Day Trip Itinerary – Carson City to Yosemite National Park Via Tioga Pass

Sierra Rec Magazine day Trip itinerary – Casual Visitor Itinerary

Carson City to the East gate of Yosemite National Park via Tioga Pass in the Summer season is 118 mile trip that easily done as a day trip into Yosemite’s east High country range. The trip travels down Hwy 395 past Bridgeport Ca, and Mono Lake turning West at Lee vining up the Tioga Pass and Hwy 120. The Pass generally is open between May and June each season giving East side access to one of the worlds most famous National Parks. The proximity to Yosemite National Park from Carson city makes this trip both a great day trip or a short family vacation trip from Carson City.

We have driven this route over 50 times in the last 8 years and have developed a consistent Day trip strategy that has allowed us to see some of the most beautiful less visited features in Yosemite National Park in a single day trip and has us home sleeping in our own bed after each trip.

There are a dozen or more great day hikes off Tioga Pass and Hwy 120 that every outdoor adventurer or national park lover need to consider. In these Itineraries we will focus on max capacity day with multiple stops, where we like to stop and eat and our tips for experiencing Yosemite High Country to its fullest each visit you make.

Tioga Mountain Reflections
Tioga Mountain Reflections

Day Trip Itinerary:

We recommend entering the park as early as possible, Typically 8- 9 am each day is a good time with limited lines and available parking in most areas. so with this being a 2 hr. to 2.5 hour drive to the East gates plan on a 6 am departure from your residence. – Pack a Breakfast.

Tioga Pass Photo Opps and Roadside Visits:

Highway 120 between Tioga Pass and its junction with US 395 is a steep, winding mountain road. The steepest portion of the road is an eight-mile section that ascends about 2,500 feet (from Lee Vining toward Tioga Pass). Portions of the road have a grade as steep as eight percent. That being said there are several pull outs for photo opps on the pass and as you approach the top a beautiful scenic Tioga Lake that sits just outside the park boundaries below Mt Dana Peaks and with reflection views of Grizzly Peak in Yosemite. Tioga Lake also provides access to bathrooms, and to the East side the Nunatak Nature Trail if you are into a casual stroll at elevation before entering the park. Tioga road is a seasonal road with adjusting seasonal opening dates based on snowpack.

What to expect at the gates:

Entrance fees for entry into Yosemite National Park are by the car. Effective June 2018 the park entrance fee will be $35 per vehicle or $30* per motorcycle. An annual park pass will cost $70. In 2021 you also must have a reservation to enter the park. Park reservations are good for three days and can be made at Day entry pass. Because the park is so close to Carson City we recommend the Great America Park Pass if you think you could visit more than 3 times a year.

At the Gate Park Rangers will offer you a map or Yosemite seasonal guides. We recommend picking this up your first visit, but conserve resources if you return on future visits.

Options After the Gate:

Options from here are plentiful. We suggest before you arrive plan out the activities you are willing to do on your visit. Questions to consider for your trip :How far are you willing to Hike? Are you physically conditioned to hike at Elevation and for how far? How many spots do I want to see? Am I looking to escape the crowds?

Itinerary 3- 5 hour Hiking Options: Select 1

Mono Pass / Spillway Lake

Only a few miles past the East gate you will see a parking area on the left side of the road. This parking area leads to Mono Pass or Spillway Lake hikes. This is a beautiful forest trail that climbs along a creek and meadow up to a fork that will take you up to Mono Pass and Bloody canyon in the Ansel Adams Wilderness or Fork west towards Spillway Lake which is a stunning location at the base of the Kuna crest region. This is a moderate hike with elevation that can make the hike seem intense for some visitors.

Cathedral Lakes

This epic hike follows the John Muir Trail route up out of the Tuolumne meadow to the Cathedral Lakes region. Multiple lake option here, but we recommend the High Lake first and then time willing the Lower Lake on your return. Scenic images of Cathedral Peaks, Wildlife , and Vista Views of a vast area of the Yosemite High Country. This trail is moderate to Intense with the first 1.5 miles the toughest section as you climb a ridge to the high country. This trail is also very crowded. At this time Roadside parking only. Parking is located just past the visitors center.

