USA – Yosemite to Mono Lake: The best stops on Tioga Pass Road

If you are visiting Yosemite park as part of a west coast two week itinerary as I did I recommend adding a one-day tour to Mono Lake from Yosemite National Park over the Tioga Pass Road. Mona Lake is a curious saline lake with magnificent salt formations. Tioga Pass is home to awesome views of Yosemite National Park. I started early morning from the Holiday Inn Express Merced, as accommodation in Yosemite was way to expensive in high season. Earlier in the trip I bought the national park pass which allowes access to all the parks I wanted to visit. I could just drive up the Tioga Pass Road without being in line for a ticket. Keep in mind the road is mostly closed from end October to end May due to snowfall. I’ll show you the must stops along this route!

Tioga Pass

Tioga Pass is a pass in the Sierra Nevada mountain range, California, and at the highest point just over 3000 meters. 3000 meters is high and if you go hiking you will notice shortage of oxygen but if you just drive the Tioga Pass Road from Yosemite to Mono Lake as a day tour you don’t have to worry about the altitude. It’s nothing compared to the 5500-6000 meters I experienced when visiting Namtso Lake in Tibet a few years back.

Coming from Merced the climb is easy and you’re not even noticing that you’re going up to 3000 meters but the descend to Mono Lake is awesome. The road has lots of hairpins and the descend of 3000 meters is just a fraction of the length of the road. Tioga Pass gets its name from the Tioga Mine which means “where it forks” in native American language.

 

There are plenty of beautiful stops along the road and I recommend just stopping where you want. Three places are must-see places and I’ll list those below. Mono Lake is the final destination of course. I recommend taking in all the sights when driving to Mono Lake when the sunlight is best for photography. On the way back at dawn I recommend keeping your eyes open for wildlife!

Tioga Pass: Half Dome view

Half Dome, a famous rock formation in Yosemite, is the first stop after a few minor stops on Tioga Pass Road. Half Dome gets its name from the fact that it looks like a dome where half of it is shaved off. You’ll recognize it immediate once you see it. The top is about 1400 meters above the Yosemite Valley floor and has an elevation of about 2700 meters. It’s possible to climb to the top from the valley too but it’s a strenuous hike comparable to the Skeleton Point Hike in the Grand Canyon. The view from Tioga Pass Road is magnificent. You can easily spend an hour here walking over the granite plateaus.

Tioga Pass: Tuolumne Meadows

The Tuolumne Meadows are the place to go for a nice picknick or if it’s to earlythen  do that at Ellery Lake which is the next stop. Meadows are a sub-alpine flatland just below the tree line. In summer it’s green, the Tuolumne River flows, flowers bloom and animals graze there. It’s beautiful. The Tuolumne Meadows refer to a big part of the flat highlands of Yosemite Park, but the best views are along Tioga Pass Road. Look at this beautiful view below!

 

When I drove to Mono Lake I didn’t see much deer at the meadows but when I drove back there were lots of deer grazing. They do tend to run away when you make a bit of noise but if you’re quiet you can get one on a photo easily (see below). There are various small lakes with beautiful reflections. Do make a 2nd stop on the way back in the afternoon when winds calm down and the reflection gets better. Make sure to shoot your photo in RAW format and read my ultimate free photo editing guide to see how you can get a photo as the one below!

Tioga Pass: Ellery Lake

Ellery Lake is the next big must-do stop after the Tuolumne Meadows. Ellery Lake is a huge lake where you can go swimming, kayaking or just relax at the shores. If you want to do activities there make sure to leave Merced very early morning as otherwise you won’t have enough time. It’s also the perfect spot for lunch, bring a picknick. After Ellery Lake continue driving the Tioga Pass Road until you get to the pass which is the highest point just above 3000 meters. From there it’s a steep drive down towards Mono Lake.

Mono Lake

Mono Lake is a huge lake in the Mono Basin. There are water inlets but not outlets and water evaporates in the desert surrounding. Due this the salt concentrations rise making the lake very saline. You can’t swim in it like you can go floating in the Dead Sea in the Middle East though. A visit is however a must-do as on the shore there are beautiful salt formations called Tufa’s. These are formed over hundred thousand of years. It’s a surrealistic alien landscape, completely different than the Mars landscape in Wadi Rum, but as alien as it can get on earth.

 

Mono Lake isn’t without life though as brine shrimps thrive in summer which makes the lake a perfect place for migratory birds. Another reason birds migrate to the lake is the abundance of Alkine flies along the shoreline. They are a great food source for the birds.

I arrived from the Tioga Pass Road and drove over the unpaved roads towards the Mono Lake visitors center. The visitors center is in the south where the largest tufa’s are located. It’s called the South Tufa area. Tufa’s are the large salt formations the lake is famous for, both on land as in the waters. A visit takes just over an hour over a well-marked path that takes you all the way to the shore of the lake. It’s very hot so bring water!

After visiting Mono Lake, it was time to drive the same way back over the Tioga Pass Road. It was late afternoon and the sun started to set. A perfect time to spot some wildlife like the deer you can see in the photo above. It was after dinner time when I arrived back in Merced. It was a long day but the drive from Yosemite to Mono Lake was well worth it. The views are amazing along Tioga Pass Road and Mono Lake is a magnificent alien landscape.

The next day I continued my two-week USA West Coast itinerary towards Death Valley and Las Vegas. A day in Las Vegas was enough for me, but in Death Valley I spend two full days. One day I went off-road in Death Valley. This wasn’t the end, so check my two-week USA West Coast itinerary to read about my other adventures of this road trip.

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Did you visit Tioga Pass and Mono Lake too or do you have questions? Please leave a comment at the bottom of the page. Love to hear from you!

Gallery Tioga Pass to Mono Lake

Check the gallery for more photos taken during this trip. If you like to use any photo for commercial, private or editorial use please contact first for permission and/or pricing.

 

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