California's Highway 120: From Groveland to Mono Lake
To relish Yosemite’s granite grandeur without the constant crowds, consider taking the 98-mile drive that climbs 9,950 feet from rolling foothills on the west to the crest of the Sierra, then descends to otherworldly Mono Lake.
Groveland has been provisioning miners and adventurers since 1848. These days, you can find flaky pastries and strong coffee at Mountain Sage Cafe.
As you head east up the Sierra, the hillside oaks give way to fragrant pines near the south fork of the Tuolumne River. At Rainbow Pools, a noisy 15-foot waterfall splashes bathers in a natural swimming hole. At Crane Flat, you can take a 2.5-mile round-trip walk to a group of old-growth giants in Tuolumne Grove.
From the Crane Flat turnoff, head east on Tioga Road for 30 miles, where you can view Yosemite’s granite grandpappy, Half Dome, and the less famous Clouds Rest, from the panoramic view at Olmsted Point, 8,420 feet above sea level.
A few minutes up the road, pull over at Tenaya Lake, a great spot for picnics. A paved walkway on the north side provides access to wheelchairs. At 8,600 feet, Tuolumne Meadows offers fields of wildflowers, scattered lakes, and the gentle, meandering Tuolumne River.
Thirteen miles downhill from the summit, high desert awaits. Craggy mineral formations called tufa towers rise like icebergs from 760,000-year-old Mono Lake, a meeting spot for gangs of migrating birds. Human travelers are welcome too.
If you’re hungry after crossing the Sierra, head next to the tiny town of Lee Vining and its small but well-stocked Mono Market, where you’ll find burritos, apple strudel, guacamole, and organic produce. Take your picnic to Mono Lake County Park to eat beneath the willow trees and trek along the short boardwalk for close views of Virginia rails, American avocets, phalaropes, and other migratory birds. —Deborah Franklin