Ultimate Yosemite Road trip from the Bay Area via Highway 120

Ultimate Yosemite Road Trip from the Bay Area via Highway 120, Marin Magazine

Although backpacking in breathtaking Yosemite National Park can bring out the John Muir and Ansel Adams in anyone, the road trip there also offers opportunities for appreciating nature and the colorful Gold Rush era that transformed it. Highway 120 is the most direct route from Marin, with enjoyable breaks along the way that might help you feel a bit more patient with summer traffic heading into the park. When planning your stops, don’t forget about literally refueling: there are no gas stations in Yosemite. Groveland has the closest stations to the Big Oak Flat entrance; you’ll find Tesla chargers in both Groveland and Yosemite Valley. 

Where to stop

Altamont Pass Built in 1981, the country’s first wind farm now has fewer but more efficient (and eagle-friendly) turbines dotting the gusty hills.

Oakdale Pick up Gouda cheese, German-style cheesecake and other handmade goodies at Oakdale Cheese & Specialties, opened by a Dutch couple in 1983; picnic under willow trees by a pond and greet Mocha the llama and other farm animals. oakdalecheese.com

Chinese Camp Now essentially a ghost town, this tranquil hamlet once roiled with Tong Wars — violent disputes among hundreds of Chinese gold miners. Peek at the vintage post office and church, then stretch your legs hiking or biking in the nearby 7,100-acre Red Hills preserve. blm.gov/visit/red-hills

Groveland Construction of the Hetch Hetchy reservoir in the early 20th century revived this Gold Rush town. Among its worthy watering holes are the Iron Door Saloon, dating back to 1852; the historic Groveland Hotel’s Cellar Door;and the delightfully Anglo-centric Dori’s Tea Cottagegroveland.org

Yosemite National Park Entrance Check the Big Oak Flat information station (open May–October) and pick up the free permit you’ve already reserved for any overnight wilderness hikes. Unless you’re a first-timer, you’ll want to bypass the crowded valley floor; instead, follow Tioga Road, which typically opens by mid-June, onward and upward to less-crowded alpine lakes and trails. Don’t forget your bear canister. nps.gov/yose

Tuolumne Meadows Backpackers and rock climbers delight in the numerous paths leading from this dome-fringed glade at 8,600 feet, where it can still snow in July. Clamber up Fairview Dome, pick up the Pacific Crest Trail along Lyell Canyon or marvel at Mono Lake from the Mono Pass Trail. Start your day with buckwheat pancakes at Tuolumne Meadows Grill and make a reservation early for dinner at Tuolumne Meadows Lodge; like Tioga Road, they’re only open in summer.

Where to stay 


Eight of Yosemite’s 13 campgrounds typically fill within minutes after reservations are released five months ahead (recreation.gov). Among those with first-come, first-serve sites, try Tamarack Flat, on Tioga Road about 45 minutes north of the valley at 6,300 feet elevation (52 sites, $12), or Tuolumne Meadows, another 45 minutes farther (152 sites, $26). nps.gov/yose/planyourvisit/camping.htm


Hotel Charlotte Thirteen light-filled rooms in a rustic hotel built in 1921, on Groveland’s Main Street (Highway 120)From $129. hotelcharlotte.com

Evergreen Lodge Founded in 1920s, the resort has 88 cabins on 20 forested acres outside Groveland, and reservations go quickly. Vintage cabins from $155, modern from $210. evergreenlodge.com


Majestic Yosemite Hotel Yosemite’s former Shawnee Hotel offers grand public spaces, 99 recently renovated guest rooms and 24 cottages. From $483. travelyosemite.com

Rush Creek Lodge The area’s newest resort, a half-mile from the Big Oak Flat entrance, includes 143 rooms on 20 acres. From $250. rushcreeklodge.com

Don’t miss!

Those with time for a spectacular yet sobering detour will want to add in the Rim Fire Audio Tour (3forests.us/rimfire), an 11-stop, three-hour loop starting at Highway 120 in Groveland. The route highlights the destruction of the 2013 Rim Fire, which claimed Berkeley’s Tuolumne Camp among the 257,000 acres burned, but also bears witness to the region’s ongoing recovery. 

Jeane Cooper

Travel and features writer Jeanne Cooper fell in love with Marin and the Bay Area as a graduate student at Stanford University. After 20 years as an editor and writer for the Washington Post, Boston Globe and San Francisco Chronicle, she began a freelance career that has taken her from the Austral Islands to Zimbabwe, with many visits to Hawaii in between. Her stories have appeared in numerous national and regional magazines, including Hemispheres, Sunset, San Francisco and Nob Hill Gazette, as well as Marin and Local Getaways. The author of several Frommer’s guidebooks, she now lives on the Big Island, where she’s active in animal rescue. She still enjoys exploring Northern California with her husband and friends.