Tuolumne Meadows brings back memories
I’ll never forget the first backpacking trip my parents and I took together.
It was to Dog Lake, a short mile-and-a-half jaunt from Tuolumne Meadows, located about 50 miles northeast of Yosemite Valley on the Tioga Road (Hwy. 120) in the Yosemite high country. It was the summer of 1976, I had just graduated from the sixth grade, and I was eager to prove myself by carrying my own fully loaded Kelty pack – against the advice of my father, who knew better – up the trail’s steep incline. I ended up wimping out halfway to the lake (oh, the shame!), ditching the pack behind a tree, and sitting by the lake feeling guilty while my dad went back down the trail and returned with the pack half an hour later. To his credit, he never said “I told you so” – but still, the indignity burned. I vowed to take the hike again someday and get it right. It was a beautiful trip, though.
Dog Lake is just one of many stellar destinations available to hikers willing to head up to Tuolumne Meadows late in the season. Early autumn is a fine time to experience the charms of the area’s jewel-toned glacial lakes, granite domes and peaks free from the claustrophobic crowds of summer. Even at an elevation of 8,600 feet, average daytime temperatures remain moderate through October, and the fall colors can be breathtaking. Whether approaching from the west through Crane Flat, Olmsted Point, and Tenaya Lake, or from the east via Mono Lake and Tioga Pass, it makes for an unforgettable drive.
Here are a few popular day hikes in the Tuolumne Meadows area that my sons and I enjoyed on a recent trip in late August. They’re even more appealing when the crowds recede after Labor Day.
Elizabeth Lake (4.8 miles round-trip; moderate): With varied topography and a crystal-clear body of water as its reward, the hike to Elizabeth Lake is a top contender for the perfect day trip. To get to the trailhead, park at the entrance to the Tuolumne Meadows campground (closed in late September) and follow the directions posted at the entrance kiosk. The route climbs steadily for a mile or so, then passes through a startlingly flat, manicured-looking area of green grass and evenly spaced lodgepole pines. It then follows Unicorn Creek through a wide, meadowed valley before depositing the grateful hiker on the lake’s shore. From there you can continue around the lake or just sit on one of the boulders at its edge, pondering the image of Unicorn Peak reflected in its surface and wondering what it was exactly that you did to deserve being in such a beautiful place at the perfect time of year.
Pothole Dome (.5 miles round-trip; easy): Not a bona fide hike but more of a quick scramble, walking to the top of low-lying, elongated Pothole Dome offers comprehensive views of the Meadows from the west, especially dramatic at sunset. (It marks the area’s western limit and is the first feature you’ll encounter when approaching from that direction – just park in the area provided and follow the well-worn track to the rock’s base.) Bonus features include hospitable clusters of picnic-inspiring shade trees and up-close encounters with fanciful stranded glacial boulders. Kids of all ages will find it irresistible.
Dog Lake (3.2 miles round-trip; moderate): My childhood nemesis is actually a pleasant, if somewhat steep, climb from the Lembert Dome parking lot through lodgepole pine forest to a charming alpine lake basin. After leaving the trailhead, the route skirts the western slope of Lembert Dome, crossing granite slopes and veering to the right at each trail junction. It then takes a turn to the left and approaches the lake across a short downhill section, views of the surrounding peaks unfolding at every turn. Be sure to leave time to explore and cool off in the lake’s relatively balmy waters.
Also recommended: Lembert Dome, Young Lakes, Cathedral Lakes, Soda Springs and the Parsons Lodge, and Glen Aulin and Waterwheel Falls.
Note: While Tioga Road campgrounds are generally closed by the end of September, camping and other accommodations are available in Yosemite Valley year-round. (Call 800.436.7275 for reservations.) The little town of Lee Vining, located at Mono Lake on Highway 395 just north of the Tioga Road’s eastern terminus, also offers accommodations and makes a good home base from which to explore the area.
Services at the Meadows, which include a gas station and a well-stocked general store, have variable closing dates, but are usually open through mid-October. Call (209) 372-0200 for 24-hour recorded information about Park services, road conditions, and weather. The Tioga Road is usually closed to vehicular traffic by mid-November. There’s a $20 park entrance fee, which is good for two weeks, so be prepared to shell out some serious clams – it’ll be worth it.
Sylvia Jordan is a freelance writer and editor who lives in Grass Valley. Contact her at
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