Back Roads California: A Tioga Pass Highway 120 Yosemite High Country Adventure
By Lee Foster
(Author’s Note: This is a new article. My books/ebooks with parallel content are Back Roads California, Northern California Travel: The Best Options, and Northern California History Weekends, all available on Amazon and at independent bookstores.)
A California back roads trip from the Bay Area across Tioga Pass in Yosemite’s high country along Highway 120 offers an exciting adventure.
The trip crosses the Sierra on the highest mountain pass road in all of California—Tioga Pass, at 9,445 feet—and ends up in remote Lee Vining, on the east side of the mountains.
This drive also ranks as one of the most spectacular scenic outings in the entire National Park Service.
What follows is a “postcard” story of what you will experience on this drive. The loveliest scenic moment of all is a stop at Olmsted Point in Yosemite to gaze at Half Dome in its granite magnificence. Olmsted Point celebrates the great father-and-son team that contributed so much to the creation of our national parks.
Safety on a Back Roads California Trip
Since this is a road trip, some important safety advice should be stated at the start.
Take this trip in summer or in the shoulder seasons of late spring or early autumn. Snow closes the road over Tioga Pass in winter. Also because snow can block the road in early spring or late autumn, be sure to check on accessibility before setting out. You don’t want to be slipping and sliding on steep mountain grades.
Manage your car and your personal safety with some prudence.
Be sure your car is capable of this trip. You’ll need good brakes for the 7 percent Priest Grade for several miles going uphill to Yosemite and then an equally steep down grade from Tioga Pass at 9,445 feet to Lee Vining.
Keep your gas tank at least half full.
Carry a gallon of water for each passenger and enough food to survive for a couple days, plus warm clothing to remain with your car for the night if you break down and need to wait to be rescued.
It’s prudent to have AAA or some other service ready to tow you.
If you usually depend totally on your cell phone for GPS mapping, consider supplementing that with a paper map, perhaps from AAA. For long stretches in the mountains on this trip there is no cell coverage and no GPS.
Highway 120 Manteca to Yosemite and on to Lee Vining
The road begins to get interesting at the Highway 120 turnoff at Manteca. Get to Manteca on the routine freeways 580-205 from the Bay Area.
California’s abundant agriculture presents itself starting at Manteca, with row crops and nut trees, such as almonds, or fruit trees, including peaches. The bountiful abundance of the Golden State, contributing substantially to making California the sixth largest economy in the world, impresses itself upon the traveler.
Quiet small towns greet you, such as Manteca, Escalon, and Oakdale.
Fruit stands sell what is locally in season, perhaps boysenberries and tomatoes. One of the most charming stands of all, with pictures of gaudy strawberries and Fresh Fruits and Vegetables painted all over it, lies immediately east of Manteca on the north side of road. Look for farmer Brian Saetern’s stand. His family-operated, 10-acre farm grows many crops, with strawberries as their specialty. When headed to the mountains or back to the Bay Area, this is one place to stock up on berries and vegetables.
At Oakdale, consider filling up with gas, which will become more expensive as you head east. Oakdale also has a range of restaurants for a food stop.
East from Oakdale, the terrain becomes hillier. A classic California landscape of rolling grasslands dotted with live oak trees greets you.
You cross an arm of Don Pedro Dam, showing the extensive California water system that collects the mountain runoff for human and agricultural use. There are vista points at both ends of the dam on the north side of the road.
Then Highway 120 shares a short stretch of Highway 49, the Gold Country highway. Don’t let the numbers confuse you. Highway 120 will also share its name with Highway 108 as you continue east.
Finally, you reach Priest Grade, which may be the steepest and twistiest seven miles you and your car have ever experienced. Take the vertical climb carefully and at moderate speed. A dated sign at the bottom warns you to “Turn Off Your Aircon” so as not to strain and overheat the engine.
At the top of Priest Grade, you might enjoy pausing to relax on the outdoor deck of a restaurant, Priest Station Café. The restaurant features restrooms, food, and drink on its outdoor deck. Fancy dinners change weekly, maybe prime rib or roasted turkey.
Priest Station dates from 1849, only a year after gold was discovered at Coloma. One can only imagine the struggle that was required as wagons and stagecoaches climbed up or edged down this grade in the 19th century. There is actually a “new” and an “old” Priest Grade road. You might want to take both alternatives if you plan a return trip on this same route.
