California Scenic Drives: Tioga Road

By: Clark Norton

Tioga Road offers one of the most spectacular passages over the Sierra Nevada, making it the highest automobile pass in California, with an elevation change of more than one mile from west to east.

Along the route, views include towering peaks, exquisite lakes, vibrant meadows, and lush forests with giant sequoia groves. Tuolumne Meadows offers visitors a chance to see how ancient glaciers created this serene and rugged landscape.

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The Tioga Road provides motorists with an opportunity to experience this scenery from a vehicle. For hiking enthusiasts, it offers some of the most beautiful High Sierra backcountry trails.

Historical Qualities of Tigoa Road

The area now encompassed by Yosemite National Park was once home to various nations of Native Americans. By the mid-1800s, when American explorers first caught sight of the area, the natives were primarily of Southern Miwok ancestry and called themselves the Ahwaneechee. The word Yosemite is in fact derived from the Ahwaneechee word for grizzly bear, uzumati.

These earliest inhabitants of Yosemite soon found themselves at odds with the new settlers of the area. The Gold Rush of 1849 brought thousands of settlers to Yosemite, many crossing over the Sierra Nevada in search of their dreams.

Conflict between the natives and the new settlers followed, and eventually California authorized the organization of the Mariposa Battalion to gather the Ahwaneechee and relocate them to various other places in the state. Thus the Yosemite valley opened for tourism, which today brings more than three million visitors annually.

The many new visitors to the beautiful area did not come without impact, so citizens began a campaign to preserve the area. On June 30, 1864, President Abraham Lincoln signed a bill granting Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias to the state of California as an inalienable public trust. This marked the first time in history that the federal government set aside scenic lands simply to protect them and to allow for their enjoyment by all people. 

This act also paved the way for the establishment of the nation's first national park, Yellowstone, in 1872. Later, a concerned and energetic conservationist, John Muir, brought about the creation of Yosemite National Park on October 1, 1890.

Qualities of Tigoa Road

The Tioga Road crosses right through the middle of an area known worldwide for its unique natural features. Yosemite National Park includes three major natural features: forested mountains and bald granite domes, mountain meadows, and Earth's largest living thing -- the giant sequoia tree. Two hundred miles of roads help travelers enjoy all these features, whether by car or by the free shuttle buses offered in some areas. To get to know the real Yosemite, however, you must leave your car and take a few steps on a trail.

The mountains and granite domes of the Sierra Nevada began to take shape about 500 million years ago, when the region

lay beneath an ancient sea. The seabed consisted of thick layers of sediment, which eventually were folded, twisted, and thrust above sea level.

At the same time, molten rock welled up from the Earth and slowly cooled beneath the layers of sediment, forming granite. Over millions of years, erosion wore away most of the overlying rock, exposing the granite. While this continued, water and then glaciers shaped and carved the face of Yosemite, leaving massive peaks and bare granite domes. Today, the park ranges from 2,000 feet to more than 13,000 feet above sea level.

The meadows of Yosemite are natural wonders in their own right. They are the most diverse parts of Yosemite's ecosystem, providing food and shelter for nearly all the wildlife living in the park.

In the summer, the meadows and lakes are busy with life, as the plants and animals take advantage of the short warm season to grow, reproduce, and store food. The meadows are also unique because they are immense fields of bliss recessed and secluded in the middle of towering granite mountains. The more popular and accessible meadows are found in Yosemite Valley, Tuolumne Meadows, and Wawona. The middle and upper elevations of the park also contain secluded, perfect mountain meadows.

The mighty sequoia is the largest living thing on Earth. Yosemite is one of the few locations where the sequoias can be found, growing in any of three sequoia groves.

Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias, 35 miles south of Yosemite Valley, is the largest of the groves. The oldest of the sequoia trees have been dated at more than 2,700 years old. The greatest of the trees have trunk diameters of more than 30 feet! Although the more slender redwood trees along California's coast surpass the sequoia in height, the much more robust sequoia is no shorty, with the highest measuring more than 300 feet tall.

This map will guide you along Tiaoga Road.
This map will guide you along Tiaoga Road.

Qualities of Tigoa Road

For more than a century, Yosemite National Park has been a premier destination for recreation. Its unique natural qualities and breathtaking scenery provide the perfect backdrop for outdoor recreational activities. Put hiking on top of your to-do list because just a bit of hiking can take you to places more rewarding than sites just off the highway.

The summer season, although short along the Sierra Nevada, offers the most accommodating environment for recreation. Hiking, fishing, camping, wildlife viewing, mountain and rock climbing, backpacking, and photography are some activities available in the park. Yosemite's wilderness presents experiences for both seasoned hikers and novices. About 800 miles of trails offer a variety of climate, elevation, and spectacular scenery.

