U.S. Scenic Highway 395: Gateway to Yosemite’s Tioga Pass (Part 4)
Yosemite National Park. It is such a vast natural wonderland. It is one of my favorite places. Typically when I visit, I stay in the popular Yosemite Valley area, driving in through Wawona. I bet most tourists do the same thing. I’ve written about some of my past visits several times, once as a general overview and again about a more recent fall visit.
Last week, a friend and I wandered through Yosemite again, enjoying its wonders. This time, however, we entered from the east via the Tioga Pass. This is the highest pass through the Sierras, reaching an elevation of 9,945 feet. I had driven this pass before, years ago, but its magnificent vistas and wondrous geology had faded from memory. If you have not already, consider using this eastern entrance close to Lee Vining, CA, off Interstate 395.
Highway 120 over the Tioga Pass follows a route that is not new. The Indians in the area crossed the pass routinely for thousands of years, and then wagons started making the trek in the 1800s. Eventually, the road was developed into an unpaved winding treacherous road that was used for decades, even though it took forever and was hell on tires. In 1961, the National Park Service completed the major highway across the pass, greatly increasing traffic into Yosemite National Park from this entrance.
The day before our journey, it was rainy. In fact, there were thunderstorms and downpours in Bishop, CA, where we stayed overnight. The morning was dry, but still cloudy and grey with a 20% chance of thunderstorms in Yosemite itself. We were hopeful—that we might get to experience one of those quick thunderstorms, but no such luck. We did not get rained on. We did see gorgeous scenery, some wildflowers and a couple animals throughout the day as we traveled the roughly 75 miles from the Tioga Pass into Yosemite Valley.
As we started the drive up over the Tioga Pass, the majestic grey mountains were dominant. There was a relatively small body of water to the south hugging the road.
Later, when we stopped at another overlook, we realized we were in the alpine zone (9,500 to 13,000 feet). It was easy to see the tree line, above which trees would not grow, on the rugged terrain high overhead. The Pika is a little animal well suited to this terrain, and one came out to investigate—when he was not running hither and yon across the little meadow.
Mount Dana (13,057 feet) and Mount Gibson (8,412 feet) are two of the highest—and perhaps most unique—peaks in Yosemite. Unlike the granite monoliths throughout the park, these two peaks are the aftermath of volcanic activity and the metamorphic rock that spewed forth through a long-ago eruption and then were later exposed through erosion. When not covered in snow, they are more brownish in color that the rest of Yosemite’s grey peaks.
The Cathedral Mountain Range, an offshoot of the Sierra Nevada, is due south of Toulumne Meadows. These peaks were formed by glaciers. However, the tops of the range were above the level of the highest glaciation, so they remain un-eroded and thus have more spires than other peaks in Yosemite.
The area in the foreground of the Cathedral Range, as recently as the 1960s, was a wet meadow. But the meadow is slowly drying out, giving rise to conditions that better support the growth of trees. There are no definitive answers yet as to why this is happening, but most scientists agree it is a reaction to global warming.
As we traveled west, the road ran along sheer walls of rocks that were punctuated with trees and other plants that just put down roots and hung on.
Tenaya Lake is situated between Toulumne Meadows and Yosemite Valley. Its surface sits at an elevation of 8,150 feet. Even in 2015—the fourth year of a drought—the lake is impressive. The lake’s basin was formed by the same glacier activity that formed Half Dome in the Yosemite Valley. The Mariposa Brigade that entered the area in 1851 to relocate local Indians onto reservations named the lake Tenaya, after a local chief. Chief Tenaya protested, saying the lake already had a name: Pie-we-ack, meaning “Lake of the Shining Rocks.”
Olmsted Point is an overlook that offers an impressive vista, showcasing remnants of the powerful geological forces that shaped this landscape. It was 80 to 100 million years ago that deep pools of magma crystalized into the massive granite blocks evident today. The most recent glacier passed through this area about 20,000 years ago, polishing the granite with a smooth surface. Whether they fell or were left behind by the passing glacier, huge granite boulders dot the landscape, looking as if some giant toddler dropped a bag of marbles.
Our next mini-excursion was to drive the 1.7-mile narrow bumpy road out to the parking area for the May Lake Trail. With the recent rains in the areas over the last several days, the landscape was luscious, green, wet. The only thing not appreciated was the mosquitos enjoying the small pockets of standing water!
On the main road again, heading to Yosemite Valley, we saw lots of wildflowers. Unfortunately, opportunities to photograph those flowers did not surface. We captured a couple shots of a small red flower nestled among the rocks, but we are not sure of its name.
The wildflowers we could name included lupine, wallflowers, snow plants, and dogwood. The following photos are from earlier trips.
A sad note on the drive were the many brown and brittle trees along the road. We speculate that either the drought or perhaps some blight have attacked the trees. There did not seem to be evidence of fire in these locales.
The closer we came to the popular seven-mile Yosemite Valley, the more the most iconic images of Yosemite came into view:
Half Dome is the granite dome on the eastern edge of Yosemite Valley that rises 4,737 feet above the valley floor.
El Capitan is the 3,000 foot granite monolith at the north end of Yosemite Valley.
The Mighty Merced River is a 145-mile river than runs a steep and swift route through the southern portion of Yosemite Valley.
Bridalveil Fall is one of the most prominent falls in Yosemite Valley; it measures 617 feet in height and flows year-round.
There was even a small waterfall along the road, enhanced—it seems—by the overnight rain. Many visitors stopped to gawk and snap photos.
Before exiting via the South Gate—heading to Highway 41, Fresno and eventually back to Bakersfield—we enjoyed my favorite view of the valley: Tunnel View. I can still recall my first trip to Yosemite, coming out of the tunnel and seeing the panoramic sweep from El Capitan to Cloud’s Rest, Half Dome and Bridalveil Fall. First constructed in 1993, the tunnel was renovated in 2008, mainly to improve drainage and add accessible parking and better pedestrian flow. The actual tunnel and view were not changed, leaving the majestic view that as many as 6,000 people a day enjoy during the height of the tourist season. Blue skies create a more dramatic view, but even the muted gray tones of this gloomy day were impressive.
Thanks go to my friend Raquel, who joined me on this Yosemite trip. We shared my camera, but she took the photos that required hiking any distance from the car. She plans to wait for another day to hike the 10 miles from the May Lake Trail to Yosemite Valley!
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A Few John Muir Quotes from His First Visit in Yosemite
“I have crossed the Range of Light, surely the brightest and best of all the Lord has built; and rejoicing in its glory, I gladly, gratefully, hopefully pray I may see it again.”
“Everything seems consciously peaceful, thoughtful, faithfully waiting God’s will.”
“But now I’ll have to go, for there is nothing to spare in the way of provisions. I’ll surely be back, however, surely I’ll be back. No other place has ever so overwhelmingly attracted me as this hospitable, Godful wilderness.”
“The basin of this famous Yosemite stream is extremely rocky—seems fairly to be paved with domes like a street with big cobblestones. I wonder if I shall ever be allowed to explore it. It draws me so strongly. I would make any sacrifice to try and read its lessons. I thank God for this glimpse of it. The charms of these mountains are beyond all common reason, unexplainable and mysterious as life itself.”
A FEW LAST VIEWS FROM THE TIOGA PASS