Autumn Outings: Explore Yosemite’s Roads Less Traveled

By Mike Morris September 15, 2012 06:00

“Secret” isn’t a word often associated with Yosemite National Park.

After all, more than four million people from across the globe visit the park each year.

But amid Yosemite’s 1,169 square miles (it’s a bit larger than Rhode Island), there are some lesser-known spots – places not full of tourists snapping pictures or cars cramming into parking lots.

For starters, it helps to go during the off-season. And there’s no better time to fall in love with Yosemite than autumn, when the leaves are turning, the air is crisp, and the hordes of summer tourists have come and gone.

It also helps to think beyond Yosemite Valley, the park’s bustling main hub, complete with grocery store, post office, hotels and even a courthouse. According to the National Park Service, 80 percent of the park’s visitors pay a visit to Yosemite Valley at some point during their stay.

The valley may have Half Dome and El Capitan as backdrops, but the park’s Highway 120 corridor offers some spectacular scenery that includes giant sequoias, alpine meadows and peaceful lakes.

Below are four alternatives to Yosemite Valley. Activities at these out-of-the-way gems can range from picnic hikes to overnight backpacking. Keep in mind that some of these outings are off-limits during the winter months due to road closures and snow.

A weeklong Yosemite pass costs $20 or an annual pass $40. Those 62 and older can get a lifetime pass for Yosemite and all other national parks and federal recreation areas for just $10 at any park gate. Free entry days for everyone this fall include Sept. 29 for National Public Lands Day and Nov. 10-12 for Veterans Day Weekend.

A few of the hikes mentioned below, including the first one, involve walking into the park, so there is no entry fee.

Lake Eleanor

Sticking to the park’s edges is a great way to see some of Yosemite’s hidden gems.

Lake Eleanor, at 4,657 feet, is in the northwest corner of the park. You can fish along the shoreline, hike surrounding trails and even camp near the lake.

Because Eleanor is not accessible by any major road or highway, visitors don’t often have much company.

Eleanor Creek was dammed in 1918 to form this reservoir, part of the Hetch Hetchy Water & Power System supplying water to the San Francisco area.

It’s easily accessible via another reservoir, Cherry Lake, which is on the adjoining Stanislaus National Forest.

Getting there

You can get to Cherry Lake by driving from the town of Tuolumne or from Highway 120 east of Groveland.

From just east of Tuolumne, take winding Buchanan Road (turns into Forest Road 1N04 and Cottonwood Rd.) about 34 miles to Cherry.

East of Groveland, turn left off Highway 120 onto Cherry Lake Road just after the bridge over the South Fork of the Tuolumne River and continue 24 miles.

Drive across the dam at Cherry Lake (the gate is closed Dec. 15 until April 15) and continue to a T intersection. Turn right toward the Lake Eleanor Dam trailhead and take the short walk to the lake.

Want more of an adventure? Turn left at the intersection and continue 1.6 miles on 1N04 to a small parking area on your left. The Eleanor trail  is on the right.

No dogs or bicycles are allowed in the Yosemite Wilderness, which you enter at the start of the 1.2-mile descent to Lake Eleanor (you have to come back up, so pace yourself and bring plenty of water).

Explore coves

As you go descend, follow the “Lake Shore Camping” sign to the water, where there are numerous coves to explore. Soak up some solitude as you gaze at stunning islands with towering pines on them in the middle of the lake.

Cherry Lake is also worth checking out. The sheer size of the reservoir—about four miles long and a mile at its widest—makes you feel like you have it all to yourself.

Boating, swimming and leashed pets are allowed at Cherry Lake. To protect water quality, you must camp 100 feet above the high-water mark, the lake level at its springtime peak.

As for Lake Eleanor, free wilderness permits (call 372-0740) are required year-round for all overnight trips into Yosemite Wilderness.


Disabled access:  Restrooms, water faucets and some sites at Cherry Valley Campground are wheelchair accessible; the Eleanor trail is not accessible.   

Dogs: Allowed leashed at Cherry Valley Campground, but not on the Eleanor trail.

Nearest restrooms: Cherry Valley Campground, Stanislaus National Forest.

Drive time, mileage from Sonora: Two hours, about 48 miles (watch for deer and the occasional cow on the road). The road is narrow and a bit rough for the last mile or so.

