Tioga Pass is the only entrance to the park on its east side. From the town of Lee Vining on the east, you’ll enter the park here and drive 45 miles along the Tioga Pass Road through the Sierra Nevada, eventually landing in Crane Flat on the west side of the park.
This high-elevation mountain pass (9,943 ft) through Yosemite National Park is the highest highway pass in California. Usually it closes around October/November when the winter weather moves in, and typically doesn’t reopen until May/June after the snow has melted. We were in for a real treat, however, since the road was still open when we visited the park over Christmas. The bizarrely warm and snow-free season had left Yosemite in an about-turn, when for once, the Badger Pass Ski Area was closed over Christmas, but the rest of the park was open!
This road is known as “the most scenic mountain road in all of California, and one of the most beautiful park roads in the entire National Park system”. And for good reason. The scenery seemed to change at every turn, but was unfailingly spectacular as you pass through the Sierra Nevada. A rugged, but somehow also serene, landscape with carved granite peaks, lakes, meadows, and alpine scenes with lush evergreen forests and Giant Sequoia groves.
From my research before our trip, I’d read some horror stories online from folk who’d done the drive, saying it was nerve-wracking, or even terrifying. I can’t imagine it’s much fun in the dark, but I have to say, we didn’t have any problems with it. Yes, there are drop-offs and tight bends along the way, so you do have to concentrate if you’re the driver. But if you’re driving within the speed limit, and concentrating on the road, you’re not going to have any problems.
I think the worst bit was as we headed east on the last stretch toward Lee Vining. The last bit of the descent has you driving close to an edge with a sharp drop-off of about 2,000 feet. It’s easier heading west again though, since you’re driving on the inside lane. But I have to say, the experience we had was much different from the “terrifying” tales from some people online.
I’ve seen photos from points along the road during summer months, and the scenery just looks beautiful, what with all the clear lakes and beautiful reflections.
But even though the frozen lakes didn’t allow for such beautiful reflections during our visit, it was no less spectacular. We spent about 5-6 hours doing the drive out to the town of Lee Vining and back, with lots of stops along the way, including a couple of hours in Lee Vining to check out Mono Lake (that was a spectacular sight to witness – more on that later!).
If you have the chance to drive the Tioga Pass Road, don’t miss this amazing opportunity. All in all, a fabulous drive, with fantastic scenery. You can’t afford to miss this if it’s open while you’re there.