There are five entrances into Yosemite National Park, and the road to each of them offers unique sights to see along the way. To give you a lay of the land, four of Yosemite’s entrances are located on the western side of the park while the fifth, the Tioga Pass Entrance, is on the more remote eastern side of the park. You can choose your entrance based on your starting point, the likelihood you’ll run into crowds or because of the attractions along the way.
1. Hetch Hetchy Entrance
Leave the crowds behind at this entrance. The farthest north of all entrances on the west side of the park, the Hetch Hetchy Entrance leads you to one of the park’s quieter areas. In 2012, only 50,000 visitors ventured this far north in the park during all 12 months of the year in comparison to the 24,000 daily visitors to the Yosemite Valley that same year, according to the Sacramento Bee. Access it via 120 and by Evergreen Road. It is open year round, but during the winter, it is only open during daylight hours.
Stop at Mark Twain’s Cabin and Railtown
On the way to the entrance from the Bay area, stop by one of the numerous vineyards and Mark Twain’s cabin ⎯ a reproduction since the original burned ⎯ in Tuttletown, Calif., where the author wrote his first national hit, the 1865 short story The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County. Down the road, Railtown 1897 State Historic Park in Jamestown is worth a stop. It’s home to the legendary engine No. 3 that has appeared in more than 100 movies and TV shows, including Back to the Future III.
Where Did the Name “Hetch Hetchy” Come From?
Inhabited for more than 6,000 years, the Hetch Hetchy Valley was home to Native Americans until the 1850s when settlers arrived in the area. It is believed that the word “Hetch Hetchy” comes from the Miwok word “hetchetici,” which described the seeds of native grass used for food and other things.
Lower than other areas in the park and much less crowded, this area has a long hiking season from early spring through fall. Two of the largest waterfalls in North America are here, flowing from a thousand feet up over granite. As you explore the area, you’ll see California black oak, incense-cedar and gray pine, as well as manzanita shrubs, which are recognizable by their red bark. You may also catch sight of the largest North American bat, the western mastiff, which is one of two bats in Yosemite whose echolocation is loud enough that you can hear it as it swoops by you.
See the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir
In addition to being an incredibly beautiful area, this entrance also brings you to the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir that supplies 2.4 million residents and businesses in San Francisco with water. It also supplies hydroelectric power. Amid much controversy, the first phase of the dam was completed in 1923 to fuel San Francisco’s growing population. Because it is a drinking water source, the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir is off limits for swimming or boating. However, with a current California license, you can fish in most area lakes.
2. Big Oak Flat Entrance
Driving from the Bay Area? Your most direct route to Yosemite is through the Big Oak Flat Entrance or the Arch Rock Entrance, which is located southeast of Big Oak Flat. To enter through the Big Oak Flat Entrance, you will take I-580 east to I-205 east to Highway 120 east via Manteca, Calif.
Check out Califorina’s Oldest Saloon in Groveland
Along the way, don’t miss Groveland, a quaint town situated close to the park with shops, hotels and restaurants. Located 24 miles from the Big Oak Flat Entrance, it is the largest town between the entrance and Sonora, Calif. Discover live outdoor music during the summer at the historic Groveland Hotel patio and daily wine tastings at the historic Hotel Charlotte, both downtown. And you cannot pass through town without stopping at the Iron Door Saloon, the oldest continuously operating saloon in the state. The legendary saloon opened its doors in 1852. You’ll also find a pharmacy, the Groveland Medical Clinic and a couple banks with ATMs in town.
Stop at the Big Oak Flat Information Station
The Big Oak Flat Information Station, open May through October from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. will be on your right after you go through the entrance station. This a good place to use the restroom and get more information about the park. The stations has maps and sells books.
From this entrance, you have easy access to the Yosemite Valley via Big Oak Flat Road. You also can reach Tioga Road, which heads farther north and east, cutting through the park. Along the way, you will pass Tuolumne Meadows before reaching the Tioga Pass Entrance all the way on the east side of the park. Tioga Road is closed November through May.
3. Arch Rock Entrance
If you are coming from San Francisco, the fastest route to the park is via the Arch Rock Entrance or the Big Oak Flat Entrance. To enter via Arch Rock Entrance, you will take I-580 east to I-205 east to Highway 140 east into the park. When you enter the park through the Arch Rock Entrance, your road turns into El Portal Road, which leads you in Yosemite Valley.
Closest to the Park is El Portal
The closest town to the Yosemite is El Portal, which has gas available 24 hours a day with a credit card. There’s also the El Portal Market, a picnic area and campgrounds. EL Portal is home to National Park Service employee housing, administrative offices and two nonprofits: Naturebridge and Yosemite Conservancy. To the west of El Portal is Midpines and Mariposa. Mariposa is the largest of the three with the most services.
Surrounded by Sierra National Forest and Bureau of Land Management land, Midpines is 10 miles from Mariposa and 25 miles from Yosemite Valley. You’ll find some swimming holes in upper Bear Creek, and the Merced River offers great rafting, swimming and fishing opportunities. There is a collection of cabins, hotels and bed and breakfasts in Midpines.
