The Tioga Road, officially California State Route 120, runs between Crane Flat and Lee Vining through Tioga Pass, the highest pass in California. A diverse and beautiful landscape awaits you, from granite outcroppings and alpine lakes to expansive meadows and evergreen forests.
Tioga Road was originally constructed in the 1880s as a mineral transit route. In 1961, it was upgraded and reopened to the public. Tioga Road was designed to showcase the spectacular scenery of the High Sierra and is considered one of the most beautiful roads in the U.S. National Park System.
Planning to go via the Tioga Road and Tioga Pass? Read on to find out what to expect and our driving tips.
What can you expect on the Tioga Road when driving through Yosemite NP?
The Tioga Road traverses a beautiful part of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Along the way, you can expect breathtaking scenery, from panoramic vistas to beautiful meadows and lakes. You will have the opportunity to stop at a number of points of interest and, if you have enough time, you can explore along the way.
We made the trip from Big Oak Flat Inlet in Yosemite National Park to Lee Vining, which is how we described it, but of course you can do the reverse.
Stop at Merced Grove or Tuolumne Grove to see the giant sequoias.
Mariposa Grove is the largest and most famous of Yosemite’s giant sequoias, but two smaller, less visited groves lie along California’s SR 120. If you enjoy hiking among the giant trees, take a walk through one of the groves. The giant sequoias are the tallest trees on earth!
Merced Grove is small, with less than two dozen trees, and rises just beyond Yosemite’s front door. The hike is about 3 miles out and back, with a climb on the way back. Tuolumne Grove is on Crane Flat, where the road turns off to the highlands of the Sierra Nevada.
The Tuolumne Grove is home to several mature redwoods, and you can even walk along the trunk of one of them: a stump known as the Dead Giant. The hike to the grove is about 2.5 miles there and back, with an uphill grade.
The Tuolumne Grove makes more sense on a trip up the Tioga Road because it is a shorter trail. In the fall, the deciduous trees are especially colorful, which is a particularly pleasant time to enjoy the grove.
Admire the calming beauty of Lukens Lake.
Along the Tioga Road you will see some beautiful mountain lakes, and Lukens Lake is 1.6 miles from the beginning of the road. The lake offers beautiful reflections to photograph, and the trail is quiet.
The least visited lake is a great place to carpool, especially if you visit it when the wildflowers are blooming in the adjacent meadows. Beautiful purple shooting stars, red-orange tiger lilies, white corn lilies with sculpted leaves, lupine, monkey flower and Indian brush bring lots of color in early summer.
Hike to the scenic lake in May
The hike to Lake May is longer, about 2.5 miles round trip, and slightly more challenging, but offers mountain views and the breathtaking vistas that Yosemite National Park and Sierra Nevada are known for. On a clear day, the view of Mount Hoffman, with the lake in the background, is exceptional.
The trail to Lake May goes all the way to the top, and if you’re an experienced hiker, you can extend the hike even further by climbing Mount Hoffman (6 miles there and back, plus another 1,500 feet of ascent!) But an easy hike on Lake May is also very scenic.
Overlooking May Lake, you can see all the way to Rest in the Clouds. From Mount Hoffman, the view is even more breathtaking. The hike to May Lake is very popular, so expect more visitors along this trail.
Admire the panoramas of the Olmsted point.
Olmsted Point is a must-see crossing for anyone traveling on Tioga Road. Just past the parking lot, there are stunning views of Clouds Rest in the foreground and the north face of Half Dome far beyond, as well as Lake Tenaya to the east and the surrounding granite landscape.
Olmsted Point is the only place along the Tioga Road with panoramic views and is also known for its “strange” rocks scattered across the landscape. Boulders and boulders are carried away from their habitats by moving glaciers and left elsewhere.
The view from the observation deck of the parking garage is breathtaking, but if you want, you can go down the steps of the observation deck for the small dome you see to the south for a clearer view. We have also seen people climbing to the top of the dome for a better view. The hike is about 0.25 miles there and back.
Enjoy the breathtaking beauty of Lake Tenaya.
