147 mi / 237 km
Fresno Int. (FAT)
You'll gasp at every bend in the roadway as you conquer this 147-mile route through the heart of what's surely among America's most iconic national parks.
Sublime visions of legendary peaks loom on all sides – El Cap with its sheer-cut rock faces, the Half Dome, sculpted and smooth. Thundering waterfalls drop down to wildflower meadows stomped by black bears and deer. Forests of ponderosas swirl around mighty giant sequoia. If you have time for just one scenic drive in the USA, make it this one!
Our trip can roughly be divided into two parts. The first whisks you through the most-photographed portion of the Sierra Nevada going: The Yosemite Valley. It accounts for just 1% of total park territory but is visited by 99% of people who come. First, you'll survey it all from the eastern end, as you approach Glacier Point through thick forests of spear-like pines. After that, circle back to join the Southside Drive, which begins with the awe-inducing vistas that erupt as you emerge from Wawona Tunnel.
It's enchanting, but try not to be enchanted too long. You'll next drive through the Shangri-La that is the Yosemite Valley from end to end. The road follows the Merced River, weaving through wildflower groves to bring you to the stunning Bridalveil Falls, where you'll hike to find 620-foot wisps of water rolling gracefully off a granite precipice.
Further along, there's Sentinel Bridge. It's an otherworldly place stand as the ruddy alpenglow sets in, showcasing head-on views of the Half Dome reflected in shimmering river waters below.
The return leg down Yosemite Valley is just as ridiculously scenic, only with the added drama of the Yosemite Falls to get things rolling. They're the tallest falls in the park, and one of the tallest in the whole Sierra Nevada to boot. Ready yourself to feel the raw power of the cataract, which drops over 2,420 feet from top to bottom in a series of two mighty cascades.
Phase two of the Yosemite Valley roadtrip swaps the iconic summits of the park for its wilder reaches. The crowds of hikers and photo snappers drop away as you drive west, then north, and then east again, connecting with the most beautiful stretch of the California 120 there is. Known as the Tioga Road, it can be total shut by snowdrifts in the winter months. But…
By spring, summer, and fall, it blazes into life with color-changing forests of spruce and Douglas-fir, sweeps of wildflower-clad plateaus, and views of the famous mountains from varying angles. You can take days over this drive if you want to. Highlights include the inky-blue waters of Tenaya Lake – for bracing swims under glacier-carved massifs – and the secret lookout at Olmsted Point – for views of the hidden backend of the Half Dome in the distance.
A Wilderness Permit is required if you plan to stay overnight in the wilderness (including Tuolumne Meadows). The permit allows you to camp in designated backcountry areas. Yosemite National Park operates a reservation system for wilderness permits, and it is advisable to make reservations well in advance due to high demand. Parking fees may apply to some areas - see signage on site.Make reservations for accommodation, campsites and other activities well in advance as things can get booked out fast.
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