Yosemite National Park is the crown jewel of California parks –
sitting on the spine of the Sierra Nevada, surrounded by National
Forests. A visit to Yosemite invites a wider tour than can be
hiked in a day or two. Adjacent to the park is Mono Lake, a
super-salty lake with no outlet and surreal formations. Yosemite
National Park itself is vast – 1200 square miles, most of it
backcountry. The striking contrast between the eastern and
western sides of the mountains can be seen by touring the Yosemite
(west) and Mono Lake (east) areas.
This Yosemite-Mono Lake scenic tour takes you to the main valley
where you’ll find busy Yosemite Village. Don’t miss the section
of the tour that bisects the park, Highway 120, a very different
Yosemite landscape of meadows and alpine lakes. After a stop at
Mono Lake, history buffs will want to head north to see Bodie, a ghost
town. If you have time, extend the tour to include the
southeastern loop to see the giant sequoias of Mariposa Grove.
Print this free Yosemite scenic tour map and explore beyond the borders.
SCENIC DRIVES: Photographer Ansel Adams immortalized the
Park in his famous mid-century black and white photos. Two of the most
dramatically different and unique natural environments can be
experienced in this scenic trip – majestic Yosemite National Park and
bizarre Mono Lake. This driving tour is best spring through fall
as the higher elevations are closed by snowfall. Summer weekends
are the most crowded.
Yosemite Valley is nearly a town, with services to fit an
ever-changing human population, including bus tours, tent cabins and
restaurants. Some of the most stunning landmarks (El Capitan,
Half Dome and its ever-present hard-core rock climbers, Bridal Veil
Falls, the Awahnee Hotel) are in or near the Valley. The rest of
the Park is much quieter, offering true backcountry hiking, camping and
climbing - in addition to lovely scenic drives.
Prices are high in Yosemite National Park for all food, supplies
and gas so prepare as you approach the towns on 120, 140 and 41 before
entering the park. A detailed map and description of the park is
included in our National Parks section.
To start the driving tour, take 120 to the entrance to Yosemite and
plan some time in the Valley. There are short hikes to falls,
views of Half Dome and El Capitan, educational exhibits, and the famous
Ahwahnee Hotel. Take binoculars to spot wildlife and to peer at
the tiny figures of climbers clinging to vertical rock faces on Half
Dome and El Capitan.
Take 41 towards Wawona and the Mariposa Grove. Don’t miss an
opportunity to see 3000 year-old trees rising 300 feet above you.
Leave the park and turn onto 49 at Oakhurst for a beautiful drive
to historic Mariposa and then connect to 140 to return to
Yosemite. Take a left onto 120 to Tioga Road (closed in winter),
access to a vast sub-alpine meadow with gorgeous wildflowers, lakes,
streams, two groves of giant sequoia (Toulumne and Merced Groves) and
views few places can top.
When you leave Yosemite National Park (the first town outside is
Lee Vining), Mono Lake provides a stark contrast in topography, climate
and wildlife. Once threatened by dropping water levels, this
protected area is a birder’s dream. Set in high desert, the
super-salty inland sea is on the "other" higher, drier side of the
Sierras. It is a surreal landscape of calcium carbonate deposits
(tufa) and brackish water that hosts millions of migratory birds
feasting on billions of insects. Visiting at dawn or dusk adds
visual drama to this unique environment.
SIDETRIP: Continue north on 395 to Bodie State Historic
Site – an unrestored ghost town without a touristic veneer, three miles
from paved roads.
SIDETRIP: From Lee Lining, head south on 395 to 158 for a
truly scenic loop around June Lake. Continue south to the resort
community/ski area of Mammoth Lakes.