Day 4: Tioga Road to May Lake, Tenaya Lake, and Tuolomne Meadows

“With your heart aglow, spangling Lake Tenaya and Lake May will beckon you away for walks on their ice-burnished shores.” —John Muir (Read  Muir’s descriptions of his favorite excursions to these spots in The Yosemite, Chapter 12.)

On my second full day in Yosemite National Park (and the fourth day of my John Muir pilgrimage), my partner John and I visited a region of the park much beloved by Muir. After a long winding drive from our base at the Wawona Hotel (about 2 1/2 hours to Tuolomne Meadows) taking the Tioga Road northeast of the Big Oak Flat entrance to the park, we followed a short, rugged road to the May Lake trailhead.

There we hiked up through the stark, rocky terrain leading to a gorgeous, medium-sized lake beneath the peak of Mt. Hoffman. The cold, fresh mountain air and white sunlight were restorative. I could almost imagine myself in the midst of one of Muir’s two or three-week journeys of climbing and botanizing. Passing long chains of sturdy horses carrying supplies up to the High Sierra Camp at May Lake (and and a few very comical yellow-bellied marmots munching on the horses’ droppings), we reached an elevation of 9270 ft. Unaccustomed to the thin air, we were winded but inspired: this trail rewarded us with some of the most incredible vistas of our trip.

After walking back to the trailhead and dreaming about someday returning to spend a few nights at the High Sierra Camp, we drove onward to enjoy the view from Olmsted Point, then Tenaya Lake. I was particularly taken with the lake, the largest in the park and a stunning pool of bright blue sky-reflections beneath spare granite peaks.

We continued onward to Muir’s beloved Tuolomne Meadows, one of the locations I’ve been most looking forward to visiting. There the Tuolomne River travels gently through a broad carpet of lush, emerald green ringed by pines and bounded by stunning, craggy granite peaks (featuring the distinctive Cathedral Range and Lembert Dome). It felt as though we had crossed through some barrier and entered a mountain paradise. In his turn-of-the-century language, Muir described it as:

“…the widest, smoothest, most serenely spacious, and in every way the most delightful summer pleasure-park in all the High Sierra.”

This was not a solitary paradise, of course: we ate burgers in the parking lot of Tuolomne Meadows Grill alongside groups of long-term backpackers following the John Muir Trail or the Pacific Crest Trail through the vast swaths of the northern Yosemite Wilderness, a conservation area inaccessible by vehicle.

After visiting Soda Springs, a natural spring from which Muir and others acquired naturally carbonated water (although beautiful, it didn’t look too tasty to us) and walking on looping paths through the meadows, we tore ourselves away to make the long drive back to Wawona before dark—agreeing that if we could have an extra few days in Yosemite, we would have likely spent it at these and other sights off of the Tioga Road.

Read the next post in the series (Day 5)

Return to the On the Road to Capture John Muir’s Yosemite to view the other entries in this series.