In the winter, Yosemite's high country is a serene, white wonderland. The land is covered by deep, undisturbed snow, creating a landscape far different from the summer's. The winter months in Yosemite are seeing increased amounts of mountaineering activities. Meanwhile, cross-country skiing and snowshoeing have grown in popularity and opened up a new world for backpackers.

Whether you visit in the winter or summer, Yosemite National Park offers an unparalleled chance to get away from it all.

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Highlights of Tioga Road

Cathedral Peak is visible from Tiaoga Road/Big Oak Flat Road.
Cathedral Peak is visible from Tiaoga Road/Big Oak Flat Road.

Tioga Road traverses an area in which the most memorable features are remembered not only for their superb natural beauty but also for their unmatched size. Massive granite domes and cliffs take your breath away. Sequoia trees have branches that are larger than the largest of other tree species, while the park's famous waterfalls are remembered for their size and spectacle.

For ages, Yosemite has lured and inspired painters, photographers, and writers. Yet most find that no work of art can adequately provide the sense of amazement and serenity granted to Yosemite's visitors.

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Spring provides the best time to see Yosemite's waterfalls, as the spring thaw brings with it an abundance of runoff water to fall from cliffs and peaks. Peak runoff typically occurs in May or June, with some waterfalls (including Yosemite Falls) often dwindling to only a trickle or even becoming completely dry by August.

Yosemite Falls are the highest in the park at 2,425 feet and are the fifth highest falls in the world. From here, you can walk to Lower Yosemite Fall (320 feet) in just a few minutes. A hike to the top of Upper Yosemite Fall (1,430 feet) is a strenuous, all-day hike.

Other famous falls include the Bridalveil Falls (620 feet), Nevada Falls (594 feet), Ribbon Falls (1,612 feet), Staircase Falls (1,300 feet), and Horsetail Falls (1,000 feet). Horsetail Falls, on the east side of El Capitan, is famous for appearing to be on fire when it reflects the orange glow of sunset in mid-February.

The Tioga Road passes through an area of rugged mountain scenery mixed with sublime mountain meadows. The road continues through an area featuring sparkling mountain lakes; bare granite domes; and lofty, forested mountain peaks. Some of the best views are available on the many scenic overlooks along the road, while hiking is sometimes necessary to view that perfect mountainscape.

Consider taking this tour of Yosemite National Park, beginning on the east end by ascending the Tioga Pass and entering the park.

Tuolumne Meadows: Enjoy the drive as you approach Tuolumne Meadows. Expect to spend several hours learning and exploring through tours and tram rides. You can also take advantage of the concessions offered by the park.

Tenaya Lake: Fifteen to twenty miles past Tuolumne Meadows, look to the south and notice Tenaya Lake. Look up to the north, and you see the towering peaks of Mount Hoffmann and Tuolumne Peak. One of these peaks is just five feet shorter than the other; can you tell which one is which? Continue along the Tioga Road throughout most of the park, a fantastic drive.

Tuolumne : As you approach the junction of the Tioga and Big Oak Flat Roads, chances are you'll want to get out and enjoy the sights. The Junction at Crane Flat is a good stopping place. To the north is Tuolumne Grove, a short hike onto a pretty grove of sequoia trees with a self-guided nature trail. A little down the road and to the south is Merced Grove. The trail into Merced is more difficult than at Tuolumne but just as enjoyable.

Big Oak Flat Station: As you near the end of the byway at the Big Oak Flat Station, be sure to stop and gather information about Yosemite. As you exit the park, you may wish to turn to the north and take a side trip up to Hetch Hetchy Reservoir. This is an especially great idea if you like the outdoors and backcountry trails. Fishing is available at the reservoir.

Yosemite Valley: After a visit to the reservoir, turn back toward Big Oak Flat Road and head down into the Yosemite Valley, about 40 miles to the south. Stop at the visitor center for up-to-date information about activities and sights, including the famous Half Dome, El Capitan, and Bridalveil Falls. Hotels and restaurants are plentiful here, which makes the area an excellent place to stay the night.

Wawona: Continue south along Highway 41 (Wawona Road) into Wawona. Although smaller than Yosemite Valley, plenty of amenities are still to be found here, including the Pioneer Museum History Center. If you visit in the summer, hop on the free shuttle bus at the Wawona store, which will take you seven miles away to the Mariposa Grove. The grove is famous for the "drive through trees," the giant sequoias. Although cars no longer drive through these trees, feel free to explore by foot or tram (for a fee). Toward the top of the grove, a small museum and gift shop help orient you.

Sierra National Forest: The tour ends as you head south and out the South Entrance toward Fish Camp and into the Sierra National Forest, which is a whole new treasure to discover.

Since Tioga Road is the highest automobile pass in California, you can only imagine the mountain views you'll see. Best of all, this byway takes you right through Yosemite National

Park -- one of America's truest natural beauties.

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