Continuing east, through Big Oak Flat, you pass some two handsome brick buildings with substantial iron shutters. Both are candidates for restoration. Signage on one mentions that it was the 1853 home of the IOOF, or Independent Order of Odd Fellows, a fraternal organization that flourished as miners sought community. The brick and iron buildings are substantial, a good thing in the Gold Rush era when devastating fire was a worry.
Next you pass through quaint Groveland, which could be considered for a lodging option if you want to visit Yosemite Valley. The historic Groveland Hotel is a charmer, with its period décor rooms. However on this outing I will direct you into the Yosemite High Country, not into Yosemite Valley. We will turn left and keep on Highway 120 to go over the Yosemite High Country road.
(Note that if you wish to go into Yosemite Valley in summer, some careful planning is needed. You will want to arrange lodging well in advance. It is not certain that you can drive your car into Yosemite Valley in the busy periods. Keep informed by following the official park service site https://www.nps.gov/yose and contact the concessioner as needed https://www.travelyosemite.com/.)
As you approach Yosemite Park, the evidence of fire is everywhere. Large areas have burned in recent years. There are road turnouts to allow you to gaze over the recovering firescape. Fires have always been a natural phenomenon in the region in summer, when lightning strikes often burn the forests. One of the prominent viewpoints is the Rim of the World overlook just east of Buck Meadows on the north side of the road.
The tree species change with the altitude. Oaks and digger pines of the terrain from Oakdale east and up the Priest Grade give way to ponderosa pine and then fir at the higher altitudes.
Shortly before reaching the park entrance, you will note a turnoff to Hetch Hetchy. This is another interesting side trip to the great dam and valley that has a beauty parallel to Yosemite Valley. The dam is in the northwest corner of the park. Perhaps consider a later trip in to Hetch Hetchy and spend some time there. Hetch Hetchy water goes to San Francisco. The Tuolumne River, which you will cross in the High Country, feeds the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir.
Blue lupines dot the side of the road along this stretch.
There can be delays in busy times as you approach the entrance to Yosemite National Park, where each car must stop to pay the entrance fee. Be sure to get the park brochure and newspaper with the map details of the High Country. (As you cross Tuolumne Meadows, later in this drive, be sure to stop at the Visitor Center to get an additional resource, The Road Guide to Yosemite, a mile marker book with informative write-ups about the High Country.)
Eight miles after the entrance point to Yosemite Park, turn left to continue on Highway 120, now called Tioga Road, to cross the Tioga Pass. Continuing straight would take you into Yosemite Valley, another good experience, but perhaps for another time.
The turnoff for 120 East is clearly marked at Crane Flat. A final gas station reminds you that there will be no more gas opportunities until Lee Vining on the east side of the Sierra. The gas station has restrooms and sells coffee/food/camping gear.
Back on the road, some of the joys of the area are quickly apparent, such as a pretty alpine meadow on the right, as you begin the climb to the High Country.
Tuolumne Grove greets you on the left. This is an interesting stop, depending on your time allowance. You can walk down in Tuolumne Grove to see groups of the huge inland sequoias, which are the most massive living things on earth. (The most massive tree of all, the General Sherman, is found south of Yosemite in Sequoia National Park.)
The road continues as a steady and long climb through lovely forests and granite outcroppings. You pass popular summer camping spots at White Wolf, Yosemite Creek, and Porcupine Flat. Campsites must be arranged, often far in advance, from the concessioner.
Gradually, magnificent granite vistas begin appearing on your right. Many road turnoffs invite you to linger over the views. Clumps of wildflowers line the roadway. Reddish Indian paintbrush is an abundant wildflower species here. The elevation rises from 6,000 to 8,000 feet.
You may be surprised to hear many foreign languages as you mingle with world travelers at vantage points. The world enjoys coming to this magnificent setting.
Granite layers along the side of the road show the rock peeling off in layers, scraped smooth thousands of years ago by the massive weight of glaciers. John Muir was the first to make the compelling case that Yosemite was formed by the awesome power of glaciers sliding through the granite landscape.
Arriving at Olmsted Point
Be sure to allow ample time for a stop at Olmsted Point, one of the loveliest views in all of Yosemite. Olmsted Point is midway across this High Country route. At Olmsted Point you can gaze over at Half Dome, in its scenic individuality, and you can scamper along a granite surface or take a trail down into the wilderness. The trail walk can be as ambitious as you wish.
