Tioga Road reopening, bringing access back to the high country

After a summer of standstills, some relief may finally be on the way for traffic-weary visitors to Yosemite National Park.

Tioga Road, a scenic route that provides access to the high country and also serves as the park’s eastern entry point, will open 8 a.m. Saturday after months of being smothered with snow and ice, according to the National Park Service.

It’s an unprecedentedly late reopening for the two-lane road, which continues Highway 120 across the park and through the Sierra Nevada — meandering past granite cliffs and lush meadows.

Officials say some sections of the road will initially be reduced to a single lane, as repairs are still in progress.

Saturday will mark the latest recorded opening for Tioga Road, which typically closes for the winter in November and is usually back in service by June. The previous record was set 90 years ago — only about three decades after the first cars puttered through Yosemite Valley.

The lengthy closure extended drive times for locals and cut back the number of customers for local businesses.

Just off Tioga Road, the Mobil in Lee Vining has seen dramatically fewer customers compared with past summers.

Estrella Romero, a cashier at the gas station, said about 500 customers would come through each day during most summers. This summer, it’s been down to 150.

The reopening was delayed by last winter’s historic snowfall, which at times shut down the park, campgrounds and access roads, including Tioga Road — where even now some snow remains in sections as low as 8,000 feet. Park officials informed visitors of flooded meadows and trails in the area and urged visitors to plan for wet feet.

At the start of April, Tuolumne Meadows — which is directly accessible via Tioga Road — was blanketed under an average of 15 feet of snow. Crews last week uncovered major damage to at least 60% of the buildings in the area, including the Tuolumne Meadows Lodge and gift shop, as well as the wastewater treatment system that serves the area.

Visitors can use portable toilets, but many of the usual amenities won’t be available while repairs are made. The Tuolumne Meadows Wilderness Center and general information desk will be open, but park officials are urging visitors to stock up on food and water, as none will be available.

Those eager to camp off Tioga Road will also have to hold off for now. The Tamarack Flat and Porcupine Flat campgrounds remain closed with no estimated reopening date. Other campgrounds will stay closed all year, according to the National Park Service.

Although the area may not be back to normal just yet, reopening the road could provide much-needed relief from Yosemite’s recent congestion woes. Some access points have recently been so choked with traffic that visitors have had to wait hours to enter the park.

This is the first summer without a reservation system at Yosemite since before the pandemic. And recent crowds have been so bad that some have begged for its return.

Anyone can provide comments on Yosemite’s managed access plan — including the possibility of a reservation system — online through Sept. 6.

Traffic patterns aside, Tioga Road’s reopening is a relief for high country lovers eager for easy access to the subalpine meadows and blue lakes nestled between granite domes and towering lodgepole pines.

The iconic drive — enjoyed not just for its panoramic views but as a way for locals to cross over the Sierra Nevada — stretches from Crane Flat to Tioga Pass, the highest highway pass in the Sierra Nevada at an elevation of nearly 10,000 feet.

In the 1920s and ‘30s, when annual visitation to the park soared into the hundreds of thousands, advertisements promoted the road as the “world’s greatest mountain tour through Yosemite to Lake Tahoe.”

Beth Pratt, a wildlife advocate who has been living and working outside of Yosemite for 25 years, said she’s thrilled she’ll have direct access to her “favorite place on Earth” again.

“Happiness for me is above treeline,” she said. “It’s just so beautiful to be able to be that close to the sky. In the Sierras, it’s always this beautiful, blue, rich sky. It’s just so ancient. You’re just in a landscape that time forgot. … It’s just like being on another planet.”

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