East Side Rules! Tioga Pass and Yosemite in Almost-Winter

Driving up Highway 395 last Friday morning, I saw the first of several signs displaying the status of passes over the High Sierra.  The only one I was interested in was State Route 120, or Tioga Pass Road.  But I already knew the answer.  And the sign confirmed it:


A couple hours later, another sign gave conflicting information:


OK, that was weird.  Must have been an error.  But on long drives by yourself, you have plenty of time to think.  What if it’s true?  What if Tioga Pass is open?  The wheels of imagination started spinning overtime.

After hiking in the Alabama Hills, searching for (and finding) the elusive Sky Rock petroglyphs, and a bit of bouldering at Deadman’s Summit, I had no time left Friday to head up into Tioga Pass and Yosemite.  But I had already formulated a plan in my mind, and needed to verify whether or not the road was open.  So just south of the sleepy little town of Lee Vining, I turned left on Tioga Pass Road, and saw the sign:

The eastern entrance to Yosemite National Park was indeed open!

I later found out that all of the signs on my drive up had been correct: the road had in fact been closed early Friday morning, but reopened mid-day.


Monday morning found me leaving Reno before 8 a.m., and a little after 10 a.m. I was once again turning on to Tioga Pass Road.  Driving up Lee Vining Canyon is always such an amazing experience, like you are driving up into the sky.  The powdered-sugar dusting of snow on the shaded north-facing slopes made it even more spectacular this time.


At the entrance to Yosemite National Park, I was ready to show my annual parks pass and get in free…but the entrance station was already closed for the winter!

A short distance into the park, it looked like a winter wonderland…

02The road was open, and no chains were required, but there was a fair amount of snow and ice on the road in spots.  Even with my All Wheel Drive CR-V and brand new tires, I drove very slowly and carefully.  Luckily there were no obnoxious speed demons on my ass that morning–there were only a few other cars on the road, and they all seemed as mindful of the conditions as I was.

I headed straight for Tenaya Lake, which sits at an elevation of 8,150 feet and is a few miles west of Tuolomne Meadows.  As I dropped down towards the lake, road conditions improved and there was a lot less snow on the ground.

03Tenaya Lake is one of the most stunning places you could ever dip your boat in the water.

04Conditions were perfect.  The temperature was probably in the high 30s, but I worked up a good sweat on my paddle out there.

05Oh and of course I had the entire lake to myself.

On the drive back to Tuolumne meadows I stopped to check out this amazing dome next to the side of the road.

06There was a little bit of snow at Tuolomune Meadows, but it was hard packed.  So I put on my boots and got out my hiking poles, but left the snowshoes in the car.

07I hiked out along the trail that skirts the base of Pothole Dome.  It was quite chilly when not moving along the trail at a good clip.  At about 3/4ths of a mile I turned around and headed part way back, looking for a good spot to ascend the dome.

The southeastern part of the dome is gently sloping and has countless routes up.  I just started walking up the steep granite slopes, zig-zagging to take photos of anything that looked interesting.

This is approaching the last little climb to the top.

08According to my GPS, the top of Pothole Dome is about 8,830 feet high.  The view was pretty spectacular in every direction.

Here’s a photo looking east towards Tuolomne Meadows; in the foreground, some glacial erratics left stranded on the dome by the retreating glaciers thousands of years ago.

09Looking south from the top of Pothole Dome, you could see the striking profile of Cathedral Peak.

Ah, Cathedral Peak…as John Muir said of the first ascent of Cathedral Peak in 1869,

“This I may say is the first time I have been at church in California, led here at last, every door graciously opened for the poor lonely worshiper. In our best times everything turns into religion, all the world seems a church and the mountains altars.”

10One of the great disappointments of my life was getting to within ~200 feet of the 10,916 foot summit of Cathedral Peak a few years ago, only to be turned away by inclement weather.  Then again, Mike and I really had no intention of climbing the peak that day–we were just out on a short afternoon stroll that got way out of hand, so it’s hard to be truly disappointed.  Besides, I will go back there some day…you will be mine, Cathedral Peak, YOU WILL BE MINE!