Lake Tenaya is a beautiful alpine lake, one of the most beautiful lakes in California. When we took the Tioga Pass road in early October, the coast was calm and fully at our disposal.
But Lake Tenaya’s beaches are very popular in the summer when visitors swim or sunbathe, so expect more visitors on summer afternoons. During the warmer months, you can kayak on the water or picnic on the east side.
Lake Tenaya is about a mile long and is in a beautiful setting surrounded by granite peaks, except for the side along Tioga Road. The sections along the road make nice photo stops if you don’t want to explore. The trees on the far bank are reflected in the gray-green water.
But if you want to hike along the shore, the flat, shaded Tenaya Lake Pine Trail runs along the southern shore of the lake, connecting the beaches on the east side with postcard views from the west side.
Admire the vastness of Tuolumne Meadows.
Tuolumne Meadows, located more than 8,500 feet above sea level, will entice you with its vast expanse. Tuolumne Meadows is one of the largest high mountain meadows in the Sierra Nevada, but also one of the most beautiful, thanks to the surrounding mountains.
The Tuolumne River meanders through the prairie. In summer you can see an abundance of wildflowers, from clusters of shooting stars and purple catkins to white asters and bright yellow alpine goldenrod. In spring and early summer, the prairie is lush green and there may even be water from melting snow.
There are several day hikes that begin in the Tuolumne Meadows area, but most are only a few miles there and back. The shortest and easiest hike is described below. As an added bonus, the trail is also great for viewing wildflowers and wildlife.
Take an easy walk to Soda Springs and Parsons Lodge.
The easy trail to Soda Springs runs through the Tuolumne Meadows, and at this time of year there are many varieties of wildflowers to see. Watch for deer and birds on your walk! The entire walk is 1.5 miles there and back.
The soda fountains are protected by a wooden fence. Here, cold, bubbling water bubbles from the ground, creating a curious sight. The minerals in the water color the surrounding soil in different shades of pink, red and orange.
You can then turn around or visit the historic Parsons Memorial Lodge if it is open. Behind it is a beautiful bridge and the Tuolumne Meadows Visitor Center, where you will find restroom facilities. The trail is pleasant but popular.
Take a picture of the Cathedral of Lembert…. or climb!
Lembert Dome is located directly across Tioga Road from downtown Tuolumne Meadows. The striking granite formation is not iconic like the half-dome, but it is nonetheless picturesque.
If you are a reasonably experienced hiker/climber, the hike to the top of the dome is considered moderate, with an elevation gain of 900 feet. The return hike is just under 3 miles.
The view from the top is breathtaking over the Tuolumne Meadows and surrounding mountains. The final climb to the cliff can be slippery, so use caution.
You don’t have to climb the Lembert Dome to enjoy it. Explore the beautiful granite enclosure from below, take a walk a little further down and take a picture to remember it by!
Take a picture of Dana Meadows and Mammoth Peak.
Dana Meadows appeared just before Tioga Pass. The meadows are beautiful, with Mammoth Peak in the background. Especially in the spring, when the meadows are green and there is still snow on the mountain, it is a must for a photo.
Mammoth Peak measures over 12,000 feet, but is only the sixth highest peak in Yosemite. Dana Meadows is the highest prairie in Yosemite. There are no trails across the prairies, so it is a short stop.
Stopover at Tioga Pass
At 9,945 feet above sea level, Tioga Pass is the highest highway pass in the Sierra Nevada. The pass forms the eastern entrance to Yosemite National Park. So if you take an east-west route, you will have to pay to enter the park here.
Yosemite National Park has been awarded the America the Beautiful National Parks Pass.
Do you already have a pass to the national parks? The America the Beautiful National Parks Pass is valid for a full year from the month of purchase. It costs $80 and provides access (per vehicle or for 4 people) to more than 2,000 state recreation destinations, including national parks, national forests and more! Buy yours online now at REI!
Just before the steep descent to Lee Vining, there is a beautiful lookout point with a breathtaking view of the valley. Here there is also a plaque of the California Civil Engineering.
Marvel at the beauty of Tioga.
