Renowned as one of the best scenic drives in the US, the CA 120 runs through the Yosemite National Park and the rugged Sierra Nevada mountains, and can be found on any traveler’s must-see list. Being a seasonal road, the Tioga pass is open only from May through October, and the husband and I just about make it in time at the end of September.
Splitting our road trip through Yosemite, day one has us hiking through the park, watching the 2425 feet drop of the enthralling Yosemite Falls. Day two is all about Tioga and the drive down to Mono Lake.
First up on the highway, the Mariposa grove, where a quick stop to the land of sequoias soon turns into a jaw-dropping hike through the forest. I stand spellbound beneath Grizzly Giant and walk solemnly by the hollow Fallen Monarch. The Sequoias are the largest trees on earth — towering to 300 feet they’re gigantic, nope they’re majestic. Actually they need to coin a new word to describe the sequoias as I’ve never felt more minuscule than in the presence of a 2,000-year-old tree, that will endure long after I’m gone. My existence nothing but a speck in its life span, like this fleeting moment, come and gone, with little consequence.
My feet linger as we leave. Though the husband says there are other wonders awaiting us on our trip, I don’t believe we’ll encounter one to top this.
Back on the road, we stop at the Tunnel View overlook to grab a most stunning and sprawling take on the Yosemite U-shaped valley, carved by glaciers.
An hour later, we’re approaching Lake Tenaya. Its tranquil waters are inviting, even when frigid. A picnic by the lake is the most magnificent way to spend an afternoon, even a chilly one like today. But after filling our stomachs, we’re still hungry for Tioga’s delights.
We drive by Tuolumne meadow, its green grounds now mostly white, covered by snow. In summer, this meadow is lush with wildflowers dotting the ground. There’s hiking, fishing and camping for those who wish to stay.
Continuing on the Tioga Pass, at 9,943 feet we’re atop California’s highest automobile pass and soon, we’re no longer inside the grounds of Yosemite National Park. Descending down the valley, our next stop is at Lake Ellery, where blue skies and azure waters stare back at us, a reminder that the beauty of this land really does go on.
From here on, the landscape changes quickly. We are no longer in lush green country; it is arid desert land now for as far as the eyes can see. The eastern side of the Sierra Nevada range is intimidating — its foothills, in their dramatic barrenness, are a thing of beauty.
It’s almost sundown now, and we’re racing the light. Just one more awe-inspiring sight awaits. In a few miles, we enter Lee Vining and arrive at our destination. A short hike through tufa ridden trails leads us to an unforgettable other-worldly vista of Mono Lake.
Surrounded by volcanic hills, Tufa towers emerge out of the salt-heavy water as it reflects the scarlet sky in its quiet stillness. Though the lake levels have been receding, its beauty sure hasn’t. And as it did this morning, the urge to coin a new word for what I’m seeing grows within me. Surreal falls terribly short. Fantasurreal?
As night begins to fall, our journey comes to its end and long after we leave, a sense of wonder remains with me. If there’s one thing every great journey must be, it’s humbling. And so it is.