Exploring Yosemite’s snowbound high country, quiet and deserted, richly rewards the hardy few who reach it in winter. There’s also much to like about the easy access mountain roads provide in summer. These two elements come together for just a few days each year—and for bicycling Yosemite lovers, it’s a trip to savor.
Between the annual snowplowing of Tioga Road and the highway’s opening to motor traffic, a few days later exists a short window of golden opportunity. Grand views of snow-covered peaks and a ride through breathtaking scenery without noisy automobiles are a few of the outing’s selling points. Careful timing and planning are key because the park does not promote this use of the pre-opened road.
After coveting the trip for years, I convinced a friend to go with me one spring. Anxiously, we watched the weather and road reports for our chance to strike. When a snowplow crew punched through Tioga Pass in mid-May, we both dropped everything and drove over the just-opened Sonora Pass, south to Lee Vining, and up to the gated Tioga Pass. We loaded up our panniers and lifted our bikes over the gate.
Riding from Tioga Pass to Tuolumne Meadows gave us thrills as we dropped 2,000 feet in eight beautiful miles. We coasted effortlessly down the tree-lined, snow-banked road beneath clear skies that slowly took on an exquisite shade of pink.
Then we reached Tuolumne Hut, a gem of the high country. In winter months, the park leaves this building open to visitors for free on a first-come, first-served basis. Inside are bunk beds, lights, a table, a hot plate, and wood for the stove. Skiers fill the cabin on rare occasions, but we were the only occupants on this night. And, to top it off, the food cache our buddy had left behind the previous autumn was still there and untouched. We toasted him as we cracked open the beers he’d left behind.
The next morning, a ranger cautioned us to stay off the road while workers labored to clear it. So we entertained ourselves by hiking and bouldering around Lembert Dome and Puppy Dome. After the road crew finished up for the day, we geared up and pedaled west eight miles to Tioga Lake, which we found in an interesting and unusual half-frozen state.
“Tenaya Lake was a real favorite of mine,” said my companion Bob Leung. “We got to see winter practically thaw and turn into spring right in front of our eyes as a private audience.”
Everywhere, the mountains were alive with running water and signs of wildlife emerging from winter slumber—and aside from a few kindred spirits on bicycles, no one else was there to see it. Those who get here ahead of the summer rush stand a better chance of seeing shy wildlife, like the coyotes I spotted. I also enjoyed riding beneath several treasured mountain summits, like Mount Hoffmann, Mariuolumne Dome and Tenaya Peak, which I’ve spent many happy days climbing.
“To be able to roam here and there and not have to run into crowds, that was just amazing,” Bob said. “Yosemite is like Disneyland for people who love the outdoors and usually you have to fight through crowds. It was as if someone closed down Disneyland for two days and gave us passes to go onto every ride on our own.”
To bike farther west and complete a point-to-point trek through the park was tempting, but it would have required transportation arrangements we hadn’t made. So after another night in Tuolumne Hut, we rode back to Bob’s truck at Tioga Pass and drove home, grateful that we’d come and grateful for a reason to go back.
If you go:
Timing is everything! The park tries to open Tioga Road by Memorial Day weekend. This depends greatly on the level of snowpack, though.
Be self-sufficient. If you get a flat tire or any other problem, cell coverage is scarce and help is miles away. The park provides no services. At the least, carry a pump, patch kit, spare tube, and a few tools.
The park generally allows cyclists to use Tioga Road for a few days between the completion of snow clearance and the opening for motor vehicle traffic. Cyclists are not allowed to ride the road while the road crew is working.
To determine the road availability for cycling (which Yosemite does not advertise), check news reports about the snowplowing operation starting in early May. A ranger we met said visitors might get road information from the Mono Lake Committee Visitor Center (phone number: 760-647-6595) or perhaps even the Whoa Nellie Deli at Lee Vining’s Tioga Gas Mart, also known as the Mobil (phone number: 760-647-1088).
Tuolumne Hut serves as a campground office in summer. As you head west on Tioga Road, it’s just past Lembert Dome’s parking area and across the Tuolumne River bridge. The cabin has mattresses, though visitors need sleeping bags. In case it’s closed or full, be prepared with a bivvy sack or tent.
Matt Johanson enjoys exploring and writing about the outdoors. Climbing Mount Shasta, hiking the John Muir Trail, and skiing through Yosemite’s high country rank among his favorite outings. Matt’s books include California Summits, Sierra Summits, Yosemite Adventures, and Yosemite Epics. He’s taught and advised an award-winning high school journalism program for more than 20 years.
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