Tioga Pass isn't much of a destination in itself. It's just the highest point you pass between Yosemite Valley and eastern California. I'm not saying you shouldn't go there, just trying to set expectations. In fact, the drive across Tioga Pass is one of the most scenic in the Sierras.
Tioga Pass is 9,941 feet above sea level. It's on the east side of Yosemite, six miles east of Tuolumne Meadows on CA Hwy 120.
The distance from Yosemite Valley to Lee Vining (on US Hwy 295) is a little less than 80 miles, but it will take at least two hours to drive it. That is if you don't stop, which is probably unrealistic because of these gorgeous spots you'll pass. Here are the best scenic points listed in order driving east from Yosemite Valley.
- Olmsted Point: This is a must-stop spot, a rocky vista point with a great view of the northern side of Half Dome.
- Tenaya Lake: Photo opportunity! Who can resist a selfie taken in front of a crystal-clear, blue lake with a backdrop of craggy gray granite rocks?
- Tuolumne Meadows: The unique geography of the meadows creates areas of seasonal flooding. And fleeting but beautiful spring wildflower blooms.
- Tioga Lake: It's smaller than Tenaya Lake, but near the roadside with great views, trout fishing, and picnic areas.
- Just outside the park boundary is Ellery Lake, where there's a small, primitive campground run by the National Forest Service.
- A little further east is Tioga Pass Resort. It's a rustic accommodation, but some folks say it's a bit of heaven.
Just a few miles east of Tioga Pass, CA Hwy 120 crosses US Hwy 395 at the town of Lee Vining, which is near Mono Lake. From there, you can go north toward Bodie Ghost Town, Bridgeport, and Lake Tahoe or south to Mammoth Lakes, June Lake, Bishop and on toward Death Valley.
When Is Tioga Pass Open?
Tioga Pass is one of the few places where you can get across the Sierras. However, the road closes because of snow. Tioga Pass closes shortly after the winter's first significant snowfall, as soon as it piles up too much to remove. It opens when things thaw out enough that the road can be cleared.
During the early snow season, you may still be able to drive over Tioga Pass, but you need to know the rules. Find out about snow chain regulations in California and when you need them.
Closing and opening dates are weather dependent and vary by year. The exact opening date depends on the weather, but Tioga Pass is usually open to vehicles from late May/early June through mid-November. Check the historical Tioga Pass opening and closing dates by year to get a better idea of the ranges of dates.
If you're planning to travel across Tioga Pass during the time of year when it could be closed, you need a contingency plan. If Tioga Pass is closed, it's likely that all other nearby mountain passes will be, too. You can check all of them in one place at this page on the CalTrans website.
If you're determined to get to the east side of the mountains, you can to detour north through Lake Tahoe on US Hwy 50 or I-80. If your destination is further south (Mt. Whitney, Lone Pine, Manzanar), you could also take US Hwy 99 to Bakersfield then go east on CA Hwy 58 through the town of Mojave to US Hwy 395. No matter what alternate route you choose, you should check current road conditions at dot.ca.gov/ to be sure the highways are open.
Getting to Tioga Pass
From the east or west, the only way to get to Tioga Pass is on CA Hwy 120. Tioga Pass is the highest automobile pass in the Sierras. Be sure your vehicle is up to it, with a full tank or a fully charged battery - and check the current Tioga Pass road conditions.
Because CA Hwy 120 passes through Yosemite National Park, you'll have to pay an admission fee to use it. If you're not stopping inside the park and just want to get across the mountains without paying to do it, try Sonora Pass on CA Hwy 108 instead.