Lyell Canyon

Looking for more of a leisurely stroll where wildlife, water features and open skylines in a traditional Yosemite Valley are featured. Lyell canyon is a perfect visit on any day trip.
This trial is easy to moderate and can be walked along for hours with little elevation change most of the trip. Early trail features include a great cascade area with bridges and granite rocks to sit and enjoy the Tuolumne River. After crossing the river the trail weaves in an out of the forest along the Lyell canyon. featuring the river in many sections and wildlife in abundance depending on time of day. Take a hammock and hang along the shores of the river for a great morning / afternoon siesta in the high sierra. The Tuolumne is cold and refreshing and the water is so clear early in the season. Parking is best behind the Wilderness Permit station. The Tuolumne Meadows Wilderness Center is located just off the Tioga Road in Tuolumne Meadows. It is about one mile east of the visitor center. From the Tioga Road, follow signs for Tuolumne Meadows Lodge, Dog Lake, and Wilderness Permits follow this road toward the lodge.

Tuolumne Meadow / Soda Springs / The Domes

Tuolumne Meadow is its own special place. Visitors can take many routes to find great adventures, phot opps and spots to relax watching wildlife. We recommend parking on the dirt road on the east side of the meadow Just before reaching the campground and store at Tuolumne. If it is your first visit this is located just at the base of the mountain as you come down from the gate. It is also where the most cars are generally located and people really start to emerge.
Fish the Tuolumne, stroll back to Soda springs and Parsons Lodge, follow the PCT trail for several miles along the river and tot he edge of the Grand Canyon of Yosemite where there are a set of great water falls at approx. the 6 mile mark. or Tackle two great dome hikes Lembert Dome on the East side and Doda Dome on the West side of the meadow.

Itinerary 2 – Afternoon visit to Tenaya Lake

Take a Swim in Tenaya Lake

Ok a swim in not for everyone, this is one cold high sierra lake, but similar to Lake Tahoe it is almost healing to take an afternoon swim in this lake that is located road side off HWY 120. Located 12.3 miles from the east gate entrance, this is one of our favorite afternoon spots after a morning of hiking in the high country. On the East side of the lake is a crowded Sandy shore beach that is easy to find a spot to spread out a blanket and enjoy the hot afternoon sun in the high sierra. (Pack the sunscreen) On the north and West shores you will find several areas with tree lined and granite rock shore lines with epic views of the Cathedral range to the East. Do you like to Kayak? Tenaya lake screams for a kayak adventure to get away from the crowd a bit. A Stop at Tenaya is a must do on any east gate entrance day trip in our opinion.

Itinerary Item #3 – Olmsted Point and Half Dome

Olmstead Point / Half Dome

After a great morning hike and an afternoon relaxing dip in Tenaya Lake head a few miles West to Olmsted point. A roadside phot opp. location for half dome that is not to be missed. We recommend two walks here: 1st hike down the trail out to the granite rock cropping to get a front row seat of Half dome (As seen in image) besides being a little tired this is is an easy walk that is highly recommended.
The second option is to cross the highway and climb the granite to the north of Olmsted Point. From up here you get fantastic panoramic views of the cathedral range, Tenaya lake and clouds rest. a Little more difficult but well worth the effort.

Yosemite NP odemont point Halfdome

Itinerary #4 Return Trip to Carson City

Leaving Yosemite for us is always so hard, there is so much more to see and do. However some of our favorite food stops on the way home close around the 7pm mark so we often end our day in Yosemite around 6pm and head back down to hwy 395 for one of three great food choices after a good days hike and adventure.

Whoa Nellie Deli – Famous fish tacos, good burgers , pizza, beer and a great Vibe everyone seems to be in the best mood and the energy is great. Very crowded. Located at the base of Tioga Pass just before you get back on 395 at the Chevron gas station.

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