During the hottest days of summer, the best way to enjoy Yosemite National Park is to spend most of your time in the higher elevations, in the eastern side of the park, along Tioga Road. The area is open only in the summer, but when it is, it offers breathtaking views of the High Sierras and the High Country of Yosemite National Park.
I visited the park with my family during the first week of June, just a few days after Tioga Pass opened. Since we ended up in the park during some of the hottest days of the early summer, Yosemite Valley proved too hot for us to spend much time in. So we spent most of our time in the High Country of Yosemite National Park, along the Tioga Pass Road.
The scenery was just as stunning as in the more famous areas of the park, and the lower temperatures made our visit more enjoyable. The following are only a few of the many things to do in Yosemite’s High Country along Tioga Road.
1. Drive Through Tioga Pass
Offering a dramatic entrance to Yosemite National Park, the Tioga Pass is open only in the summer months. The pass is snow and ice-covered during most of the year. But when it opens, it offers a spectacular way to enter the famous park.
Dramatic views of snowcapped mountaintops surround you as you follow the twists and turns of Tioga Road through the pass, comprising near thousand-foot drops down the side of the mountain.
The wide-paved road follows the Great Sierra Wagon Road, completed in 1883. Crossing the Sierra Nevada became popular at the time, especially with fortune seekers who followed rumors of gold and silver said to be found in the area.
Reaching 9,943 feet at its summit, Tioga Road is California’s highest drivable pass, leading to the eastern entrance of Yosemite National Park.
2. Hike Up To Dog Lake And/Or Lembert Dome
About 6 miles from the park entrance, pull off the road onto a dirt parking lot for a pleasant hike in the woods. Here, you’ll find two of the shortest and easiest hikes in the high country of Yosemite National Park — one to Dog Lake and the other to Lembert Dome.
You’ll start off on one trail, through a large flat rock, then into the forest. It gets steep until you reach the junction, where you can go straight for Dog Lake, or left toward Lembert Dome. At 2.8 miles long, both trails have the same length and similar elevation gain. We opted to continue toward Dog Lake since we were looking for shade all the way through. Throughout the forest, you need to watch out for exposed tree roots, but overall it is a pleasant walk in the woods.
The small lake at the end of the trail is picturesque, though it does not resemble a dog, as you might expect from its name. It owes its name to an abandoned sheepdog and her litter of puppies found by Robert Marshall from the Geological Survey when he visited and named the lake in 1898.
Regardless of its name, the lake is pretty and quiet. When we hiked up to it on a Tuesday morning in early June, we were alone on its shores. So besides being a short and pleasant hike, it is a great choice if you are trying to stay away from crowds. It is also the perfect place to stay cool on a hot summer day. At this elevation, we still found patches of snow in early June.
On the way back, you can take the trail towards Lembert Dome for great views of Tuolumne Meadows.
Pro Tips: Starting at 8,500 feet and reaching 9,240 feet at the lake, be aware of elevation sickness if you go. To prevent it, take it slow, and drink plenty of water.
3. Take A Walk In Tuolumne Meadows
If you hiked up to Lembert Dome, you already caught a view of Tuolumne Meadows.
At an elevation of 8,600 feet, it is one of the largest high elevation meadows in the Sierra Nevadas. The gorgeous Toulumne River runs through it, declared a “Wild and Scenic River” by Congress in 1984.
The easiest way to enjoy Tuolumne Meadows is to walk the one-mile-long trail towards Parsons Lodge and Soda Springs. Stop along the meandering Tuolumne River, and enjoy a tranquil moment on the water’s edge. Look around as you walk, and enjoy the diverse ecosystem. Watch for wildlife, since you are almost guaranteed to see at least a deer or two. At the end of the trail, you’ll find the historic Parsons Lodge and Soda Springs.
