My drive out to Mt. Whitney happened to coincide with opening weekend for the Tioga Road which accesses the Yosemite high country. At 9:01 am, the snowy peaks of the sierra's came into view through the windmill blades of the Altimont Pass. I felt close, but still had a solid two hours before reaching the Yosemite park boundary. Because of the wet, cold spring the Tioga area still looked locked in winter, showing the changing seasons only with streams engorged with snowmelt.
Initially I missed my turnoff to continue on Hwy 120 up to Tuolumne Meadows in Crane Flat. Crane Flat marks the winter cutoff and when I pulled through at 10:30am, the gates here opened only 2 and a half hours before my arrival. On all sides of the road the plows had been hard at work, leaving cut snow banks sometimes 6-8ft deep. The weather was a balmy 65 degrees so naturally water was pouring out of every crack, crevase, and outlet on every rock face.
Small black streaks of water ran all over the huge granite domes and rock faces like smudged mascara. Tourists were lined up at every seasonal waterfall, lake side, and creek. I was determined however to reach my goal of Mt. Whitney and stopped only briefly at Ellery Lake just outside Yosemite. Right after Ellery Lake the lush western side of the Sierra's give way quickly to the dry east side as the road drops into the Mono Basin.
Two days later after climbing Mt. Whitney I returned back the way I came. A small storm was clearing through the easternmost peaks creating a little more drama in the skies than there was in the perfect blue skies two days earlier. At least 10% of the snowcover had melted as well in such a short time. Naturally the rivers and creeks were flooding.
The only clear trailhead I encountered in the high country between Tuolumne Meadows and Ellery Lake was Glen Aulin near the beautiful Lambert Dome which rises dramatically from the relatively flat topography around it. The trailhead there leads into some of the best lakes and streams outside the Yosemite Valley.
Shortly after passing the Glen Aulin trailhead and the Lambert Dome the road crosses the toulomne river which because of the rapid snowmelt was currently more like a huge fast moving lake. Huge lodgepole pine trunks were submerged halfway or more to the first branches on either side of the usual course of the river. Fortunatley the Tioga Road has been built in such a way that water may roll across the surface but hardly ever has a chance to pool.
Tuolumne River with Mt. Dana in the distance
Tuolumne Meadows itself was surrounded with thin, crusty snow and mostly submerged. To my surprise, even though there was a glorious sunset in the park the road was almost empty. Only a handful of cars would pass me even when I stopped on the side of the road to take a photo or two.
Tuolumne Meadows, submerged by snowmelt
Perhaps the most glorious stop on the Tioga Road is Tenaya Lake. Many outdoor enthusiasts scoff at visits to the lake because it is so popular, especially in the summer. Seeing it just after winter, still partially covered in ice and ringed with snow, before the crowds, is nothing short of magical. The domes, peaks, and spires of the surrounding mountains reflected back in its black, calm, mirror-like waters. I was exhausted from climbing Mt. Whitney that same day (waking up at 3am, and climbing until 3pm) but still I wished I had a chance to take a nice long hike around the lake before the sun set. Sadly the sun was getting very low in the sky and I had to keep moving on if I wanted to get out of Yosemite before dark and make it home at a reasonable hour.
Cathedral Range behind the lake.
Reflection in Tenaya Lake
I did make one final stop at Olmstead Point. Olmstead Point (named for Fredrick Law Olmstead, a landscape architect and park planner, really right up my alley) is nothing short of glorious. To the south, the north face of half dome and the north side of the Yosemite Valley. To the East, Tanaya Lake, and the granite domes surrounding it. I was lucky enough to catch half dome right at sunset before heading out. At Olmstead point I ran into the only real Yosemite-like crowds. Cars pulled in and hour blasting music, photographers with expensive equipment and little sense of unique angles crowded the edge of the overlook. I've discovered I simply have a natural distaste for "staged" viewpoints.
Sunset on Half Dome
After catching sunset on half dome I turned my back on the big crowd and watched the storm continue to pass through the high eastern peaks in the distance beyond Tanaya lake. I wished I had a telephoto lens like the other photographers, but alas this was intended to be a backpacking trip for me. After I left Olmstead point it took about half an hour to get back to crane flat and exit the park.
Last Light on the Tioga Road