Olmsted Point honors the gifted father-and-son team, Frederick Law Olmsted Sr. and Jr., who did so much to create and nurture the concept of national parks. Their name was bestowed on this superlative vista in 1961, when the Tioga Road was completed. Signage at the site tells their story. The elder Olmsted (1822-1903) was one of the leading landscape architects of his day. He was appointed chairman of the first commission to manage Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove. His son worked on the legislation that created the National Park Service in 1916.
Continuing east, you pass pretty and lengthy Tenaya Lake on your right. In summer its rocky beaches attract picnickers and the occasional hearty swimmer. Fishermen cast hopefully for rainbow trout.
Next appears, on your left, the totally unexpected and glorious Tuolumne Meadows, at 8,600 feet, one of the loveliest and largest subalpine meadows you will ever gaze upon. Across this extensive green landscape meanders the Tuolumne River, a crystal-clear habitat for rainbow and German brown trout. A boardwalk across the meadow at Soda Springs allows you to savor a mile of the terrain without damaging it. Plenty of further trails delight the hiker.
At the Visitor Center you can purchase the informative The Road Guide to Yosemite book. The Visitor Center welcomes with hands-on displays of rocks and conifer cones.
The Tuolumne Grill and Store serves basic burgers and sells backpacking food and gear. Here you will meet backpackers sharing tales of their treks.
Where a bridge crosses the Tuolumne River, you can gaze down into the water and watch the trout. Occasionally, they will splash skyward, jump to consume hatches of flies on the surface.
Beyond the bridge in Tuolumne Meadow, on the left, stands distinctive Lambert Dome, one of the most striking granite protrusions in the Yosemite High Country.
Farther on, to the right, is Tuolumne Lodge—a set of summer glamping (glamorous camping) canvas-sided tents on concrete slabs. Here you can rent a tent able to sleep four, supplied with wood for the stove, and take a hot shower in the communal restrooms/shower. Breakfast and dinner are available in a dining building.
The road then gradually rises and you cross the high point, Tioga Pass, at 9,945 feet, where there is a ranger station entrance/exit point, near the eastern perimeter of the park. Tioga Pass is the highest auto pass road in California. From Tioga Pass, even in summer, you can gaze at mountains with a remaining snowpack. Eastern-facing mountains will retain some of their snow well into the autumn. The road is often open late May to early December, but always check with the park service website to confirm in the shoulder months.
From Tioga Pass, you begin a steep downhill for 12 miles, along Ellery Creek and Ellery Lake. At road turnoffs you can witness a close-up view of snow remnants on the granite across the canyon. Ellery Lake is a small but significant hydroelectric producer, catching the creek flow, holding it, then dropping it 3,740 feet in a penstock with enormous pressure to turn a turbine, creating enough electrical power for about 20,000 homes. This is one of the projects involving Southern California Edison, which sought electrical power, as the Tioga Road was built. After the turbines, the water flows routinely again down to Mono Lake. At Mono Lake, the story of California’s ongoing challenge to meet both water needs and environmental sustainability becomes a huge story.
At the end of Highway 120, where the road meets Highway 395, there is a famous little restaurant—Whoa Nellie Deli—at a Mobil gas station. The food wins awards. You can enjoy a salmon Asian salad or a buffalo burger on the outdoor picnic tables. This final stop on the route is a favorite for gas, a bathroom break, a rest stop, and food.
At this end of the route, stretching before you, is Mono Lake. The place to visit here is the South Tufa entrance, to your right. If going to Mono Lake, get an orientation first at the handsome interagency Visitor Center, to your left, in the town of Lee Vining, on a bluff overlooking the lake.
The substantial tourism towns in the area for overnight lodging and restaurants are Mammoth Lakes (https://www.visitmammoth.com/), 29 miles south, and Bishop (https://www.bishopvisitor.com/), another 42 miles south. Some of the biggest attractions are Devils Postpile National Monument, well worth a walk in to peruse the basaltic columns, the Bristlecone pines, oldest living things on earth, and Fall Color in the aspen leaves (early October).
I predict that you will rank the 157 miles from Manteca to Lee Vining as one of your most satisfying back road trips ever.