Most people spend the whole time at Yosemite Valley and the surrounding area - missing out on wonderful nature and amazing adventures. If you have the adventurous spirit, leave the crowds behind and go visit places like: Hetch Hetchy Valley and Dam; Tioga Pass; Tenaya Lake; Tuolumne Meadows.
If you are driving to Yosemite from the east you probably already experienced this breathtaking road through the Sierra Nevada mountains (Hwy 120). The road winds through many mountain peaks, passes, meadows and lakes. It reaches an elevation of 9,945 ft. at the Tioga Pass - making it the highest Pass in California. Driving through this pass during winter could be dangerous and the road is subject to closures.
After leaving the valley floor and finally turning into Tioga road you will first come across Tenaya Lake. The lake sits at an elevation of 8,150 ft. and provides stunning views and a sense of tranquility. It is surrounded by granite peaks and domes.
You can have a picnic by the lake or if you planned on it, you can enjoy kayaking, fishing, and other watersports. Although swimming is permitted, don't plan on swimming here - the water is freezing cold.
You can also take a 2.5-mile hike around the lake for the best views and photo opportunities. This hike is very easy because the trail is level - no elevation gain. Other hiking trails start here or pass by the lake.
The next stop on the Tioga road is the Tuolumne Meadows. The meadows are a large expanse of vegetation created by shallow groundwater. The water mainly comes from the Tuolumne River and its tributaries.
Start your visit at the visitor center for restrooms, information, or snacks. The center also offers ranger-guided nature walks. You can keep your car at the center and go exploring through the meadows or take a longer hike.
Most of the hikes through the meadows are easy. They are more like a stroll than a hike. Some of the easy hikes are May Lake; Tuolumne River; Lambert Dome.
The Tuolumne River hike is very easy and takes through great views of the meadows and to some nice cascades and waterfalls. You can have a picnic or go for a dip in the cold water.
The famous John Muir Trail passes through the meadows and goes all the way to Yosemite Valley - crossing Nevada and Vernal Falls and ending at Happy Isles. This hike is not for the casual hiker. It is about 28 miles long on rough terrain and large elevation changes. It could take from 2 to 4 days to complete this hike. You will need to buy a wilderness pass ahead of time from the website. Those passes are sold out quickly so get yours early.
Other points of interest along the Tioga Road are Cathedral Lakes; Mono Lake; Lambert Dome; Tuolumne (Giant Sequoia) Grove; Olmstead Point.
One way to enjoy this road trip is to get one of the audio tours at Yosemite-Tours.org. You can load the mp3 file to your phone or other player and enjoy detailed information about the major points of interest.