4. Swim, Picnic, Walk In The Woods, Or Enjoy Other Water Activities At Tenaya Lake
Tenaya Lake is the largest and easiest lake to access along the Tioga Road at the higher elevations. It is often referred to as the “Jewel of the High Country.” At an elevation of 8,150 feet, the mile-long alpine lake is bordered on three sides by granite peaks and domes, making it one of the most picturesque destinations of Yosemite.
Besides enjoying its beauty, you have opportunities for swimming, kayaking, hiking, and sunbathing here. Accessible from two parking lots, the lakeshore has picnic tables, sandy beaches, and a forested lakeside trail.
At 2.5 miles long, the lakeside trail passes through a forest dominated by lodgepole pines, and takes 1-2 hours to complete, but you will be enjoying the surrounding scenery the entire time.
As an alternative to hiking, spend time at the beach along the western edge of Tenaya Lake, walk into the crystal-clear (and very cold) water, then sit under a pine and enjoy the views of the lake surrounded by the granite peaks.
Pro Tip: Be aware of mosquitoes in the early summer. When we visited during the first week of June, they were swarming in the forest along the lake. We found fewer of them on the beaches on the western edge.
5. Stop At Olmsted Point
Once in the park, stop at Olmsted Point for a stunning view of Yosemite Valley and Half Dome, one of its most famous rock formations. To the left, you’ll notice Clouds Rest, rising 9,926 feet above sea level, and dropping dramatically to Tenaya Creek.
You can spend some time here, taking in the views, and enjoying the low temperatures on a hot summer day. Walk Yosemite’s shortest hike, a 0.25-mile trail that opens up to more spectacular views to include a few other natural formations. Or, walk up to the boulder nestled in the middle of the flat, and sit there to soak in the spectacular views.
The turnout is named in honor of the famed landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead and his son, Frederick Jr., when Tioga Road opened for car traffic in 1961. Both father and son played a role in protecting and managing the park’s scenery and wildlife.
6. Have A Picnic At Yosemite Creek
Stop by the rushing Yosemite Creek, and enjoy a picnic lunch. Or just sit along the creek in the shaded area, and watch the crystal clear water rushing through boulders, forming tiny waterfalls and swirls.
You’ll find five picnic tables near the creek in the shade of pine trees. You will also find an accessible table and a toilet at this stop, but no trailheads to follow farther along the creek. You’ll find the stop along Tioga Road, a few miles east of Lone Wolf Road.
If you are having a picnic, be on the alert for bears and other wildlife in the area. Do not feed wildlife, for your own safety and their well-being. Keep your food within arm’s reach, and make sure you empty your trash in bear-proof trash cans and lock them before leaving.
7. Stay In Tuolumne Meadows After Dark For Spectacular Stargazing
Far from city lights, the remote location of Yosemite National Park and the Tuolumne Meadows offer a great stargazing experience. If you stay in the park overnight, walk out in Tuolumne Meadows to watch planets, stars, and galaxies in some of the darkest skies.
Besides watching the clear night sky on your own, you might find astronomy walks and talks in the Tuolumne Meadows and other parts of the park. Astronomers often offer programs here where you can look through their telescopes as they explain what you are looking at. The clear air at these high elevations, combined with the absence of light pollution, offer spectacular stargazing experiences.
Safety Tips And Other Things To Know
Make sure you have a reservation this year (2021) before driving up to the eastern entrance of Yosemite National Park. You can’t enter the park without one. Follow all the safety protocols in the park.
For lodging, you can stay in the tiny town of Lee Vining. Bring your own picnic food if you plan on staying in the High Country of the park, along Tioga Road and Tuolumne Meadows.
Drive carefully and watch for wildlife. In the quieter areas, you are more likely to see bears and other wildlife. Always keep your distance from them, and never feed them. If a bear approaches, yell as loudly as you can to scare him away.
Use the bear-proof garbage bins, and bear-proof metal cases to store your food items if you leave your car for a longer time while hiking.
Most of all, enjoy the stunning scenery in the high country of Yosemite National Park.