Tioga Pass (SR 120)
HIGHEST ELEVATION: 9,945 feet
CLOSED FOR WINTER: Yes
ALONG THE WAY: Olmsted Point, Tenaya Lake, Tuolumne Meadows, Lembert Dome, East Entrance to Yosemite, Lee Vining Canyon
WHAT TO DO IN NEAR TIOGA PASS
Some Favorites From Our Expeditions
Pull into Olmsted Point for the back view of Half Dome, an up-close of Clouds Rest and another angle of the Valley.
Look for tree stumps peeking out of Tenaya Lake.
After you’ve romped through Tuolumne Meadows, make an ascent up the Lembert Dome via the walking trail.
Take the easy stroll along the Nunatuk Nature Trail or the more ambitious uphill climb to Gaylor Lakes. The Nunatek gives you peaceful environs to see various mirages of mountain scenery reflected in lakes as well as plants that withstood glaciers. Gaylor Lakes is an otherworldly landscape in an open expanse of lakes and buried boulders, with the Cathedral Range peaks floating like islands on the horizon.
The Tioga Pass entrance station is the more artistic of the Yosemite gates. Look for the ambitious drawings on the marker board outside.
So Much To See
The pass through Yosemite is the highest in the Sierra (and in California), topping out at 9,945 feet at the east entrance to the park. At the turn-off by Crane Flat, the 59-mile stretch of Highway 120 to Lee Vining is the Tioga Road.
Routed through the park’s center, it passes:
- Forest left charred by 2013’s Rim Fire.
- The surprisingly small Yosemite Creek that later drops more than 2,000 feet into the Valley as Yosemite Falls.
- Mount Hoffman, a prominent 10,850-foot peak that marks the geographic center of the park.
- Olmsted Point, a must-see vista overlooking the rounded side of Half Dome (where the cables that turn hikers into mountain climbers are located). It also provides a close-up of Clouds Rest and an overview of Tenaya Canyon, Yosemite’s accident-prone Bermuda Triangle.
- Granite arranged in layers leading up to the road, examples of the geological process that creates Yosemite’s domes as sheet joints (fractures) cause the rock to peel off like layers of an onion and become rounded.
- Tenaya Lake, the largest in the park’s front country and one of the few in Yosemite that are easily accessible.
- Tuolumne Meadows, one of the biggest High Country meadows, where the Tuolumne River meanders gently before continuing on to Hetch Hetchy and becoming San Francisco’s pristine, minimally treated drinking water. It’s also a hub for backpackers with its many trailheads. (One of the easier choices is to get on the John Muir Trail here and trek to Lyell Canyon. It’s home to Yosemite’s last active glacier. Maclure Glacier is also the one John Muir and Galen Clark measured to conclude that Yosemite Valley was glacially carved.)
- Lembert Dome, a small-scale taste of Half Dome with climbing routes as well as a hiking trail to the top along its rounded side.
- Mount Dana, the second-tallest peak in Yosemite, measuring 13,057 feet.
- Lee Vining Canyon, the glacially carved expanse that is part of why the approach into Yosemite from the east is so majestic.
Brought to You by Yosemite’s Little-Known Mining Past
Tioga Pass is believed to be where explorer Joseph Walker made the first east-west Sierra crossing in 1833 during the Bonneville Expedition. His route through here, tracing the Indian path known as Mono Trail, also means that he and the trappers he led were likely the first non-Indians to see Yosemite’s giant sequoias (in the Merced and Tuolumne groves) and Yosemite Valley. But if they did indeed see the park’s most iconic feature, it was from far above. They didn’t descend into it, leaving it a haven for the Ahwahneechee Indians until the Mariposa Battalion entered in 1851 to drive them out.
Mining brought a road here. Yosemite didn’t have any gold, but there was a short-lived silver boom that began in the 1860s.
During that time, the community of Bennettville sprang up just north of Tioga Pass, and the Great Sierra Consolidated Silver Mining Company became the major mining operation. It built the Great Sierra Wagon Road to haul supplies, but it was commonly called the Tioga Road because the mining district was known as Tioga Hill. The road was finished in 1883, but like Bodie, Bennettville would have a short life. It was abandoned after the mining prospects dried up and became a ghost town not long after. (Two buildings remain, accessible via a hiking trail from the Junction Campground near Tioga Lake.)
Enter Stephen Mather & the Park Service
After mining on Tioga Hill wound down, Tioga Road continued as a privately owned toll road. But there was lackadaisical effort to collect the fees, and it fell into disrepair. It didn’t yet extend across the mountains to Mono Lake, but that changed in 1909 when the Mono Lake Basin Road was completed and joined to Tioga Road by Tioga Lake.
The result was the first eastern access to Yosemite. The new state road — the portion of Tioga Pass that spans an elevation change of more than 3,000 feet over 12 miles through Lee Vining Canyon — was in stark contrast to the poorly maintained Tioga Road. But because it was privately owned, the government couldn’t make improvements.
Meanwhile, Yosemite’s tourist trade continued to grow, as did enthusiasm for automobiles. Once they were authorized into Yosemite in 1913, the sorry state of Tioga Road became even more problematic. The Mono Road could accommodate auto traffic because, though the elevation change was major, the grade was steady. But the Tioga was in no shape for it.
It might have stayed that way if it hadn’t been for Stephen Mather. Before he became director of the National Park Service, he was a millionaire, making his fortune with a borax company. (It’s used in laundry detergent.) The native Californian was also an outdoorsman (and Sierra Club member) with intense enthusiasm for the national parks idea. Like so many who visit them, Mather was moved by such settings, but probably deeper than most because he struggled with depression and had found that spending time in nature was especially restorative.
