State Route 120 in Northern California is about 206 miles long, you could traverse the entire highway from end to end in a day, but why would you when there is so much to see and do along the way? Let’s take a journey along this historic road, from west to east, and sample just a few of the attractions and recreational opportunities on offer, which by the way includes not only Yosemite National Park but many other unique attractions and beautiful places too!
Start at Manteca, California
The western terminus of SR120 is Manteca-CA. Well known as the ”heart of California” it has always been a major junction in the highways and byways of California’s great Central Valley. An original pack route for early miners, then supply route for the Hetch Hetchy Water Project, Manteca today is the jumping off point for modern day adventurers and is the roadway connection between the hustle and bustle of the San Francisco Bay Area and the tranquility of the Sierra Nevada mountains.
With a tag line of “Hook, Wine and Sneakers” and the label “Family City” you know Manteca is a friendly and fun place to stop and rest as you plan your next leg of the Highway 120 Adventure.
Founded in 1861 as a small agricultural community, more than 3.75 million annual visitors now trek to Bass Pro Shop for outdoor gear or to Big League Dreams for baseball and soccer events. Take time to tour the Historical Museum or view more than 18 artistic wall murals, try wines at DFV Vineyard tasting room and gift shop or check out more than 48 dining options from casual BBQ to elegant-modern California cuisine. Don’t forget a quick side trip for shopping at the outlet stores, all the big names are located here. With 5 hotels offering great choices from high-end spa suites to more economy accommodations, Manteca is a great place to rest before heading down the road on your Highway 120 Adventure.
Heading east, SR 120 travels to the former rail town of Escalon, which dates back to the 1920’s and with a population under 10,000 people has some real small town charm to offer travelers. Here you can visit the Barn for fruit and produce, plus gifts, delicious pies and lots more, and then enjoy a family picnic at Escalon’s very own Main Street Park, the home of a historic caboose. Be sure to shop the many businesses located in the historic buildings across from the park, before exploring the Escalon Historical Museum.
Take a detour along the side streets of Escalon as you go through town, where quality of life and family are integral to the entire community, so that you don’t miss anything on this part of your Highway 120 Adventure.
As you enter this quaint cowboy town you will see the famous Oakdale Cheese Factory on the left. If Gouda is your cheese of choice, this is worth the stop. The roadway then crosses over the Stanislaus River and heads towards the center of town, where SR 120 makes a left turn and joins up with Highway 108. Right near this 4-way intersection, you will find the Cowboy Museum and several historic buildings that are among the oldest in the area.
Founded in 1871 and known as the “Cowboy Capital of the World”, Oakdale is home to not only many world champion cowboys but to several signature events. The Testicle Festival, Oakdale Chocolate Festival, Climbers Festival & Salmon Festival are just a few.
As you exit the town you will see the arena where the annual Oakdale PRCA Rodeo is held each April and where many world champion cowboys started their careers. After leaving Oakdale, the small historic town of Knight’s Ferry on the Stanislaus River, scene of the famous Stanislaus Indian wars, is just a very short detour off of SR120. This gold rush town features the longest covered bridge west of the Mississippi river, as well as the oldest operating general store in California, and offers many outdoor activities such as river rafting, hiking, fishing, gold panning and more, so Knight's Ferry is definitely worth stopping for a stroll.
Sierra Nevada Foothills
The road climbs further into the Sierra Nevada foothills. After a while, SR120 makes a right turn and heads east, while Highway 108 continues on towards the historic area of Jamestown, Sonora, and Columbia and across beautiful Sonora Pass. But that is another journey, we are taking that right turn towards Yosemite National Park, and continuing on our Highway 120 Adventure.
The first of the classic Gold Rush Era towns you come to on this stretch of SR120 will be Chinese Camp, the site of the Tong War, featuring several historic buildings dating back to the mid 1800’s and mining days including The Wells Fargo Building where miners took their gold for weighing & deposit, and part of the Mark Twain Bret Harte trail.
Lake Don Pedro
Next you pass the north arm of Lake Don Pedro, offering all manner of water sports from fishing to jet ski rentals, near the community of Moccasin, where it is great family fun to stop and feed the fish at Moccasin Fish Hatchery. Now the road climbs, and the official state highway veers left and up “New Priest Grade” while along the right hand side of the canyon you can see “Old Priest Grade”, originally an Indian path & later a wagon train road, at the top was the famous Priest Station. After cresting the grade, you pass through the small town of Big Oak Flat, called “Savage’s Diggings” (after James D. Savage) during the gold rush era, site of the Oddfellow’s Hall & Gamble Building. Stop to read the historical markers, they are part of your Highway 120 Adventure.
The largest of the authentic gold rush era towns along the western part of SR120 is Groveland. The locals refer to CA-120 as Main Street as it passes through their town. There are shaded picnic tables and public parking next to the historic 1895 Jailhouse, which is near the west end of town by the Yosemite Hwy120 Chamber of Commerce and Visitor Center office.
Stanislaus National Forest
After you leave Groveland, SR120 enters the Stanislaus National Forest, the Capitol Christmas Tree came from this forest only a few short years ago! The small town of Buck Meadows is near Rainbow Falls & Pool, a popular swimming hole on the south fork of the Tuolumne River for locals and travelers alike. From the Rim of the World vista point, you can see the middle fork of the Tuolumne River, and the main Tuolumne River which carries a “Wild and Scenic Waterway” designation and offers Class III, IV and V white water rafting and kayaking.
