Far fewer visitors
Yosemite Valley is one of the most magnificent places on earth. It can also be one of the busiest during the summer months. The good news is that its beauty is matched by the high elevation meadows, lakes, and peaks that surround it.
These stunning places receive far fewer visitors than the Valley.
Sunset near Tioga Pass
The most accessible part of this higher region is Tuolumne Meadows. Connected to the rest of the world by the Tioga Road (the section of Highway 120 that crosses the park), it is an easy day trip from any other part of Yosemite or a longer day trip from the Central Valley.
Better yet, it can be enjoyed by overnight camping or backpacking, or by staying in nearby lodging. The more time you spend, the more you can explore.
Tuolumne Meadows has always been of my favorite places in the world. From early to mid summer the sub alpine meadow area turns a lush green and produces brilliant wildflowers. The broad, open meadow is surrounded by pines, granite domes, and striking granite peaks. The Tuolumne River winds its way through the scene.
During the summer months,Yosemite National Park and its concessionaire operate a large campground, visitor center, and store. Tuolumne Meadows Lodge provides accommodation in rustic tent cabins and meals served in a large tent dining room.
You can get a quick breakfast, lunch, or early dinner at the Tuolumne Meadows Grill. Gas is available, but far more expensive than if you purchase it in the foothills or in the Central Valley.
Half of the 304 campsites are reservable; the others are available on a first-come, first-serve basis. Because the area is popular, sites are often hard to get.
Group and equestrian camping areas are provided, but must be reserved in advance.
Additional campgrounds operated by the US Forest Service are found to the east of Tuolumne Meadows, just outside the park’s boundaries. Tioga Lake and Ellery Lake Campgrounds are located along Highway 120. Junction, Sawmill, and Saddlebag Lake are on the Saddlebag Lake Road, a short detour off of 120.
Further east along 120, look for signs to additional campgrounds in Lee Vining Canyon. These sites are located midway down the canyon before you reach US 395.
Food is served at Saddlebag Lake Resort (at the end of Saddlebag Lake Road) and at Tioga Pass Resort (just a couple of miles outside the park boundary along Highway 120.
TPR also has cabins for rent.
Olmstead Point View
Places to Stop on the Way to Tuolumne Meadows
As you drive theTioga Road towards Tuolumne Meadows, don’t miss the following stops:
Olmstead Point: An outstanding roadside viewpoint with vistas encompassing Half Dome, Clouds Rest, Tenaya Lake, and many striking granite peaks.
Tenaya Lake: One of the largest natural lakes in the Central Sierra, this 150 acre beauty is surrounded by glacially-sculpted granite peaks and domes.
It’s a great place for a picnic or a chilly swim at the sandy beach at the eastern end.
Adjusting to the Elevation
At about 8,600 feet above sea level, Tuolumne Meadows is nearly twice the elevation of Yosemite Valley.
The air is thinner the higher you go and you will find that you get short of breath faster. Take it easy if you are not used to the elevation and don’t attempt any of the more difficult hikes on your first day in the area.
Your body needs time to adjust to the thinner air. The sun’s rays are more intense at higher elevations, so don’t forget sunscreen, a hat, and sunglasses.
Weather, Clothing, and Safety
The weather can change quickly and afternoon thunderstorms are common in the summer months.
Bring clothing that you can layer and unlayer as necessary. A waterproof poncho is invaluable during a thunderstorm if it hits when you aren’t near your vehicle.
Many of the hikes in the Tuolumne Meadows area take you to high, exposed areas. Avoid these places during thunderstorms!
Be especially cautious around the swift, frigid waters of the Tuolumne River and its tributaries. This year’s exceptional snow melt has made theme more dangerous than usual.
Early Season Cathedral Lakes
When to Visit
Summer is the season to visit Tuolumne Meadows. Buried under snow for much of the year, the Tioga Road is only open from the time the snow melts (usually in late May or early June) through the first snowfall (October or early November).
Many visitor services close by the middle of September, though the road may be open for weeks after that.
Maps and Finding Your Way Around
Pick up a free map when you enter the park. The shuttle map is more detailed and will help you locate all of the attractions and services described in this article.
You can download it at: http://www.nps.gov/yose/planyourvisit/loader.cfm?csModule=security/getfile&PageID=222905.
If you plan to hike, get a more detailed map.
The Tuolumne Meadows map produced by Tom Harrison Maps is excellent and can be obtained directly through Tom Harrison’s website: http://www.tomharrisonmaps.com/.
It is also usually available at the stores inYosemite Valley, Tuolumne Meadows, and Crane Flat.
Recommended Hikes in the Tuolumne Meadows Area
Tuolumne Meadows, Parsons Lodge, and Soda Springs: This 1.5 mile loop is a great place to start if you’ve never been to Tuolumne Meadows.
It loops through the heart of the meadow area. Parsons Memorial Lodge is a great place to stop and rest and the volunteers on duty can answer questions about the area.
This hike involves almost zero elevation gain and loss.
Lyell Fork of the Tuolumne River
This is one of my top 10 favorite hikes inYosemite, and it is one of the easiest. You can hike as many as four miles upLyel lCanyon with only a 200 foot elevation gain. Many people don’t go that far and the beautiful river can be enjoyed by only hiking part of the route and returning when you start to feel tired.
More challenging, the hike from the campground to Elizabeth Lake is a 4.8 mile round trip. Hikers climb about 1,000 feet to reach the destination.
The round trip hike to the top of this prominent dome is only 2.4 miles round trip, but involves a steep 850 foot elevation gain. Unless you are in excellent physical condition, you’ll need to stop and rest from time to time. The views from the top encompass the entire Tuolumne Meadows region and are truly astounding.