Beyond the pass, the route continues to reveal beautiful scenery and stops safely at points of interest. Tioga Lake appears shortly after leaving the pass. The breathtaking backdrop of Mount Dana, a glacial lake, makes it a perfect experience.
Tioga Lake has a picnic area and campground. Bird lovers will enjoy Tioga: it is an ideal place for birds, especially raptors such as red-tailed hawks and falcons. You can also observe the wildlife around the lake, as it is a little-used area.
Fishing, seasonal wildflower viewing and picnicking are popular activities at Lake Tioga. You can also make a brief stop to enjoy the view.
Photo of Lake Elleri
Your last stop by car before getting off in Lee Vining is Lake Ellery, another beautiful alpine lake. Stop and take a few photos to enjoy the beautiful view.
There is no official hiking trail at Ellery Lake, but you can take a short walk along the road to see the lake from different angles. We saw some fishermen on the shore, but we weren’t sure if it was safe to go down, so we stayed in the parking lot.
Stop at Lee Vining.
At the end of the road you will reach the small community of Lee Vining. Here you will find the majestic Mono Lake. Don’t forget to visit the Mono Lake Tuffs: we have an article on the best places to see the limestone formations.
In Lee Vining, you should also stop for dinner at the Whoa Nellie Deli, where the portions are large and the flavors delicious.
Don’t forget to enjoy the ride itself!
While each of the best stops along the Tioga Road through Yosemite National Park is worth mentioning, the road itself is equally scenic. Every part of the road offers photogenic scenery, and the descent over the pass is simply breathtaking.
So if you drive down Tioga Road without stopping anywhere, you still have experience on your to-do list!
Key facts about the Tioga Road (Ca 120 Highway) through Yosemite National Park
Tioga Road, which connects the Big Oak Flat information station and the junction with US Highway 395 at Lee Vining, is 72.2 miles long. It is fully paved and generally well maintained.
The Tioga Road is the highest road in Yosemite National Park, at about 10,000 feet above sea level at its highest point. It is closed during the winter season due to snowfall. Although exact opening and closing dates vary from year to year, the road is typically closed from early November through May or even June. Information on road closures can be found here.
The road has a wide enough lane in each direction, and there are walking paths and viewpoints along the way where visitors can safely stop and enjoy the view. At many lookout points, explanatory panels provide information about what you are seeing.
The road is twisty and winding, and some sections have significant inclines. There were no guardrails when we drove it. Keep in mind that the weather in the mountains is very unpredictable and poor driving conditions can make driving on the road difficult. Take plenty of time.
There are a few places where you can still take the old Tioga Road as it was before it was upgraded: The 5-mile stretch down to Yosemite Creek near White Wolf, and the 2-mile stretch through Snow Plain to the intersection with the May Lake Trail.
While trailers are not prohibited on Tioga Pass, keep in mind that the section between Tioga Pass and Lee Vining is very steep. The park provides tips on how to pull a trailer through Tioga Pass here.
If you break down on Tioga Road, help can take a long time to arrive, especially if it comes earlier or later. Be prepared if you do break down.
Planning to rent a car for your trip on the road to Tioga? Check out the car rental section. You will browse through several providers to get the best price and find the one that offers the lowest one-way rental surcharge (if any).
What is the best direction to go through Tioga Pass?
If you are concerned about deposits, we recommend going east to west. If you drive from east to west, you will be on the inside, closer to the mountainside than to the cliff face. It’s probably easier on your nerves to climb the steep and scary section than to ski down it (it’s a steep descent!).
The scenery is breathtaking no matter which direction you drive, but you can only enjoy it as a passenger while driving. The road demands the full attention of the driver. Again, you should allow enough time to stop frequently and let the driver enjoy the view as well.
If you want the sun on your back while driving, drive from east to west in the early morning.
Tioga Route map right through Yosemite National Park
Please note that Google Maps may not display the route correctly if the road is closed. You are looking for the CA 120 highway that runs through Yosemite National Park.
Tioga Tips for driving on the road
Choose a day with nice weather
Even when the Tioga Road is open, snowfall or even blizzards can occur early or late in the season. So you will need winter tires and chains in case of bad weather conditions.
