When you Google photos of Yosemite National Park, the results are sure to include Glacier Point, Tunnel View, and Yosemite Falls. I’m not here to tell you that you shouldn’t bother stopping by those places, but I do want to stress the fact that the northern region including Tioga Pass and Big Oak Flat Road should be a priority during the latter half of the year. (Especially if you want to see the tufas at Mono Lake.)
By late summer, the waterfalls have mostly dried up and Mirror Lake is nearly unswimmable. Tioga Pass, however, offers the most impressive views and rewarding hikes Yosemite has to offer–only through November!
The park may be open 365 days a year, but that does not mean you can go just anywhere at anytime. Make sure to check which roads are open and if there are any attractions currently closed for restoration.
Let me lay out your options for the entire year real quick. These are estimates based on seasonal road closures:
- December-March: Yosemite Valley and Wawona
- March-May: Yosemite Valley, Wawona, and possibly Glacier Point Road
- May-November: All roads, including Tioga Pass and Big Oak Flat
As you can see, Tioga Pass and Big Oak Flat are allowed the smallest window of time every year, due to snow, etc. That’s part of what makes the northern region of Yosemite so special.
Big Oak Flat
During the winter, this road is closed from Crane Flat to Tioga Pass. Which is a real shame, because that drive featured the most surprising views of my trip.
I hadn’t looked up much about the road, as it was merely on my route to Tioga Pass. That’s how I found myself jealous of all the southbound travelers on Big Oak Flat. For them, it was much easier to pull over and take photos. (Thus, I made Big Oak Flat a priority for my return trip.)
Even Tuolumne Meadows is inaccessible during the winter, so now’s the time to go! Especially if you like sequoias, or even if Wawona Grove is closed for maintenance.
The hikes off of Tioga Pass are endless—both in length and abundance. I adored both the hikes I took. The first was at Tuolumne Meadows, which was an easy, flat stroll through a meadow that leads to a creek where I saw an entire family of deer and discovered a hidden waterfall. The second hike on the Gaylor Lakes trail to an abandoned mine was difficult but totally worth it!
Awesome roadside views include Olmsted Point (a great place to stretch your legs) and Tenaya Lake (a great place to swim)!
At the far end of Tioga Pass, you will come to Lee Vining. This charming town offers a convenient place to stay the night as well as stupendous views of the Sierras and Mono Lake. My recommendation is to stay at the Yosemite Gateway Motel.
What not to see
This list will be shorter than the list of what you should see. So here’s some attractions that are just plain unimpressive, once the water has dried up in the summer heat (according to nps.gov):
- Mirror Lake: Mirror Lake is actually a creek, not a lake. During early summer or spring, it can be a fun watering hole, great for a quick swim. However, the fun wanes along with the water.
- Vernal Falls: Although this waterfall flows year-round, it won’t look anything like its photos once the water starts to decrease. According to nps.gov, the flow gradually splits into 2 or 3 falls.
- Yosemite Falls: Flows November through July.
- Horsetail Fall: Flows December through April .
- Ribbon Fall: Flows March through June.
- Sentinel Falls: Flows March through June.
May is the best month for waterfalls, but if you simply must see a waterfall during the off-season, do your research or view a live video of the current water flow before you finalize your plans. Here’s a few falls that are more likely to flow year-round: Chilnualna Falls, Wapama Falls, Illilouhette Falls, Nevada Fall, and Bridalveil Fall. You can also go to Glacier Point. Even in August, I could spy out two waterfalls from there.
Check out these Yosemite road trip planning tips.