The Other Yosemite and Beyond
Yosemite is one of our country’s most popular national parks and attracts more than 4 million tourists annually. People travel from around the world to visit, but usually leave after having seen just 1 percent of the park that comprises Yosemite Valley.
Yosemite is one of our country’s most popular national parks and attracts more than 4 million tourists annually. People travel from around the world to visit, but usually leave after having seen just 1 percent of the park that comprises Yosemite Valley. With the valley’s magnificent summits of Half Dome and El Capitan, cascading waters of Yosemite Falls (the highest waterfall in North America) and abundance of visitor facilities, the other 1,200 square miles just get overlooked. Those who venture beyond this crowded spot, however, are rewarded with captivating sights and compelling history.
With summer fast approaching, the time is perfect to plan a drive on the Tioga Road through Tioga Pass to Mono Lake, the town of Lee Vining and the ghost town of Bodie. Adding a visit to Glacier Point (inaccessible during winter), the historic Wawona Hotel (now The Big Trees Lodge), the Mariposa Grove (reopening June 15 after a four-year restoration) and the Sugar Pine Railroad round out an experience completely outside Yosemite Valley.
Having spent many an overnight at Curry Village (now Half Dome Village), Yosemite Valley Lodge and the Ahwahnee (whose new name, The Majestic Yosemite Hotel, sounds more like the three-quel in a film series with “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” and “The Grand Budapest Hotel”), this time we chose to stay just outside the south park entrance at the Tenaya Lodge. Less central to the Village, it’s a more upscale destination resort experience than the lodging within the park. Having myriad activities and six dining venues all onsite is the trade-off for being more than an hour’s drive from Yosemite Village. Since we were focusing our time outside that area, however, the hotel’s location was actually closer to the sites to the south and added just 30 minutes each way to the Tioga Road drive.
Day One was a leisurely drive up the 41 with lunch in the Oakhurst area. Changing it up once again, we non-gamblers stopped at Chukchansi Casino to eat. The buffet’s Mongolian barbecue was a hit, but watching people in trance-like states tethered by club cards to huge, complex slot machines was rather unsettling. Were they simply feeding credit into those machines or receiving some sort of sustenance or communication back?
We have passed the Sugar Pine Railroad in Fish Camp countless times, but last fall’s Railroad Fire (named for its proximity to the business) persuaded us to stop. What a gem we had overlooked! We spoke with the general manager, Shane Blackwell, about the speed in which a puff of smoke across the highway turned into an inferno. Twelve employees fought the blowing embers for 24 hours until professional firefighters arrived. Thanks to them all, visitors can still experience an original steam locomotive journey along the Sugar Pine Railroad. The narrated ride and museum bring back a time when lumberjacks felled timber here and sent it by flume to Madera. The railroad is open mid-March through late October; make reservations for the dinners, melodramas, gold prospecting and train rides at YMSPRR.com. That evening, we drove 15 minutes north to the historic white clapboard Wawona Hotel for dinner. Built in
1876, it’s an original mountain resort hotel. It is authentically Victorian
without internet, air conditioning, TV or telephones in the rooms (only half with private baths); the dining room was lovely with a well-rounded menu of excellent (and modern!) food.
Day Two’s drive along the Tioga Road (Highway 120) through the pass began early in order to squeeze everything into one day. Our timing couldn’t have been better just a day after the route reopened following an early autumn snowfall. The landscape was truly magical – icicles and lightly snow-clad vistas with occasional patches of wildflowers and vibrant blue skies. Depending on the capriciousness of Mother Nature, this road (which begins at Tuolumne Grove east of Crane Flat and ends at the Tioga Pass entrance to Yosemite Park) closes from November to late May-early June once the ice, fallen trees, rockslides and winter road damage are cleared.
Variations to this drive are dependent on the sites you choose and whether you add a day. You can easily reach Lee Vining in under three hours if you drive with few stops. If traveling on a Saturday or Sunday, that allows time for lunch in the town of Lee Vining before a 60-minute naturalist-led tour of the bizarre limestone formations (tufa) in the South Tufa area of Mono Lake (begins 1 p.m. at the South Tufa kiosk). If touring on your own, first visit the Mono Basin Visitor Center in Lee Vining to understand the lake ecology and science of tufa formations. Then drive the 4 miles (South 395 to 120 East) to the dirt road and parking by the kiosk and walk the 0.7-mile trail loop past the tufas. Bodie is 45 minutes away (395N to 270E), requires an hour to tour and 3 1/2 hours to return to Tenaya Lodge for dinner. You could opt to spend more time in Lee Vining and Mono Lake the first day, with dinner and overnight stay (lodging options on TripAdvisor) and tour Bodie the following day, followed by lunch in Lee Vining and a leisurely drive back for the overnight stay at the Tenaya Lodge.