Not only is the road to Tioga difficult in bad weather, but you can’t enjoy the distinctive views or take good photos when it’s gray, rainy or snowy.
Check the weather forecast and choose a day when the weather is dry, sunny and clear. We made the trip on a clear day in early October and the ride was beautiful.
to drive along the route during the day
The road to Tioga is winding and mountainous. Drive in good visibility and during the day, not only for safety reasons, but also because the main reasons to drive are the views and the hike, which you can best enjoy in daylight.
Please fill out the form before you begin your move.
The gas is in Lee Vining, on the east side of Tioga Road. If you are coming from the west, refuel in Groveland, about 15 miles from the Big Oak Flat information station, for cheaper prices. You can also refuel in Crane Flat in Yosemite Valley.
Bringing food and water
Bring a cooler to hold plenty of drinking water and other beverages, and bring snacks and a packed lunch for the road.
Give sufficient time
Give yourself more time than you think. You can drive on the Tioga Road between Big Oak Flat and Lee Vining in about 2.5 hours without stopping, but trust us, you’ll want to stop often and explore.
We suggest that you set aside a full day for hiking along the Tioga Road. If you plan to drive one way, you can spend more time hiking or exploring the road. If you plan to drive from one end to the other and back again, you will have less time to walk, but it should still be possible during the day if you start early.
You can also stay overnight along the way and spread the one-way trip over two days, giving you time to take longer hikes and enjoy the beauty of the High Sierra at your leisure. Tuolumne Meadows Lodge offers seasonal accommodations and there are campgrounds along the route.
Waiting for other visitors
Although the Tioga Road is not as crowded as Yosemite Valley during peak season, you will still encounter traffic and other visitors, especially at off-route viewpoints and on short, easy trails.
Early summer is a popular season because the road is likely to be at its most beautiful then, with lush green meadows, tons of wildflowers and snow on the mountains. Early summer is also usually a high season for Yosemite because the waterfalls flow well then.
We drove on Tioga Road in the fall, and although there were other visitors at places like Olmsted Point, it was still fairly quiet and we were able to hike a few trails in relative solitude.
Diapers are a must on the way to Tioga if you want to get out of the car to explore. A waterproof windbreaker or light jacket is also very useful in the summer, especially in early and late summer.
We recommend that you wear long pants and long-sleeved shirts on hiking trails. Closed walking shoes or sturdy shoes with good grip are essential for hiking and climbing.
Wear sunscreen and insect repellent.
A sun hat, sunglasses, sunscreen and lip balm with SPF are recommended if you are going camping or spending any time in the car. It is important to use insect repellent if you plan to camp, especially on the Tuolumne River or other rivers.
Don’t rely on cell phone reception.
Cell phone reception may be erratic or non-existent along Tioga Road. Download road maps and other information you may need for your trip.
The GPS smartwatch will be useful not only in Yosemite National Park, but also in other parks and wilderness areas. Explore the high-end Garmin Fenix 6 (on sale at Amazon or REI), or the more affordable Garmin Instinct (on sale at REI or Amazon).
A backup navigation and communication tool is useful if you often visit parks and other wilderness areas. With a satellite subscription, InReach Mini lets you send and receive text messages even when there is no cell phone reception. It weighs just 3.5 ounces and has location and SOS functions.
Buy it at REI. Buy it at Amazon.
Bring your camera and binoculars.
We use the small Panasonic Lumix DC-ZS70 when we camp because it fits in a coat pocket but takes great pictures. It has a 30x zoom and a Leica lens and takes decent pictures of birds and small animals.
If you like bird watching, bring your Tioga Road binoculars. We love our compact Celestron Trailseeker binoculars: they are not too heavy and they are waterproof.
Planning to further explore the natural beauty of California? Check out our other articles!
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Frequently asked questions
Is the Tioga Pass through Yosemite open?
How long does it take to go through Tioga Pass?
Tioga Pass: 1.75 hours.
Where is the Tioga Pass at Yosemite?
Tioga Pass – Wikipedia
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