The so-called hiker's bus was packed the first time I rode it on a rainy day in late June. Backpackers headed for the high country take advantage of this modern stagecoach operating along Tioga Road, starting out in Curry Village at 8 a.m. and arriving at Tuolomne Meadows, on the eastern end of the park, at around 10:15 a.m.. Day hikers bound for one of the numerous trailheads laid out in between the two points are co-mingled with the wilderness permit holders, along with a few less ambitious trekkers like me hankering for a taste of Yosemite's backcountry.
The hiker's bus is not a tour, they'll tell you at the tour desks, but anyone who boards it in the morning will return in the late afternoon knowing as much about Yosemite as some devoted season passholders. At least, if you ride with a driver named Karen. Listening to her narrate the trip to Tuolomne is like having a guide on Yosemite read to you aloud.
Pressing ahead, there were stops on either side of Tenaya Lake, named after the last great chief of the Ahwahnee tribe. On my second trip to Tuolomne, I got off at the Sunrise stop and hiked for about an hour around the lake. It was an easy solo hike, good for someone just getting their feet wet in the alpine backcountry. Of course, when I got my feet wet in Tenaya Lake, the cold water made every nerve ending pound. (OK, so Bear Gryllis I'm not, but you will see me lap swimming now and then in the Merced River.)
At the other end of this pristine body of liquid, I flagged down the free park shuttle that runs between Olmstead Point and the Tuolumne Meadows lodge, and headed further east. Other stops include the visitor center, the Meadows Grill. At the latter destination, they were serving the same menu as you'll find in the valley. The same company runs both operations. The picnic tables set up outside attract a patchwork quilt of tourists through the summer, from well-to-do foreigners to the hard-core backcountry trekkers living off trail mix and their palm-sized camp stoves. Clearly, this is is the main hangout in Tuolomne, with a convenience store, restrooms, post office and gas station close by. Truth be known, I had a huge migraine brewing when I arrived here. Mercifully, a strong cup of coffee knocked it down before things deteriorated much further.
Now that I've written all this, I feel like I've hardly told you anything. There are so many day hikes to locations accessible from Tioga Road and Tuolomne - Soda Springs, Harden and Cathedral Lakes, Lyell Canyon, Cascade and Yosemite Creeks - that a trail guide is practically paramount to the success of the expedition There's a book called Tioga Tramps, by John and Elizabeth O'Neill, which can probably fill in where my few brush strokes leave off. Of course, there's always the bus driver to ask for travel tips. (She accepts tips as well.) During the ride back, Karen shared some Native American lore and the lowdown on Judy Garland's visit to the Ahwahnee Hotel, not to mention a few yarns about bears breaking into cars - like the one who sniffed out the peppermint laxative and "stayed long enough for it to take effect." Before you know it, you're in Curry Village (or Yosemite Lodge), where your journey through the looking glass began.
Along Tioga Road, we made a series of stops at the different trailheads, discharging backpackers and day hikers a few at a time. The bus driver also made a mail and newspaper delivery at White Wolf, a quaint tent-cabin settlement nestled within a huge grove of pines. (These tents are part of the roster of various accommodations offered by the park concessionaire at the site yosemitepark.com. There's also a public campground here that costs $10 a night - a bargain compared to the $30 per site you pay in the valley.)
Moving on, about an hour into the trip we reached Olmstead Point, a popular vista point in the High Sierras. The bus parked and we all got out to stretch for 10 minutes. As you can see in the photos below, when you climb up to 8,000+ feet, the terrain becomes rather stark and colorless . The granite above the timberline just dominates the landscape.
Tioga Road to Tuolumne Meadows
Oddly enough, my favorite part of Tuolomne Meadows so far has been walking through the large public campground, accessible from the parking lot in front of the grill. I found this wooded retreat an ideal refuge from the harsh world. That alpine smell really stands out in the woods here, whether a light drizzle is falling as happened during my first visit, or it's just a pleasant morning in early July, when I took most of these pictures. Given the high altitude, the weather's a lot cooler up here, which can be a plus or minus depending on when you visit. It actually snowed one day at the end of July.
Best of all, she stops for bear jams. Within the first hour, we saw five of these elusive beasts, including two cubs, mostly along Big Oak Flat Road (a.k.a. Highway 120). After making a 15-minute pit stop for coffee and provisions at the gas station in Crane Flat (where I took the two photos above), we turned onto Tioga Road and started heading east. This route is not to be confused with Tioga Pass, the infamous crossing that starts on the other side of Tuolomne Meadows, near the town of Lee Vining.
You can reach the small Tuolomne Meadows visitor's center from Tioga Road by getting off the hiker's bus at the grill, then following the trail that winds up through the campground, which is near the highway. You'll be walking west, going back in the direction you came on the bus . Pretty soon, you'll hear a brook and find the trail marker right where you see the "E1" sign in the picture directly above left.
Half the camp sites in Tuolumne are first-come, first-served. The other half can be reserved online. (See the (N.P.S. website for details.) Park rangers say the best time to check for openings is about 10 a.m. Evidently, Yosemite campers are put off by the hour and half drive between Tuolomne and the valley, so defer from booking this far out from the main drag. I would snag a perch here over the crowded, noisy Pines campgounds in a heartbeat. And the drive into the valley is anything but a slog, considering that all the real estate in question lies within the park.
And did I mention that there are meadows in Tuolomne Meadows? A stream snakes around through the middle of a huge open field that was once the path of glaciers. This particular waterway is a much greater force in the springtime than the summer, but it's still plenty strong in July. You can also get a good panoramic view from this spot. I noticed many a tourist stopping take photos of each other with Lembert Dome in the background.
Maybe instead of the hiker's bus they should call it the magic bus. Bears prowling around every bend. Looking out across the rim from above the timberline. Those big white rocks. The path around a pristine moutain lake cut by glaciers. Snow in July, big yellow cornflowers and strong coffee to knock out the worst of headaches. Ernest Hemingway would have found an ideal setting for a novel had he been here. It's an elevating experience, regardless.
If you're hankering for more info, HowStuffWorks.com has published a Tioga Road page with a map and other details.
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