Exploring Yosemite’s Tuolumne Meadows, bound for the Eastern Sierra’s Mammoth Lakes (part 1 of 2 parts)

Half Dome viewed from Olmstead Point on the Tioga Road, Yosemite Park.

Exploring Yosemite’s scenic Tuolumne Meadows, bound for the Eastern Sierra’s Mammoth Lakes

Late summer and early fall are the perfect time to visit Yosemite National Park’s high country, and continue over the Eastern Sierra to Mammoth Lakes. Along the way you’ll see an entirely other side of Yosemite, and have the option to visit Mono Lake, the ghost town of Bodie and the stunning Mammoth Lakes area – a mecca in its own right for mountain travelers.

Tuolumne River meanders quietly through Tuolumne Meadows near the idyllic campground.

Now is a great time to go – particularly this year after heavy winter snows and afternoon thundershowers are keeping the high country and Eastern Sierra green and verdant. Best of all, you’ll avoid the crowds that flood Yosemite Valley and discover jaw-dropping vistas in the Eastern Sierra.

We’ll cover this trip in two installments. If you drive through Yosemite directly to Mammoth Lakes, it’s about 210 miles and 4 1/2 hours from San Joaquin county. Our first leg will feature Yosemite up to Tuolumne Meadows, with the second feature focusing on the tour from there to Mono Lake and down to Mammoth Lakes.

Plan to spend several days in Tuolumne Meadows, either the campground or booking one of the tent cabins there. Nestled at 8600 feet in a stunning granite valley, the area offers wonderful scenery and exploring and hiking options galore.

Heading up Yosemite’s Highway 120 to Tioga Pass, you’ll pass the idyllic Tenaya Lake, capturing snowmelt from the remaining snows high in the surrounding Sierra. Stop at Olmsted Point for striking views of both Half Dome to the south and the lake ahead.

Tuolumne Meadows is wildly touted as the area that convinced John Muir to petition for the establishment of the nation’s second national park in 1890. It’s stunning views, verdant greenery and dramatic granite horizons make it a memorable experience. 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”, from Muir’s Steep Trails, 1918.

May Lake and Mt. Hoffman at 9,339 feet in Yosemite's Sierra range.

Make your stay at Tuolumne Meadows your base camp for day trips. You’ll find a marvelously scenic trail on the east side of Tenaya Lake, where more serious hikers can connect to the John Muir trail, all the way to the overlook of the Yosemite Valley.

From the campground, you can walk along the meandering Lyell Fork of the Tuolumne River, running adjacent to the campground. With 300 sites the campground offers evening campfire programs and features the nearby Tuolumne Meadows Lodge, Store and Grill with lodging, provisions and good meals for those who don’t want to cook in camp.

Other options from the campground include easy flat hikes through the Tuolumne Valley and a four-mile hike around Lembert Dome, a dramatic granite obelisk rising vertically from the meadow.

Tenaya Lake looking northeast.

Heading back down Highway 120, you’ll find Tuolumne Grove, featuring dozens of Giant Sequoias on a one mile downhill hike on the old Big Oak Flat Road. This is one of some 65 Sequoia groves in the central Sierra, only a few which are located in Yosemite.

Another favorite day hike is the trail up to May Lake. Take the scenic two mile drive off of Tioga Road to the trailhead where several sets of trails head off towards the river canyon and another trail heads southeast up to May Lake.

A 1.5 mile hike takes you over spectacular granite outcropping to the scenic lake at 9,330 feet. Here you’ll find a backpacking campground, a Sierra Club High Camp with water and flush toilets and a stunning lake with Mt. Hoffman as a backdrop, rising to 10,850 feet.

Author and our Scotty teardrop trailer at Tuolumne Meadows campground.

Tioga Road features more hiking options than any other part of the park. They include myriad trailheads to Cathedral Lakes, hikes to Clouds Rest, to Dog Lake, to Elizabeth Lake and Gaylor Lake. You’ll find plenty of reasons to make another visit!

From the Tuolumne Meadows area, it’s another scenic 15 miles to Tioga Pass, elevation 9,943’ where snow was 20-40’ deep just months ago, and then steeply down the Eastern Sierra to connect with Highway 395. From the intersection of Hwy. 120 and 395, it’s only a few miles to Mono Lake. We’ll pick up there, and explore the ghost town of Bodie and resort area of Mammoth Lakes, next week.

How to get there: From Stockton to Tuolumne Meadows, it’s about 150 miles and 3.5 hours. Take Hwy. 4 east to Copperopolis, turn right on O’Byrnes Ferry Road, left on Hwy. 120/108 and follow Highway 120 past Groveland into the park (which becomes the Tioga Pass Road) leading to Tuolumne Meadows.

For more info: Go to: www.nps.gov/yose, Yosemite Park headquarters, PO Box 577, Yosemite National Park, CA 95389-0577, phone, 209.372.0200.  Also check with the park to avoid smoke-filled vistas that could be caused by future forest fires in the area. Camping can be booked through recreation.gov, or 877.444.6777.

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

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  • Blog Author

    Tim Viall

    Viall is a local travel writer who retired in late 2012 after 10 years as executive director of Stockton, CA's, Emergency Food Bank and six years with the Downtown Stockton Alliance. Previously, a 21-year career in daily newspapers helped shape his ... Read Full
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