When I originally planned all the places we would visit during our travels, Yosemite was never even on my radar. Even though it is one of the closest national parks to San Diego, I had no interest in visiting Tuolumne Meadows or Yosemite Valley. Why would I want to go there, especially the week of July 4th? Isn’t Yosemite hot, crowded, and full of granite rocks? I mean, I go to Mission Trails a lot, and sure the granite is nice, but not worth driving eight hours to see. But I was so wrong.
It really is incredible how quickly the scenery changes when you turn off the 395 at Lee Vining and start the steep and windy climb on Tioga Pass towards Yosemite. As we rounded one of the sharp bends my jaw dropped. I had no idea granite could be so beautiful and reach so high towards the sky. The streaks of red and gold against the gray slab set on top of a green forest is awe inspiring. Then nature decided to go and out-do itself by placing these beautiful light green meadows with crystal clear rivers running through it. I felt dumbstruck as I thought, “Oh! Yosemite! Now I get it!”
All this time I thought the popularity of Yosemite was just a coincidence based on its proximity to the populous Bay Area cities, but I was wrong. I quickly found out that Yosemite, especially Tuolumne Meadows, is like it’s own little secret community. A community that’s not built with money or power, but by a connection of awareness and appreciation that can only be achieved through spending time there.
In addition to being wrong about the beauty of the park, I was also pleasantly surprised that the weather in Tuolumne that week was perfect. Unlike Yosemite Valley, which was in the low nineties, Tuolomne area was in the mid-seventies. Contrary to the forecast, there was only one night of thunderstorms for about an hour the first night we were there, which was really spectacular to watch, especially from the safety of our motorhome. The remaining four nights we had clear skies, which meant gorgeous nights full of twinkling stars
Camp at Tuolumne Meadows
Have you camped in a national park before? Camping inside the national park is the best way to experience all the beauty of it and makes it so easy to access the hikes and the shuttle systems.
We also had no trouble getting a first-come-first-serve campsite on the Tuolumne side. Although I do recommend being there early in the morning to get your site. I did notice that even on July 4th, one of the busiest days of the year, there were sites available until about 9am. This campground has water and flush toilets, but the closest shower is back in Lee Vining, 30 minutes away.
Don’t let that deter you though. There are beautiful rivers and lakes that you can go in. In fact, right at the campground there is a fun rock water slide!
If you do go to Tuolumne in the summer or on a weekend, it is a good idea to try and reserve your campground ahead of time here. Note that reservations for July 15, 2019 onward begin on March 15, 2019 at 7 a.m. Pacific Time.
After getting settled into your campsite. Take the short hike along the John Muir Trail, which can be accessed from loop B or C, to the visitor center to pick up trail maps and a Junior Ranger booklet at the Visitor Center. The visitor center is often crowded so if you don’t have young kids or aren’t looking to get backpacking permits, you could skip this and spend your time taking in the views of the forests and meadows. There is also a camp store right by the campground if you forgot something.
Hike To The Top Of Lembert’s Dome
Wanna feel like a mourntain goat scurrying across the rocks? Lambert’s dome is just the place for you. One unique thing in Tuolumne Meadows is that you can walk to the top of many domes, which are huge granite rocks, without having to rock climb to the top. Lembert Dome sits 800 feet above the meadow and you can walk/scramble all the way to the top. While if you have a fear of heights, it can seem scary to stand on the top of this large domed rock. The rock is very sticky and the angle of the rock is quite low, making it very safe. Plus, the views from on top of here are amazing and totally worth the adrenaline rush.
Add in Dog Lake to make it a loop
From the campground, walk out to Tioga Road and go east just a few feet to the Lembert Dome parking area to start the hike. It’s .6 miles to the split for Dog Lake and Lembert’s Dome. Go straight towards Dog Lake first following the signs, then back track to this junction and head left to the junction for Lembert’s Dome. it’s a half mile hike to the top of the dome. After you’ve taken in the epic views, back track to the main trail heading toward the Dog Lake parking lot.
If you parked at the Lembert Dome parking area and didn’t start from the campground, then you’ll go right on the PCT after you pass the Dog Lake parking lot.
Dog Lake and Lembert’s Dome Loop: 3.7 miles and 846 feet elevation gain
Hike to Elizabeth Lake
If you did start at the campground or want to keep hiking on to Elizabeth Lake, then go left on the PCT for a little under a mile until you reach the John Muir Trail (JMT) where you’ll go right (west) toward the campground.
After .7 miles, you can go right through loop A and get back to the campground or continue another .2 miles and go left to do the five mile round trip hike to Elizabeth Lake, which of course I recommend doing.
Adding in Elizabeth Lake makes it a total of 9.3 miles an additional 843 feet of elevation gain.
Climb Pothole Dome
Do you climb? Head to Pothole Dome for some kid-friendly climbing. Unlike all the stout climbing of Yosemite, this was easy slab climbing that you can top rope. You can get here from the campground or the visitor center via the free shuttle. Just hop on the shuttle heading toward Yosemite Valley and get off at the Pothole Dome stop (it’s only 3 stops from the visitor center).
Hike to Cathedral Lake
Ready for a more challenging hike? This is a gorgeous hike and a popular backpacking destination too (permit needed to overnight). It’s an 8.6 mile round trip hike to two alpine lakes. It gains 1,550 feet so it might not be your best bet for young kids. You can park at the trailhead or hop on the free shuttle and get off at the Cathedral Lakes Trailhead.
If you do go to the Yosemite Valley side, make sure you do the Best Hike In Yosemite (& it doesn’t require a permit). This blog has all the beta on camping on the Yosemite Valley side too since getting a campsite on this side is more of a challenge.
Convict Lake Loop
Need a leg stretcher on the way up? If you drive up the 395 to get to Tuolumne Meadows, this is a nice hike right after you pass Bishop and before the turn off for Mammoth Lakes.