Ask your friends and family what they think of when Yosemite is mentioned, and you’ll probably get a few different answers. Camping, hiking, trees, crowds, nature, Half Dome…all typical answers. But ask a driving enthusiast like me, and they’ll tell you the roads in and around the park are enough to warrant a trip out there. Sure, there is going to be tourist traffic to slow you down, but did you really travel four hours from the Bay Area to rush through the park? Take a breather, slow down, and enjoy the ride – as I discovered, the scenery is definitely worth it. But do yourself a favor and make sure that the roads are have opened for the season – Tioga Pass and Sonora Pass, in particular.
The route is a long one, so be ready for it with a good nights rest and a full tank of fuel. Start off in the small town of Mariposa, where there are several motels and restaurants around. This is quiet little town is near Yosemite’s west entrance, and posits you in a good place to start out a nice drive. Grab a quick breakfast and head out early if you’d like to avoid crowds. The road winds along between a river and sheer cliff faces as it heads towards the park’s south entrance. Once in the park, it heads straight into the roads that connect to Yosemite Valley, where many attractions are. I would suggest taking this detour and looking around before heading deeper into the park – this is the only place to enter the Valley.
Once out of the Valley, head north for a bit before turning east onto Highway 120. This highway will bring you to the other end of the park, cutting through the Sierra Nevada’s via the famous Tioga Pass. This is a great road to test your vehicles’ mettle – it’s not particularly windy, narrow, or fast, but it has some steeper sections. Even my Mazda6s was struggling in some sections with 4 people on board and the AC running. The problem is mostly elevation – Tioga Pass reaches nearly 10,000ft just as it approaches various scenic areas, such as Tenaya Lake. Stopping at pullouts to look at some beautiful vistas and rock formations is highly recommended! Watch out for traffic too, as many people stop to look at the varied wildlife – on my trip, I saw some bears and some deer on the same day.
Once you pass through Yosemite park boundaries, Tioga Pass will snake down mountainsides into the Eastern Sierra foothills, dropping you into the small town of Lee Vining. Mono Lake, a small salty lake with tufa towers all around, is right next to town. That’s convenient, since you can grab some lunch in town and eat by the lake. A sandwich at the Whoa Nellie Deli, some tri-tip at Bodie Mike’s Barbeque, or a burger and ice cream at Mono Cone – it’s your choice! Just remember not to skimp, not because you won’t be back for a while, but also because there won’t be much food in the road up ahead.
Afterwards, head north of 395 from Lee Vining to the town of Bodie, CA. This ghost town does have a small admission fee (or a big one, if your lowered vehicle can’t handle the last 3 miles of unpaved roads), but it’s worth it to see truly how things were like in the Gold Rush days. Sure, you can see this stuff in Western’s and other places…but the crudeness of it all really doesn’t hit until you’re walking on creaky wood planks or standing next to a lean-to. But lest you be tempted to take anything as a souvenir, be forewarned: the Bodie Curse has it that anybody who removes an article from the town (even a pebble!) will be cursed with bad luck. So remember to wipe your feet before leaving!
Finally, head north a bit more on 395 before turning west onto Highway 108 to climb over Sonora Pass. Like Tioga, this road is closed during the winter and the roads are opened/closed independently of each other, so due diligence is necessary if you don’t want to be up the creek without a paddle. Also like Tioga, the pass hits almost 10,000 feet before dropping you back on the Western slope of the Sierras. If you’ve timed it right, you might be lucky enough to be going over the pass right around sunset. If not, Highway 49 back to Mariposa is still a wonderful evening drive. Just be careful, there may be dusty spots, and the CHP in town patrols this road – I have made out check stubs to them before.