After returning to the car, I drove out of the park to do some more kayaking.  But first I stopped just inside the east entrance to look at this nice little partially-frozen pond.

11Next stop: Tioga Lake.  This lake sits at an elevation of 9,638 feet and is literally just outside of the east entrance of Yosemite National Park–from the kayak I could actually see the east entrance station.  It was bone-chillingly cold out on the lake, so I left a little early, hoping to find something warmer to do.

12I’ve camped and kayaked here before, and it never disappoints.  And yes, I had the lake all to myself.  Either I was doing something right, or doing something wrong.  Methinks I was doing something right…

Next stop: Ellery Lake, just down the road from Tioga Lake.  At 9,489 elevation, Ellery is a little lower than Tioga, but it’s a little more protected from the sun–while there was no ice at all at Tioga, the surface of Ellery was almost half covered.

13Getting in to Ellery Lake was a bit complicated.  The normal launch–a little dirt road on the west wide down fairly close to the shore–was inaccessible as the road was covered with snow and that portion of the lake was solid ice.  So I had to find an alternative launch.

The best spot, which was not at all good, seemed to be at the east end of the lake, right by the dam.  It was steep and rocky, but I scoped out the path of least resistance and committed to doing it.  This is where I ended up launching:

17While unloading the kayak from my car, I had a classic encounter with a random human being.

A car pulled up, obviously a rental.  An older (and I say that with all due respect) gentleman, obviously of the redneck (again, I say that with all due respect) persuasion, got out of the car and walked over slowly towards me.

When he was within speaking distance, I turned to say hello, but before I could say anything, he nodded his trucker-hat-clad head towards the majesty of Ellery Lake and said:

“You ‘gun git you some a dat?”

Hell yeah!  I’m ‘gun git me some a dat!

We had a pleasant conversation, and he was in awe of the area, this being his first time through.  He even offered to help me carry the kayak down the steep slope; I thanked him profusely, but respectfully declined his offer, as dealing with sketchy put-ins like this is all part of the experience.

Plus I didn’t want to be responsible for some old guy busting a hip and ruining the vacation of his life.

14I’ve been on a few ice-covered lakes in the spring–including Ellery–and it’s fun to use the kayak as an icebreaker and create cracks in the huge, thin sheets of ice.  But this time it was different.  There was no cracking this ice.  It was at least 6 inches thick.

15Ramming in to the ice would have been stupid, as I probably would have capsized.  And capsizing out there on half-frozen Ellery Lake would have easily meant hypothermia and probable death.  Oh, and yeah, I was once again the only person out there on the entire lake.

16It was really getting cold out there, and the afternoon sun was going night-night behind the peaks of the High Sierra.  I headed back to the car and then, exhausted from my day in Yosemite and Tioga Pass, struggled to get the kayak back up the steep grade and onto the roof of my car.

With the kayak secured, I coasted down Tioga Pass Road in the long shadows, racing towards Lee Vining where I could find some food, a warm bed, and a warmer shower.  And I wondered, would I ever get a chance to experience the east side again like this, driving in easily in near-winter conditions, having one of the most beautiful places on earth virtually all to myself…


A Window Towards the Heavens

In the blazing noonday sun last Friday, I spent about an hour scrambling up a steep bluff and hopping over large boulders, looking for one of the best kept secrets of the Eastern Sierra: the sacred petroglyph panel known as Sky Rock.

Created as long as 8,000 years ago by early ancestors of the Owens Valley Paiute tribe, what makes this petroglyph panel so special–other than the amazing assortment of coded messages and its spectacular location–is its orientation: the giant panel of mysterious glyphs faces upwards towards the sky.  Towards the heavens.

10702355943_7688a7a403_zWhen I finally found it, I climbed up the side of the boulder and then immediately removed my shoes.


I only spent a few minutes on top, walking carefully in my socked feet, not wanting to damage or desecrate this sacred place.

10702172094_ce5003a2e0_zSo what does it all mean, this huge, complex petroglyph panel that faces upwards towards the heavens?  We’ll probably never know.

10702358223_b0e5b7a493_zBut when you’re there, you feel a combination of awe and peace.  Like you’re at the center of…something…