Yosemite’s high country; Tuolumne Meadows and Tenaya Lake and Canyon

May Lake, at almost 9,400', with Mt. Hoffman rising in background.

Half-Dome and Cloud's Rest, from Olmsted Point on the Tioga Road.

The Tuolumne River meanders placidly through Tuolumne Meadows, just a 1/4 mile from our campground.

Tenaya Lake, looking northeast, collects waters from the high country before spilling them 10 miles into the Yosemite Valley below.










We have visited Yosemite more than a half-dozen times. First, with older parents in tow, who, sadly, didn’t want to get out of the car. Then several times for more extended stays in the Yosemite Valley, including hikes and bikes around the valley, up to Vernal Falls and side trips to Glacier Point; and twice, now, to Hetch Hetchy including a hike on the lovely north shore to mighty Wapama Falls.

But the high country – the Tuolumne Meadows area, Tenaya Lake and Canyon – until a few weeks ago, we had only driven quickly through it. Having read some of John Muir’s writings (an early explorer who helped put it on the national map and become our second National Park) and intrigued by quick glimpses – we decided to do more exploring in that area, Yosemite’s hiking center.

Said Muir, “A grand old mountain mansion is this Tenaya region! … Clouds Rest (9926′) is 1000 feet higher than Tissiack. It is a wave-like crest upon the ridge, which begins at Yosemite with Tissiack and runs continuously eastward to the thicket of the peaks and crests around Lake Tenaya. This lofty granite wall is bent this way and that by the restless and weariless action of glaciers just as it if had been made of dough. – From Steep Trails, 1918.

We booked three nights in Tuolumne Meadows Campground, at 8600 feet nestled in a granite valley, tremendously scenic and still green from frequent afternoon thundershowers. Despite forest fire smoke and smog polluting the air in the Yosemite Valley, it was crisp, clear with strikingly blue skies here.

Just before arriving at our campground, we passed the idyllic Tenaya Lake. It captures snowmelt from the surrounding mountains and runs south west steadily down to the Yosemite Valley, about 10 miles away by foot. Stop at Olmsted Point for striking views of Half Dome and the lake.

The next day, we hiked a portion of the marvelously scenic trail on the east side of Tenaya Lake; more serious hikers can follow the trail to interconnect with the John Muir Trail, which will take inveterate hikers all the way to the over-look of the Yosemite Valley itself.

Later, a short walk in the Tuolumne Meadows area, along the placid and pretty Lyell Fork of the Tuolumne River (which runs adjacent to the campground) made us appreciate our overnight accommodations even more.

The campground, with 304 sites, evening campfire programs and flanked by the Tuolumne River, is inviting. The nearby Tuolumne Meadows Lodge, Store and Grill offer lodging, provisions and good meals for those who don’t want to camp (all constructed of heavy canvas, removed in fall before winter storms bring 10 to 20 feet of snow).

Tuolumne Grove is just off Hwy. 120, the Tioga Road, and features roughly 25 Giant Sequoias, requiring a one-mile downhill walk on the old Big Oak Flat road from the parking area. This is one of 65 Sequoia groves in the central Sierra, only a few of which reside in Yosemite.

Our favorite, the May Lake hike: Take the scenic two mile drive off of Tioga Road to the trailhead, where several sets of trails go off towards the Tuolumne River canyon, another trail heads southeast and the one you’re looking for, May Lake, heading north west (warning –  you can add an extra mile-plus to your hike if you go more than a half mile the wrong way on a different trail, before your compass points out your wrong direction choice!). A 1.4 mile hike takes you to the scenic May Lake, climbing steeply to 9329′. At the lake you’ll find a backpack campground, a Sierra Club High Camp, water, flush toilets and a stunning lake with Mount Hoffman as a back drop.

Other hikes include easy options in Tuolumne Meadows along the placid Tuolumne River; a four mile hike around Lembert Dome, a huge granite oblesk rising dramatically from the meadow, a mile and a half hike along the eastern side of Tanaya Lake and a 3.5 mile hike into scenic Cathedral Lakes.

If you have an extra day, take the 18 mile Evergreen Road into the Hetch Hetchy Valley and O’Shaughnessy Dam. John Muir’s exploration of both Hetch Hetchy and Yosemite Valleys and writings in the influential Century Magazine, helped to get Yosemite National Park established in 1890. However, the much less-visited Hetch Hetchy Valley, eyed for its waters by San Francisco, was in peril.

San Francisco had targeted the valley for extending its water supply since the 1890s and applied several times for water rights but was denied. The huge San Francisco earthquake in 1906, when much of the city burned, underlined the city’s need for more water.

A multi year environmental battle led by the Sierra Club and John Muir ensued. Muir observed “Dam Hetch Hetchy! As well damn for water tanks the peoples cathedrals and churches for no holier temple has ever been consecrated by the heart of man”. The dam is testimony to Muir’s lost battle.

One can walk out onto the damn and get a marvelous view of the valley, stretching to the east about 10 miles before the view is lost around the bend. From the dam, a five mile round trip hike, easy to moderate, takes you to the base of Wapama Falls – always inspiring.

Camp Mather, and Mather Family Camp (on the road into Hetch Hetchy), offer a store, restaurant and variety of accommodations, from cabins to lodge. Try the Reuben and barbecue tri-tip sandwiches – some of the best we’ve had in years!

How to get there: From Stockton to Tuolumne Meadows, 150 miles, 3.75 hours. Take Highway 4 east to Copperopolis, turn right on O’Byrnes Ferry Road, left on Hwy. 120/108 and follow Highway 120 past Chinese camp and Groveland. Continue on Hwy. 120, which becomes the Tioga Road, leading to Tuolumne Meadows.

For more info: Go to: www.nps.gov/yose.  The park headquarters is at PO Box 577, Yosemite National Park, CA 95389-0577; phone: 209.372.0200.  Camping can be booked through www.recreation.gov, or 877.444.6777.

Contact Tim Viall at tviall@msn.com. Follow him at recordnet.com/travelblog. Happy travels in the west!

Happy travels in the west!

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