Photo by Sandy Follett
This day will require considerable driving, so plan ahead. You will probably want to have lunch along the way, so it’s a good idea to pack a picnic lunch or at least snacks, and be sure to bring an ice chest with drinks. I will refrain from suggesting you sedate any unruly children, but they are apt to get bored during the long drive, so you better have something to keep them occupied. Today’s destination (ultimately) is Tuolumne Meadows. According to Google Earth, the drive from Bridalveil Creek takes 1 hour and 53 minutes. My one word for that is “bull.” Even if you drive it straight through (and no one does), it’s well over two hours each way, so you’ll want to get an early start. With stops for sightseeing, lunch and maybe fishing, if you’ve a mind to—and a license—plan on spending about 6 hours behind the wheel today. Hey, at least you’ll be sitting.
Once on Tioga Road, you’ll have a 30 mile drive ahead of you on the first leg of the journey. That isn’t much, you’re probably thinking. Not if you have a freeway handy, it isn’t. But when you’re on a mountain road with a posted speed limit (that no one obeys) of 25 MPH, 30 miles takes a while. Still, it’s a pretty drive, so take your time and enjoy the scenery.
About 2/3 of the way through the first leg (20 miles in), you’ll cross a bridge over a creek. In spring, this is a raging torrent, but by the time you get here—probably in late summer—this creek will be little more than a trickle most years. Still, this is Yosemite Creek, the one that tumbles over the tallest waterfall in North America, so show a little respect.
The moderately hard-core can take the hike along Yosemite Creek to the lip of the falls, but you better have a whole day for it because it's a 10 1/2 mile round-trip. If you should be hardy enough to make it to the lip, don't extend your hardiness into foolhardiness and decide to go for a little swim. Visitors tumbling over waterfalls accidentally happens more often than you might think.
The way gets progressively rockier as you now turn south. This will eventually put you in line with Yosemite Valley, to which you may initially think, So what? but remain patient; this will become significant very soon. When you see signs for Olmstead Point, pull off the road to the right into the parking lot. From here, you will have a great view of Half Dome’s backside. That’s right: if you know where to go, Half Dome will moon you. This area has large areas composed of broken sheets of granite, so if you leave the parking lot, watch your step. Broken ankles are a real hazard here.
This is also where, when we were kids, my siblings and I regularly made friends with various marmots. We always assumed it was the same one year after year (mainly because we had no idea how long marmots lived, and the fact that they all look pretty much the same), so we called him Marty. It’s rather easy to make friends with marmots when you feed them corn chips, which was still legal back when I was a kid, shortly after the demise of the last apatosaurus. However, if you get caught feeding any animal in Yosemite these days—and rangers seem to be everywhere—you face a fine of up to a $5,000, so don’t do it!
Facing east from the point, you will see Tenaya Lake in the distance. There are several lakes around this area, most hidden from the highway, but Tenaya is the largest, and as it lies right beside the highway, it’s ridiculously easy to get to.
Tenaya Lake has a campground on the west end and picnic areas on both sides. This is a good place to camp if you want to spend most of your time in Yosemite fishing, though the trout are hard to catch, even here (and the sucker fish are, unfortunately, very easy to catch—and you’ll lose a hook every time you catch one, so bring plenty). Like everywhere in the park, these are wild fish, or at least feral, as they are descended from stocked fish, though they stopped that practice some time ago (if you go backpacking in the high country, you may catch a true native wild fish: the California golden trout, but you better not try to eat it because they are endangered and eating them is a major faux pas. Motorized boats are not allowed on the lake, making this an excellent place to relax and take in the view. Surrounded by domes and ridges, Tenaya is one of the prettiest lakes you’ll ever see.
The last eight miles of the drive to Tuolumne Meadow takes you to an altitude of 8,600 feet. Because you have partially acclimated yourself to the 7,200 foot elevation of Bridalveil Creek Campground, this will present no problem for you, though those camping in the valley may find themselves easily winded up here. Now aren’t you glad you took my advice?
Welcome to the largest alpine meadow in the world, and you just can’t beat the scenery. Everywhere you look there are either soaring mountain ridges and peaks, or strange and intriguing granite dome formations.
The Tuolumne River cuts a wide, windy ribbon across the meadow and yes, there are trout in the river and yes, they are also hard to catch. There is one campground for the meadow and a small general store for supplies and food. Expect to pay too much for everything if you’re dumb enough to shop there.
If you have the time and the inclination, Mono Lake is only 20 miles from Tuolumne Meadows, out the east park entrance—but you have to descend the entire Sierra Nevada Mountain range to get there. Sure, it’s downhill the whole way… but you have to come back, too; and if your car is anything like mine, it won’t be happy facing that prospect. Don’t forget to fill up on gas if you do go.
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There are a couple things to remember when camping in Yosemite, or any other park in the Sierras. One of these is that rain is not uncommon. If you see big, pretty, billowy clouds in the sky—even if they seem far off—prepare for rain, and it frequently comes on fast and hard and can last for hours or even days. Bring along a large tarp (mine is 30x30 feet) and ropes of various lengths and/or many Bungee cords (a stepstool is handy, too), and as soon as you set up your camp string the tarp over the picnic table and partially over the fire pit, too, if possible. At the very least, have a large area where you can set up a couple card tables and chairs where you can stay outside and keep dry. Huddling inside a tent while it pours all day is no fun at all, but being outside—high and dry while everyone else is hiding from the downpour—is.
Note: If you’re curious about the layout of Yosemite’s roads and decide to check Google Maps, bear in mind that while it shows the roads in acceptable detail, its identification of some landmarks is miles off—sometimes dozens of miles (for instance, it shows that the Big Trees Gift Shop hovers atop the north slope of Yosemite Valley, when in reality it is in Mariposa Grove, over 30 miles away).