He also had strong opinions about how the parks were being run, particularly Yosemite and Sequoia. Visits to both left him upset enough that he wrote a letter to a college friend working in the Department of the Interior, decrying the presence of grazing animals that were destroying meadows and lousy roads that severely hindered accessibility. In response, he was offered the opportunity to tackle the problems himself. He accepted a position with the agency in early 1915, laying the groundwork for the National Park Service and heading it up when it was established the following year.
On the matter of Yosemite’s roads, Mather was willing to put his money where his mouth was. In 1915, he bought Tioga Road, pooling his own money with that of some friends (including The Sierra Club). He then gifted it to the government so that it could finally be shaped up. To do so, he pushed legislation to allow philanthropy to national parks (and would go on to make other purchases and donations to the NPS to help it grow, including plots of forest in Sequoia National Park).
A dedication ceremony for Tioga Road was held July 28th, 1915, just a few months after the government took possession and made the necessary improvements. Mather marked the occasion by breaking a champagne bottle filled with Pacific Ocean water. He chose a place at the crest where it would flow both east and west, just like traffic to Yosemite.
The first season that Tioga was open for auto traffic, it was used by 190 cars. They must have been driven by brave souls.
For starters, it was a one-lane road, a narrow, steep and winding one with blind corners. (Cars going up had the right of way.) There were also plunging drop-offs and no rails, making the trip down to Lee Vining especially frightening.
Despite all that, Tioga Pass became more and more popular as the country’s auto obsession grew. In the 1920s, the Tioga was being promoted as a link between Yosemite and Tahoe. Potential visitors were assured that, despite the challenging grades, the Yosemite roads were in good condition and being improved.
The road was paved in 1937, but the steep grades and assault to the nerves remained. Though plans to make more substantial improvements got underway after visits to national parks surged post-World War II, they wouldn’t be realized until the 1960s. In 1961, a major realignment widened the central part of the road inside the park to allow for two lanes and shoulders. (It also routed the Tioga closer to Olmsted Point and Tioga Lake.) The section outside the park leading to Lee Vining was modernized even later, beginning in 1965. (This stretch has always been managed by the state, while the Park Service oversees road maintenance inside Yosemite’s boundaries.)
Today the Tioga maintains a reputation for intimidation, though it isn’t necessarily warranted. It still lacks guardrails in spots to protect against the sheer drops, but the grade is suitable even for RVs. The biggest risk is falling rocks and losing concentration while taking in the incredible scenery.
An Early Lodging Boom
Buildings are few and far between along Tioga Road, though there used to be more. The Tioga’s hospitality trade began not long after the Great Sierra Wagon Road was built, in part to house and feed those who worked on the road. Some of these early lodgings are long gone, like Crocker’s Station near Crane Flat, Aspen Valley Lodge not much farther away, and Murphy’s Cabin by Tenaya Lake.
But others carry on. White Wolf became a lodge in 1926 and added cabins in the next decade. It was privately run until 1951 when the Park Service took over and is currently being refurbished.
Tuolumne Meadows Lodge began as Tuolumne Soda Springs Lodge in 1916. Still offering tent-style cabins and family-style meals in its tent kitchen, it’s been operated by the Park Service even longer. It was built to attract park visitors to the Tioga Road backcountry and was originally run by the D.J. Desmond Company. This was once Yosemite’s sole concessionaire and also had responsibility for now-gone properties on Glacier Point (Glacier Point Hotel) and in the Valley (Sentinel Hotel). But the company went bankrupt two years later, and the lodge was abandoned. There was a similar one by Tenaya Lake that met the same fate. Only the Tuolumne Meadows property would reopen, doing so under its current name in 1923 after undergoing an upgrade.
Just beyond the park boundary, Tioga Pass Resort opened in 1914, offering both private cabins and a lodge not long after. (The white tent structures are yurts to house its seasonal staff.) The TPR’s operating style is a testament to its remote high country locale. Until very recently, the only way to reserve accommodations was via e-mail. Though online reservations were introduced in 2014, it still does not have a phone for its office.
The other major structure along the Tioga is the stone ranger station at the summit. On the National Register of Historic Places, it was built in 1931, the same year the Park Service upgraded the stretch of Tioga Road leading up to it. Before that, an outpost near Tuolumne Meadows had served as the east entrance.
The Explosive Season Opener
Of all the trans-Sierra passes, the Tioga tends to have the shortest season, typically closing in November and often not reopening until May. During that time, the Tioga Road is inaccessible by autos between Crane Flat and a point roughly five miles west of Lee Vining. Backcountry skiers and snowshoe-clad explorers provide the traffic then.
With its high country locale, it’s not surprising that the Tioga isn’t plowed in winter. Not far from Olmsted Point, Snow Flat is the snowiest spot, with an average depth of more than 100 inches. (Snow surveys are performed four or five times a year along the Tioga, at Snow Flat as well as Dana Meadows, Tuolumne Meadows and Gin Flat.)
Moving it requires major force. Come spring, the road isn’t plowed open, but blown, using explosives that have to be trekked in on foot by Yosemite’s avalanche team. The goal of the blasting is to clear any cornices or other accumulations at risk of coming loose and burying the road crews. (This very thing happened in 2005, killing one.)
Bulldozers come next to push the massive, heavy drifts, while also contending with rocks and fallen trees. As they do their work, avalanche teams continue to monitor for avalanche risks and the search & rescue unit — YOSAR — is also on hand in case of any catastrophes. The diciest part is Olmsted Point, with 26 potential avalanche zones.
Adding in the road repairs that must be made after months of the asphalt being buried in snow and ice, the whole operation usually takes more than a month and begins in mid-April to make sure the road is open for the Memorial Day rush.
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