Sites along the drive:
- Tuolumne Meadows, Visitor Center and Tuolumne Meadows Grill: Largest high-elevation meadow in the Sierra Nevada (8,600 feet), it is surrounded by rugged mountain peaks and carved domes. The Visitor Center explains how a huge Ice Age glacier (2,000 feet thick and 60 miles long) created those granite features. With simple, made-to-order breakfasts (8-11 a.m.) and lunches (11:15 a.m.-6 p.m.), the grill’s food was much better than the spotty reviews online.
- Olmstead Point: Offers high panoramic views from a very different perspective than the valley. Bring binoculars to see ant-like climbers negotiating the cables at the top of Half Dome. “Erratic” boulders (dropped precariously on granite slopes as glacial ice melted), glazed rock (smooth, glistening rock polished by the weight and sliding of debris-laden glaciers) and deep grooves cut in rock faces from glacial debris make this area fascinating.
- Tenaya Lake: Largest lake in Yosemite.
- Tioga Pass: The highest point (9,945 feet) on the highest road crossing the Sierras (9,945 feet), it’s the eastern entrance for Yosemite National Park.
- Lee Vining: A small community of hardy souls who promote and protect the future of Mono Lake Basin. It was begun as a mining town; one of the early prospectors (Leroy Vining) found little ore but amassed a fortune selling timber to surrounding mining towns.
- Mono Lake and the South Tufa Grove: A curious 65-square-mile expanse of water 6,400 feet above sea level, Mono Lake exists from runoff from the eastern Sierras. Islands in the center were formed by the same volcanic forces that created local craters and the uplift of the Sierra Nevada mountain range. With no outlet, evaporation creates water three times saltier than the ocean. It’s hostile to fish; life thrives in Mono Lake on a smaller scale. Diminutive brine shrimp and alkali flies flourish, bringing migratory birds in the millions. Tufa towers are formed when calcium-rich underwater springs bubble up into the alkaline waters, creating limestone deposits that form otherworldly towers up to 30 feet high. Formed underwater, the 200- to 900-year-old tufas are now visible because of receding lake waters.
- Bodie: One of the best preserved ghost towns in the United States, its buildings are kept in a state of “arrested decay.” Gold discovered here in 1859 swelled the population to 10,000 by 1879. This heyday was short-lived as ore depleted in 1881, miners left and mining companies closed. By 1886, the population dwindled to 1,500. A 1892 fire crippled the town, but a newly discovered cyanide process for low-grade ore partially revived it until a 1932 fire destroyed 90 percent of the town. Having once produced $35 million in gold and silver, Bodie faded into obscurity until 1962, when it became a State Historic Park. Today, its museum, homes and businesses provide a snapshot of the past with their exteriors and interiors preserved just as they were left, still furnished and stocked with goods. Summer is the time to visit; its 8,379-foot elevation and dry air make it very cold otherwise. Open 9 a.m.-6 p.m. May through October; restrooms and water are the only services offered. Daily tours of the Bodie Standard Mill show an intact stamp mill where gold was extracted and formed into bullion bars. For information, call (760) 647-6445.
Day three began with a morning drive to Glacier Point (41N to Glacier Point Road). Our last visit to this 7,214-foot elevation was after a grueling 3 1/2-hour hike. Imagine our shock when we crested the hill — hot, sweaty and gasping for air — to be “greeted” by a profusion of buses and tourists. The ice cream at the snack bar, however, was more than welcoming. The panoramic views (arguably the best in Yosemite) include Yosemite Valley from high above, Half Dome and three waterfalls (Nevada, Vernal and Yosemite Falls).
Stop at the Mariposa Grove before leaving the park. It contains the largest and most impressive grove of sequoias in Yosemite; some of its approximately 500 sequoias are thousands of years old. The Fallen Monarch toppled centuries ago but is still preserved because of its natural tannic acids. The Grizzly Giant is one of the largest with limbs larger than any non-sequoia tree in the grove. The tunnel tree (cut out for horse-drawn carriages) is a survivor of a promotion to publicize the grove, which successfully led to its inclusion in Yosemite National Park in 1906.