Hetch Hetchy

The Raker Act of 1913 not only authorized construction of Lake Eleanor’s dam, but the flooding of Yosemite’s Hetch Hetchy Valley. At eight miles long, Hetch Hetchy Reservoir is now the largest body of water in the park.Congress passed the legislation to provide San Francisco a reliable water source following a destructive earthquake and fire in 1906. Today, the Hetch Hetchy system provides water for 2.4 million people in the San Francisco Bay Area, according to the Bay Area Water Supply and Conservation Agency, an association of municipal customers.Famed naturalist and Raker Act foe John Muir once said the Hetch Hetchy Valley is a twin to world-famous Yosemite Valley.

“Dam Hetch Hetchy!” Muir thundered in 1912. “As well dam for water tanks the people’s cathedrals and churches, for no holier temple has ever been consecrated by the heart of man.”

The decision to build O’Shaughnessy Dam at the head of Hetch Hetchy Reservoir is debated to this day, and some have urged that it be torn down.

Getting there

To get to Hetch Hetchy, turn left (north) onto Evergreen Road off Highway 120, about 27 miles east of Groveland and a mile west of Yosemite’s Big Oak Flat Entrance Station, then drive 16 more miles to

the reservoir. About halfway there, you’ll come to the park’s Hetch Hetchy Entrance Station, where you must pay or show a pass.Last year, according to the National Park Service, nearly 29,000 vehicles passed through the Hetch Hetchy entrance. In contrast, the park’s busy South Entrance Station on Highway 41 near Wawona received nearly 446,000 vehicles.

The Hetch Hetchy Entrance Station is open 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. most of the year. In November, the hours are reduced to 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. until the end of March.

After checking out the top of the dam, continue walking through a dimly lit tunnel leading to Hetch Hetchy’s trailhead—otherwise known as “the gateway to the northern canyons of Yosemite’s wilderness.”

Day hikes, backpacking

From there it’s a pleasant five-mile roundtrip hike to Wapama Falls, where footbridges were recently rebuilt. Remember that waterfalls are strongest during the spring and can be just a trickle toward the end of the year.

For more experienced hikers, the roundtrip hike to Rancheria Falls is 13 miles. This can be done as an ambitious day hike or an overnight trek. From the Rancheria area, backpackers can access the northwest wilderness of Yosemite, including Tiltill Valley and Mountain. A free backpacking permit must be obtained at the Hetch Hetchy Entrance Station.

According to a National Park Service brochure and map, visitors to Hetch Hetchy have “easy access to a vast wilderness filled with high-country lakes, streams and wildlife.”

Since the reservoir supplies unfiltered drinking water to millions of people, no swimming or boating is allowed.

If you’re looking for a shorter drive and hike, consider the trail to Carlon Falls off Evergreen Road. The trailhead is at the Tuolumne River Bridge about a mile down the road from Highway 120. Shortly after starting the four-mile roundtrip trek you’ll enter Yosemite, and, like Lake Eleanor, this is a free way to enter the park.

Disabled access: Trails beyond the dam area are not accessible.

Dogs: Not permitted on the dam or trails, but allowed in day-use area at Hetch Hetchy if leashed.

Nearest restrooms: At dam parking lot.

Drive time, mileage from Sonora:  Two hours, 65 miles.

Giant Sequoias

The smallest of Yosemite’s three giant sequoia groves, the Merced Grove is “perhaps the best opportunity for a solitary experience among these colossal giants,” reads a sign at the trailhead.

A good way to see these magnificent trees – which can tower above 300 feet, grow to 12 feet in diameter and live more than 2,000 years – is to take the three-mile round-trip hike, which follows the roadbed of the historic and now-abandoned Coulterville Road.

A small parking area for the Merced Grove of Giant Sequoias is on your right, roughly five  miles east of Big Oak Flat Entrance Station at the park’s western edge.

Walk the flat, wide dirt trail a half-mile to a gate on the left that warns no bicycles or dogs are permitted. The trail gets slightly rougher as it leads downhill to the grove of 20 impressive trees. You’ll also see a historic cabin, built in 1934 as a summer retreat for park superintendents.

The grove is only 1.5 miles from the parking lot, and another mile will take you to Twin Bridges–which, as the name implies, is two bridges over a creek.