Explore Historic Mariposa
But if you are looking for some nightlife and old-town charm, check out Mariposa and its historic downtown. Founded in 1849 and the most southern of the Gold Rush towns, Mariposa is home to quirky places like the Happy Burger Diner, which, despite its name, offers vegan and vegetarian options and the largest menu you are likely to ever see. The town’s 1854 courthouse is the oldest continuously operating courthouse west of the Rockies, and the Smithsonian Institute has named the Mariposa Museum and History Center one of the best small museums in America. It features people and life back in the days of the Gold Rush and late 1800s.
4. South Entrance
If you are traveling from San Diego or the Los Angeles area, your closest entrance will be the the South Entrance, accessed by Hwy. 41. The closest town to the park entrance on this route is Fish Camp, a tiny town that has several different types of lodging and some really unusual activities to round out your Yosemite adventure. There's also Tenaya Lodge, a gorgeous 350-room resort with a variety of lodging options from cabins and cottages to lodge rooms. Take a dip in one of three pools or dine at an on-site restaurant.
Tour Yosemite in a Model T
At Model T-Tours, you can rent a classic Model T for the day or stay at The Tin Lizzie Inn for several nights and go on park tours with the inn owner in a Model T. Be prepared to feel like a movie star as you drive by crowds in Yosemite who wave and smile at you.
Ride a Train or a Horse
If riding a train is more your style, head to the Yosemite Mountain Sugar Pine Railroad, which offers three different kinds of rides on two operating steam engine train locomotives ⎯ a 30-minute excursion, a 1-hour ride and the Moonlight Special, a 3-hour evening that includes a BBQ dinner, a train ride, campfire sing along and entertainment.
Or indulge in the Old West feel of this area and go for a horse ride with a Yosemite area cowboy with Yosemite Trails Saddle and Sleigh Camp. The outfit offers one-and-two-hour trail rides, as well as a half-day ride. Come dressed in closed-toe shoes and long pants. Riders must be 7 and older and reservations are strongly recommended.
Sleep in Oakhurst
Thirteen miles from Fish Camp is the more bustling town of Oakhurst, which has national chain hotels and restaurants for those looking for familiar sights. It has art galleries, bookstores and gold panning activities. Swing by the Yosemite Sierra Visitors Bureau for up-to-date info on park conditions; in summer, a park ranger is on hand to answer questions.
5. Tioga Pass Entrance
Going to Yosemite from the Lake Tahoe area, Las Vegas or Death Valley from May through October? If so, head to Yosemite from the eastern side of the park via the Tioga Pass Entrance. Reno is about 140 miles and about a 3-hour drive away from this entrance. Las Vegas is a little less than a 6-hour drive. Death Valley is 225 miles and 4-hour and 15 minutes away (depending on where in Death Valley you are).
The only park entrance on the east side, it is open May through October. Depending on snow conditions, it usually closes in November for the winter and spring.
Visit Local Lee Vining
Sandwiched between the park and Mono Basin National Forest Scenic Area, Lee Vining is a charming, tiny town and the closest town to the entrance. Home to a little more than 200 residents, you won’t find a Holiday Inn or Denny’s here. This is where locally owned businesses thrive. You’ll find a collection of restaurants and lodges to stay.
Explore Mono Lake
In the Mono Basin National Forest Scenic Area, you can see remnants of ancient volcanoes surrounding Mono Lake, an inland sea that is at least 760,000 years old but has no outlet to the ocean.
Twice as salty as the ocean, the water is so alkaline that no fish can live in the water, but millions of brine shrimp, alkali flies and birds live here. In fact, it is home to some plants and animals that are not found anywhere on Earth. Stretching more than 60 square miles, Mono Lake can best be understood through naturalists walks. Find out about the walks and the area at the Scenic Area Visitor Center. If you don’t have time for a tour, check out the South Tufa area where a 1-mile, self-guided nature trail leads you past tufa formations (towers formed by fresh water springs containing calcium that bubble up through the lake water) along the lake. Bring your own water to drink as there’s no shade. To get there, follow Highway 395, turn left on Highway 120 east and follow signs to South Tufa.
Go Jump in Mammoth Lakes
Farther south is the Mammoth Lakes area, filled with beautiful lakes, a historic mining town and the Mammoth Mountain Ski Area and Bike Park. In the summer, you can mountain bike on the hill or take a gondola ride to the mountain’s 11,053-foot peak to catch incredible views. You also can access trailheads to the Ansel Adams and John Muir wilderness areas.
Visit Devils Postpile National Monument
Close by lies Devils Postpile National Monument, an area filled with vertical columns of lava, in the Reds Meadow Valley.
Since 1981, a mandatory shuttle services has been operating in the valley. Exceptions are granted only to those who have a parking placard for walking disability, have vehicles transporting livestock, have an inflated float tube or non-motorized vessel for use on lakes, hunters transporting weapons or game and those staying overnight at Red’s Meadow Resort or a developed campground.