The wait was finally over. Tioga Road in Yosemite opened at the end of June this year, almost a couple months later than it’d opened the past several years. With an especially rainy winter in the Bay Area, this wasn’t surprising. But the buildup was worth it. Our group wasted no time and spent the second weekend of July exploring Yosemite and the surrounding areas of the park. We had an absolute blast.
In two short days, we hiked to North Dome at sunrise, jumped into a freezing cold lake, started a snowball fight, checked out cave-like towers at Mono Lake, and relaxed in private hot springs hot tubs at our campground. Read on for our adventures!
North Dome Hike
The crew woke up at dawn for our North Dome hike. We hastily packed up camp, which we’d set up several hours before following a late-night drive, and hit the road leading into Yosemite National Park. After a winding drive, we arrived at the parking lot of Porcupine Creek Trail Head. We unpacked our food from the car, stored them in the bear containers, got our bearings from the park map, and started the hike.
The North Dome Hike is a fairly straightforward hike through the woods with a fantastic endpoint, offering panoramic views of Yosemite Valley and a close-up look at Half Dome. The 8.8-mile round trip hike actually has a net loss in elevation, but don’t let that fool you – there was still a decent amount of ups and downs and some slightly tricky terrain at the last mile or so to get to the dome.
Still, it’s a fairly quick hike (easily completed in 4 hours or less), and as our group got into rhythm, we began to enjoy the plentiful trees, rocky vistas, and tranquil early-morning sights and sounds on our trek. By the time we made it to the rocky area with about a mile or so to the dome, the sun had broken through the darkness, and we could see beautiful Half Dome to our left.
We stopped for some group pics, but we weren’t done yet. The last mile or so was trickier since there were steeper rocky paths to maneuver before we got back onto a trail. The last hurrah was worth it – we found ourselves at the very top of North Dome overlooking some incredible views. We celebrated with an early-morning nap in the sun before heading back down.
Planning your own North Dome hike? Check out Yosemite Hikes’ post for more detailed trail info and notes.
Tenaya Lake Detour & Lunch at Lee Vining
After the hike, our group was starving. We greedily munched on slices of salami and sour belt candy – whatever we could get our hands on, but a more substantial meal needed to be had. We packed our snacks back into our cars and started the drive to lunch.
It turned out to be such a nice day out, so much so that as we drove by Tenaya Lake, both cars made a beeline to the glistening water reflecting the sun’s rays. A few of us decided to don our swimsuits and cool off in the water. Since there was still quite a bit of snow higher up in the mountains, the water was ice cold. It was a pleasant surprise – just the treatment I needed for a post-hike aching body.
Feeling refreshed, we continued our drive and arrived at our lunch destination in Lee Vining just outside the east entrance of the park. That’s where the famous Tioga Gas Mart & Whoa Nellie Deli is located. As we stepped into the deli teeming with park visitors, I spotted their “world-famous” fish tacos on the menu. Although initially skeptical, I was blown away by how fresh the fish tasted. The mango and slaw salsas were also incredible!
Tufa Towers at Mono Lake
Another popular attraction around the area are the tufa towers at the South Tufa grove on Mono Lake. These limestone towers were formed underwater and are similar to cave stalagmites. As the water level dropped over the years, many of these structures have become accessible, rising out of the ground like ancient ruins.
We drove through the 100-degree heat to the grove and walked along a boardwalk to get to the tufa towers. It was a seriously cool sight seeing the beige rocky structures contrasted against the teal-blue salt water of Mono Lake and the bright green foliage of the local plants. I had a great time walking around, snapping pictures, and imagining the towers as ancient temples and statues of a bygone underwater civilization.
Benton Hot Springs
One of the highlights of our trip was our Saturday evening camping experience at Benton Hot Springs, located further east of Mono Lake near the Nevada border. The campground features 11 campsites, each with its own private hot tub fed with water from the local hot springs. Our group went all-out and booked 3 campsites for the evening, which meant we had 3 private hot tubs to use at our leisure!
After scoping out our sites and unpacking our gear, we hopped into the first hot tub at site #9. This site had the largest tub of the three, and we relaxed as the crazy heat began to give way to the cooler late afternoon. We cooked dinner (pasta, pesto, & chicken) and enjoyed a hearty meal at site #11. Some of us dipped back into the medium-sized hot tub at this site as the sunset cast a beautiful orange glow over the mountains.
We closed out the evening by setting up our tents at site #10 and enjoying another medium-sized hot tub there. There was plenty of good conversation and fun games as we stayed warm in the chillier night weather. I lingered in the tub extra long in order to come up with an optimal mosquito-avoidance plan. It partially worked, and I made it into the tent for a restful sleep after an action-packed day.
Panum Crater & More Yosemite Activities
The next day, our crew continued the adventures, stopping by Panum Crater, an old volcano, in the morning to look for obsidian rock. We drove back through Tioga Road in Yosemite, leisurely stopping at several lookout points. At Tuolumne Meadows, there was still fresh snow, so we had an impromptu snowball fight.
We enjoyed Tenaya Lake so much the day before that we decided to make that our last stop before heading out. This time around, we hiked through a mosquito-infested forest to get to one of the most magnificent viewpoints I’d seen in the park. The mountains, water, and rocks formed a jaw-dropping visual of Yosemite’s natural beauty.
We dipped into the freezing cold water, shivered while warming back up in the sun, and said our goodbyes to the park before heading back to the Bay. It was a fitting ending to a wonderful, adventure-filled, and relaxing weekend in nature.
Note: If you’re looking for other camping options in the area, I highly recommend booking through a website called Hipcamp, which is like the Airbnb of campsites. I’ve successfully booked campsites on Hipcamp even a couple days before major holidays and the experience has been great so far. On my last trip, the campground owner greeted me in person when I arrived and the campsites were beautifully maintained.
Feel free to use my referral link for $20 in credit for a Hipcamp booking!