Yosemite National Park – Beyond the Valley
Yosemite National Park preserves a glorious handiwork of water and erosion spanning 30 million years. The overwhelming magnificence of the valley is etched permanently in my heart since I saw it for the first time while exiting the Wawona Tunnel. There is nothing like Yosemite National Park on this planet, and obviously its unique scenery attracts millions of visitors every summer.
You have a great option to leave the crowds at the valley, especially during weekends, and head towards Tuolumne Meadows. It is one of the largest high-elevation meadows in the Sierra Nevada at 8,600 feet. A 47-mile scenic Tioga Road between Crane Flat and Tioga Pass is open around late May through October, depending on snow conditions. Public transport is also available to reach Tuolumne Meadows, which needs advance reservations.
Best time to visit
Late May to October is the only time to visit Tuolumne Meadows, if you are planning a conventional way of visiting it, that is by driving. You may visit it by hiking or cross-country skiing when the road is closed, but there will be no services. Food, water, and other services usually start a month after the road opening and close a month prior to road closing.
Where to Stay and Eat
The most popular option is camping at one of the campgrounds. Park has four campgrounds accessible from Tioga Road – White Wolf, Yosemite Creek, Porcupine Flat, and Tuolumne Meadows.
A comfortable option near the eastern entrance is Tuolumne Meadows Lodge. It offers 69 canvas-tent cabins with meals.
If you would like to enjoy backcountry without carrying all that weight consider making an advance booking for High Sierra Camps, an interesting service to check.
Outside of the Park, Lee Vining is a perfect option on the east side of the Tioga Road with a bonus trip to Mono Lake.
A Seven-day pass of $35 per vehicle for all non-commercial vehicles. You have an option to buy an annual pass of $70 just for Yosemite or an annual pass of $80 for all the National Parks and Federal Recreational Lands.
Check the National Park Service website for more details, roads, and trails conditions.
Park Visitor Centers
There is a visitor center and a wilderness center in the High Sierra of Yosemite.
Tuolumne Meadows Visitor Center
Stop by to get some suggestions from the park rangers to plan your day and stamp your national park passport.
Parsons Memorial Lodge
This rustic stone lodge was built by the Sierra Club in 1915. It is approximately 1040 square feet of a humble, yet massive structure. The building is symmetrical and rectangular in plan. It is named after Edward Taylor Parsons, a businessman from New York and a supporter of Sierra Club. It was built to serve as a permanent club headquarters and meeting place with a reading room and library.
Things to do
Start driving on Tioga Road early and keep ample time for short hikes along the way.
Fill up your car tank at Crane Flat, the western end of the road. Enjoy some peaceful time under giant sequoias at Tuolumne Grove and Merced Grove. I will highly recommend stopping for a short hike at Lukens Lake for striking views of North Dome, El Capitan, and Eagle Peak. Take a 2.5-mile easy hike to May Lake through the pine forest.
Enjoy a completely different perspective of the Yosemite Valley from Olmsted Point. Many other viewpoints are worth stopping before you reach Tuolumne Meadows. A vast subalpine meadow where Tuolumne River meanders leisurely and peaks and domes stand guard around it. It is one of the serene places I have visited.
Tioga Road continues up further towards Tioga Pass at 9,945 feet and then slopes down to Mono Lake and Lee Vining.
Few trails are open to horses near the eastern side of the Tioga Road. Please check the National Park Services website for the regulations and trail conditions.
The calm waters of Tenaya Lake are inviting families to enjoy kayaking, especially during sunset.
Fishing is permitted with a valid license, please make sure to check regulations, there are many!
Hiking and Backpacking
Several hiking trails start from the edges of Tuolumne Meadows leading in all directions to impressive scenery. It is an epic wilderness for backpacking and hiking, as well as for a tranquil place to indulge in contemplation while photographing or painting.
John Muir and Pacific Crest Trails pass through nearby enticing backpackers. A backcountry permit is required for overnight stays in the wilderness.
These are my favorite short and interesting hikes for families with young children. You may want to read these useful tips to start hiking with kids.
Soda Springs and Parsons Lodge
This 1.5-mile roundtrip trail goes to Soda Springs, where carbonated, cold water bubbles out of the ground. Soda Springs are protected within a log enclosure. Close by historic Parsons Memorial Lodge offers exhibits during open hours.
A 2.8-mile roundtrip trail climbs up 850 feet of lofty granite Lembert Dome for splendid views of Tuolumne Meadows, Cathedral, and Unicorn Peaks. Add Dog Lake to cool off and relax.
A short 2-mile hike with only 500 feet elevation gain has some of the most spectacular high-country views off of Tioga Road. At the ridge crest, the trail drops 200 feet to Middle Gaylor Lake, which may be frozen even in July.
A 2.4-mile hike with about 1,000-foot elevation gain reaches the gorgeous glacial lake at the base of Unicorn Peak.
Though there are plenty of long hikes to explore the natural and human history of the area, here are two of my favorites.
Seven miles with 1,000-foot elevation gain takes hikers to Upper Cathedral Lake. This is on my list to hike next time when I visit Yosemite. I will highly recommend trying your luck to get a camping permit and camp at night next to the lake for a spectacular night sky and a gorgeous sunrise. Read this backpacking gear guide to select the right gear for your backpacking trips.
A perfect hike for waterfall lovers, in 5.5 miles it reaches to Tuolumne Fall and White Cascade, continue one more mile to California Fall, and a mile further to LeConte Fall, and if you still have time hike about 1.5 miles to Waterwheel Falls before retracing your steps to the trailhead.
Enjoy your Yosemite Mountain National Park beyond valley visit responsibly. Here is a fun National Parks Quiz for you.
Happy and safe travels!