Tuolumne Grove

If the Merced Grove doesn’t give you your fix of big trees, continue down the highway to Crane Flat, turn left on Highway 120 (Tioga Road), and look for a large parking lot on the left for the Tuolumne Grove of Giant Sequoias.

This hike is a little more than two miles roundtrip, as the first giant sequoia is only a mile from the parking lot. A highlight is walking through the Dead Giant Tunnel Tree.

The trail follows the historic and now abandoned Big Oak Flat Road through the 24-tree Tuolumne Grove. For a longer hike, continue another 4.2 miles to Hodgdon Meadow.

Both the Merced and Tuolumne grove hikes are moderately strenuous. The uphill return for the Merced Grove is a 600-foot gain and the Tuolumne Grove has a 400-foot gain.

Plan a picnic

The groves are ideal picnic hikes, as there are restrooms and picnic tables at the trailheads. The trails are marked for cross-country skiing and snowshoeing in winter.

The park’s third stand of big trees, the Mariposa is near the park’s southern entrance, boasts fully 500 giant sequoias, but is often crowded with visitors.

Disabled access: Tram tours provide access to Mariposa Grove. Tuolumne Grove trail is paved, but includes some steep grades. Merced Grove trail is dirt and includes climbs.

Dogs: Permitted leashed at picnic areas near trailheads; not allowed on trails.

Nearest restrooms: At Merced, Tuolumne and Mariposa Grove trailheads, also just below the museum in the Mariposa’s upper grove.

Drive time, mileage from Sonora: Merced Grove, 53 miles (1 hr., 15 min.); Tuolumne Grove, 56.5 miles (1 hr., 15 min.); Mariposa Grove, 89.5 miles (2 hr., 15 min.).

Tioga Pass

Continuing east on Tioga Road from the Tuolumne Grove of Giant Sequoias will take you to a high-country wonderland.

As the highway leads to Tioga Pass – 54 miles from the Big Oak Flat entrance station – there’s something for everyone. Olmsted Point lookout offers great pictures. Cathedral Lakes has the spectacular 10,940-foot Cathedral Peak as a backdrop. And from Tuolumne Meadows you can take an easy stroll along the John Muir Trail to explore the Lyell Fork of the Tuolumne River.

Tuolumne Meadows Pack Station, one of three stables in the park, offers summer horseback or mule rides ranging from two-hours ($64) to a full day ($128).  Contact the stable at 372-8427.

While the Tuolumne Meadows area is typically associated with summertime activities, it can be a great place to check out fall foliage or, on rare occasions such as last winter, to walk on frozen lakes and streams.

Eight miles northeast of Tuolumne Meadows is 9,945-foot Tioga Pass, the highest mountain pass you can drive over in the Sierra.

Near the pass is a trailhead for Mount Dana

At 13,057 feet on the eastern edge of both Yosemite and Tuolumne County, Mount Dana is the highest point in the county. Although not a technical climb, the trek to the top of Dana is steep and difficult. Even experienced hikers have difficulty due to the altitude.

If you’d prefer to look at 13,000-foot peaks from your, continue down Tioga Pass for a road trip into the eastern Sierra. Check out the tiny town of Lee Vining, an area that features brilliantly colored aspens in fall, along with Mono and Mammoth lakes to the south.

Or head north on U.S. Highway 395 through Bridgeport and take Sonora Pass to make a giant loop back into the foothills.

That scenery and solitude just can’t be found in Yosemite Valley.

Disabled access: Tuolumne Meadows stables can tailor rides to the needs of handicapped visitors. Exhibits at Olmsted Point are fully accessible. Newer trail to Tenaya Lake is accessible, as are  portions of the viewing area along the north side of Tenaya Lake.

Dogs: Permitted in picnic areas and campgrounds when leashed. Not allowed on trails or beaches like those at Tenaya Lake.

Restrooms: At Tuolumne Meadows campground and visitor center (indoor plumbing) and at both ends of Tenaya Lake.

Drive time, mileage from Sonora: 102 miles, about 2 hours.

For general park information: Online at or call 372-0200.

 Copyright © 2012 Friends and Neighbors Magazine

By Mike Morris September 15, 2012 06:00
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