The elevation gain involved in hiking to these two beautiful lakes is about the same as the climb toElizabeth, but is 2.2 miles longer. This is my favorite shorter lake hike in the Tuolumne Meadows area.
The trail to this historic tent camp (reservable through an annual lottery system) follows the Tuolumne River downhill 800 feet. Hikers must climb back up on the way out. This is a stunning section of the river with many cascades, but requires more work than the Lyell Fork trail.
Glen Aulin is one of five backcountry tent camps that hikers can stay at if they don’t wish to pack all of their own gear. Tents and meals are provided, but must be reserved in advance through a lottery system due to their extreme popularity.
Starting at the summit of Tioga Pass, a one-mile climb of 500 feet takes you to a saddle above Gaylor Lakes. This is absolutely stunning country with a grand views all over theYosemite region.
The steep hike is challenging, but rewarding. Depending how many lakes you explore, the round trip hike is at least two miles in length.
Detailed information about the above listed hikes can be found at: http://www.nps.gov/yose/planyourvisit/tmhikes.htm
20 Lakes Basin
Just outside the park, a series of small but very pretty lakes spread out beyond Saddlebag Lake. Saddlebag Lake Resort provides daily water taxi service transporting visitors across the lake to the start of the trail.
Round trip cost is $11/adults, $10/seniors, $6/children 12 and under, $5/dogs. Taking the water taxi saves 3 miles of hiking around the lake. Dogs are welcome on this trail, but not on any of the trails within the park.
Fishing in these lakes can be excellent for small brook trout; larger fish can be found in SaddlebagLake.
20 Lakes Basin
For more information on hiking the 20 Lakes Basin, the water taxi service, and renting your own fishing boat at Saddlebag Lake Resort, go to: http://www.saddlebaglakeresort.com/index.html
Tuolumne Meadows is a popular starting place for rock climbing and overnight backpacking trips.
More information about wilderness permits and planning an overnight trip can be found at: http://www.nps.gov/yose/planyourvisit/wildpermits.htm.
Guided backpacking trips can be arranged if you are interested in learning how to backpack: http://www.yosemitepark.com/Activities
Exploring Further East of Tuolumne Meadows
Beyond Tuolumne Meadows, Highway 120 continues to climb to the summit of Tioga Pass at an elevation of 9, 946 feet. Although the park’s boundary ends here, the spectacular scenery does not. Worthy stops include:
A small parking area at the summit allows you to enjoy views of some of the park’s highest peaks and summits.
Tioga and Ellery Lakes
These manmade lakes on Lee Vining Creek are scenic and provide excellent fishing.
At an elevation of 10,087 – higher than any point you can drive to in the park – this large, beautiful lake provides the gateway to alpine regions that are covered with snow much of the year.
The water taxi service provides quick access to the 20 Lakes Basin Trail and the resort serves delicious hot food. Fishing boat rentals are available. Saddlebag Lake Road is unpaved, but passable for all cars if driven carefully.
More information can be found at: http://www.saddlebaglakeresort.com/
With hot meals and cozy cabins, TPR provides the greatest level of comfort and services close to Tioga Pass.
If camping isn’t your thing, this is the place to stay.
Go to http://www.tiogapassresort.com/ for more information.
Fish are no longer stocked in Yosemite National Park.
Natural reproduction is limited and anglers usually have the best luck just outside the park at Tioga, Ellery, and Saddlebag Lakes and among the lakes of the 20 Lakes Basin.
You can easily access Tuolumne Meadows in your own car on theTioga Pass Road (Highway 120), however, several options are available if you would prefer not to drive or would like to leave your car in one place once you get there.
A free shuttle bus operated by the National Park Service runs between all of the destinations in Tuolumne Meadows during the summer months from 7AM to 7PM daily (Olmstead Point to Tuolumne Meadows Lodge with ten stops). It also makes stops at the MonoPasstrailhead and the TiogaPassentrance station twice a day
For more information go to: http://www.nps.gov/yose/planyourvisit/tmbus.htm.
YARTS (Yosemite Area Regional Transportation System) provides regular transportation from Yosemite Valley over Highway 120 to Mammoth Lakes with 12 stops along the way. For more information, go to: http://www.yarts.com/schedule
YARTS also provides transportation fromMerced to Yosemite Valley along Highway 140 with stops at Catheys Valley, Mariposa, Midpines, and El Portal.
Yosemite entrance fees are included in the ticket prices.
Tour busses operated by the park’s concessionaire provide transportation between Yosemite Valley, White Wolf, Tuolumne Meadows, and several stops along the Tioga Road.
Call (209) 372-1240 for more information.
Links – For More Information
General National Park Service Information about Tuolumne Meadows
Campground Reservations: http://www.recreation.gov/
Tuolumne Meadows Free Shuttle Bus Information and Map: http://www.nps.gov/yose/planyourvisit/tmbus.htm
High Sierra Camps Lottery: http://www.yosemitepark.com/Accomodations_HighSierraCamps.aspx
Tuolumne Meadows – Tioga Pass Hikes.
Saddlebag LakeResort– meals and water taxi service to 20 Lakes Basin: http://www.saddlebaglakeresort.com/
Tioga Pass Resort: http://www.tiogapassresort.com/
Guided Horseback Rides: http://www.yosemitepark.com/activities_mulehorsebackrides.aspx
Guided Backpacking Trips.
Backpacking and Wilderness Permits:
Tom Harrison Maps: http://www.tomharrisonmaps.com/
Yosemite National Park Daily Traffic Forecast : http://www.nps.gov/yose/planyourvisit/traffic.htm