Yosemite National Park
SR120 enters Yosemite National Park at the Big Oak Flat entrance, elevation 4,872 feet. Just before the entry gate to the park, you will see Evergreen Road going left from SR120, this road takes you to a little visited section of Yosemite National Park called Hetch Hetchy, which is a great side trip if you enjoy waterfalls, wildflowers and hiking with less crowds. SR120 is also known as the Northern Gateway to Yosemite, one more “claim to fame” of a Highway 120 Adventure.
Yosemite National Park is one of the most famous locations on the planet Earth, the first land in the USA set aside for public enjoyment by President Lincoln during the Civil War (which was the founding legislation for the National Park Service by the way), and a place of such varied and natural beauty and wilderness it astounds the mind and challenges the body.
Two of the three groves of Giant Sequoias in Yosemite are along SR120 as the road passes through the park, the Merced Grove just a short way in from the gate, and the Tuolumne Grove at Crane Flat, which is where SR120 makes a left turn and heads up to “the High Country” of Yosemite. At Crane Flat, the “Big Oak Flat Road” continues on down into Yosemite Valley, but our journey follows SR120 to the east, over Tioga Pass with an elevation of 9,945 feet above sea level, and on to the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada mountain range.
Be sure to stop at the day use picnic area of Yosemite Creek along the road, to see Yosemite Falls (before it falls!), also at Olmstead Point for the view of Half Dome from the side and rear, and at Tuolumne Meadows to stretch your legs a bit. Pristine alpine lakes, meadows awash with wild flowers, granite expanses swept clear by the glacial age, abundant wild (and we mean wild!) life, fast moving rivers and streams, snow covered mountain peaks and wide open vistas, these are just a taste of what Yosemite National Park has to offer during your Highway 120 Adventure.
Lee Vining, California
When you exit the park’s eastern gate, SR120 drops quickly in elevation down to the town of Lee Vining on Highway I-395. Be sure to visit the Mono Lake Tufa State Natural Reserve at the south end of Mono Lake, where you can see the world famous tufa towers. Also plan on stopping at the Mono Basin National Forest Scenic Area Visitor Center at the north end of Lee Vining, which offers movies about the Mono Basin, a bookstore and gift shop, and many excellent exhibits.
Keep going north on I-395 for a half day side trip to the Ghost Town of Bodie, which is maintained in a “state of arrested decay” by California State Parks and is considered the best, most well preserved historic ghost town in the USA, attracting visitors from all over the world. Towards the south end of Lee Vining, you will find the Chamber of Commerce and Mono Lake Committee Information Center & Bookstore, with a picnic area outside, a film about Mono Lake, and a great selection of local books, artwork, and souvenirs. Stroll the main street of Lee Vining to stretch your legs, have a bite to eat and do some souvenir shopping, before heading on to the last leg of your Highway 120 Adventure.
June Lake Loop
SR120 makes a left turn, just a few miles south of Lee Vining, shortly after one end of the June Lake Loop intersects with I-395 on the right. If you have an extra hour or two to take in the June Lake Loop, it is a lovely drive especially in autumn for the fall colors.
As you go east on SR120, be sure to stop at South Tufa, where you can see Mono Lake’s tufa rock formations, and if you have time, visit Panum Crater, and Navy Beach where Cold War experiments were done. Further along SR120 going east, you enter into the largest stand of Jeffrey Pine trees in the world, where there is a top notch informational display about this forest and the old lumber mill that stood near the road and provided wood for Bodie back in the mining days.
Benton Hot Springs, California
Remember to “stop and smell the trees” because the cracks in the bark of a Jeffrey Pine smell like butterscotch (some people say vanilla), before you continue on to the historical town of Benton Hot Springs, population 13 1⁄2 according to historical marker sign as you enter town.
Once a thriving town of 5,000 or more inhabitants, the natural mineral springs provided relief for the aches and pains of mining work, and today’s travelers can still enjoy a good hot soak, complete with lodging and campsites, at the Inn at Benton Hot Springs. And then finally we reach the eastern terminus of SR120, at the town of Benton, also known as Benton Station, where Highway 6 runs north-south between Tonopah and on the way to and from Las Vegas.
The End of the Road
And there you have it, State Route 120 from end to end.
You can see that SR120 has much to offer, including a wide range of geography and history, a vast array of recreational activities to satisfy the young as well as the young at heart, something for the outdoors enthusiast or those seeking a spot for quiet contemplation, not to mention anyone who enjoys great food, wine tasting, and some spa-style pampering. Just to be sure you got the message, let us remind you one last time to really take your time as you travel State Route 120 across central and eastern California, through the farm and ranch lands of the California Central Valley in the west, the gold rush towns in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, the high mountain roads of Yosemite National Park, and the stark and unique landscape of the eastern Sierra’s and high desert area.
Note: Tioga Pass thru Yosemite is a seasonal highway, check road status.
So, take a few days or a few weeks, visit during every season, and come back again and again over the years.
For More Information:
Yosemite Highway 120 Chamber of Commerce & Groveland Yosemite Visitor Center
11875 Ponderosa Lane, Suite A
Groveland, Ca 95321
Manteca Visitors Center
1422 Grove Avenue
Manteca, CA 95337
Oakdale Tourism & Visitor Bureau
131 South 2nd Street
Oakdale, CA 95361
Oakdale Chamber of Commerce & Visitors Bureau
590 No. Yosemite Ave.
Oakdale, CA 95361
Escalon Chamber of Commerce & Visitor Center
1830 Main Street
Escalon, CA 95320
Lee Vining Chamber of Commerce & Visitor Center
51365 Highway 395 & 3rd Street
Lee Vining, CA 93541