mountain meadows just beginning to return to robust life after a long winter. In a good bit of news for drought ravaged California, the Sierra Nevada snowpack was 30% higher than normal in 2016.
In Tuolumne Meadows proper, we looked for an opportunity to get out and stretch our legs. We were temped by Lembert Dome, but with Sean still sick and both of us unaccustomed to the altitude, we decided to look for a more-or-less level opportunity for a walk.
We got our chance for a stroll near the western edge of Tuolumne Meadows at Pothole Dome. The trail curved in a long S from a roadside parking area around the edge of the meadows and then hugged the base of the dome.
Warning signs asked visitors to stay out of the meadows themselves because of ongoing restoration work.
Across the meadows, the Tioga Road ran along the base of Fairview Dome.
The meadows were extremely wet, glutted with snow melt and waiting for increased warmth to bring the vegetation back to life.
Even this early in the season, though, wildflowers sought the sun.
Eventually, the trail became a wet, muddy morass. We decided not to go any further, particularly since we were less interested in climbing the dome than we were in going for a stroll. So instead we spent some time exploring a clearing in the pine forest near the base of the dome.
Then we decided to retrace our steps back to the car.
Young pines, scattered about on either side of the trail in the photo above are evidence of the forest encroaching on Tuolumne Meadows.
The familiar cry of a Killdeer rang out, and the bird began putting on its elaborate “I’m injured and am easy prey” routine to lure us from what was certainly a nest nearby. With its nest that close to the trail, this bird was in for a world of worry as summer visitation to Yosemite increased.
At some points, the standing water in the meadows ran off of terraces into small gullies that eventually wound their way to the Tuolumne River (only to be impounded in the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir).
After our stroll, we climbed back into the Jeep and continued our descent from the High Sierra, stopping at some of the more striking viewpoints and promontories along the road.
Our final major stop on the Tioga Road was the banks of Yosemite Creek, rushing and roaring on its way to plunge over North America’s highest waterfall.
Sean launched a leaf boat, which we decided would soon be in the Pacific Ocean after tumbling over the falls, entering the Merced River, floating down the San Joaquin River, and ultimately passing under the Golden Gate Bridge.
After our stop at Yosemite Creek, we continued directly to Yosemite Valley for a final late afternoon of exploration.