Day 14: A Big, Big Day, Yosemite & Beyond

Phew, we’ve had quite a day today.  It all started when we were up and out of Lake Tahoe fairly early.  Of course, I would have liked to have stayed in our room at Harrahs all day, lounging in a robe and getting ready over and over in my personal bathroom, but sometimes you just have to rip off the Band-Aid and that meant getting on the road earlier than we have been.  Our first stop was to take a few last snaps of Lake Tahoe from Regan Park while the sun was coming up behind us.  Man, that is one beautiful lake.

Lake Tahoe in the morning

Tearing ourselves away (we’ve done that a lot on this trip, as we have seen some of the most incredible natural beauty in so many places), we needed to get some rubber to the pavement because today we had a complete bonus:  Tioga Pass at Yosemite National Park was open – OPEN! – and we were going to be able to drive into the park a little bit from that entrance.  When planning this trip, I did a bit of Yosemite research (because we were going to be right there, after all) but the only entrance that is for sure open all year is the west entrance.  The east entrance is closed usually in early fall (and sometimes late summer) due to weather, as the actual entrance is situated right at the peak of Tioga Pass at almost 10,000 feet.  You can well imagine how much snow they get up there and how steep the road is to get to that point.  We thought it a pipe dream to think the entrance would be open on November 3rd.

Mono Lake Basin

But this year the weather had been fairly cooperative and it was open for business on that third day in November!  We were super excited for this complete surprise trip bonus so we beat feet down there before anyone could change their mind.  We took the gorgeous SR 395 south and before we could reach Tioga Pass we had to summit both Devil’s Gate Pass (7,519 ft) and Conway Pass (8,143 ft), so it was like we were doing warm-up passes before getting to the big one.  Coming over Conway Pass also gave us superb views of the Mono Basin and Mono Lake, which is, by the way, home to over 2 million migratory birds.  This is such an educational blog.

Ellery Lake almost at the top of Tioga Pass

Reaching Tioga Pass summit was a bit of a butt clencher, as it wends up the mountain with some tight turns and hefty drop-offs on one side of the road.  What was particularly odd were the randomly placed guard rails that left much of the dangerous bits exposed.  Nevertheless, Jim navigated our way up beautifully (I was never worried) as we passed Ellery and Tioga Lakes on the way to the entrance station.

Lambert Dome made entirely of granite

I’m not sure why, but for some reason when I hear the words National Park I think of a forest.  And usually it’s a flat forest because that is the way it looks on a map.  But when you enter a National Park at an altitude of almost 10,000 feet you know it’s going to be pretty special.  And it was.  Yosemite has forests, to be sure, but it also has giant granite domes (including El Capitan, the famous one a lot of those hardcore exercising types like to climb), alpine meadows, a number of lakes, rivers, and a whole host of things we didn’t have time to see, including the entire Yosemite Valley portion of the park.  There are 1,169 square miles of park so it would take several visits to feel like one has really “seen Yosemite.”

Gratuitous shot of us with the lake where we had lunch in the distant background

We drove Tioga Road (Hwy 120) past some of the aforementioned granite domes, which are giant monoliths made of… granite.  Jimmy thought if the US Government was ever really in a pinch, they could slice off a little bit and sell them as countertops to raise some fast cash.  Maybe that is what they could do to raise money for a couple more guardrails.  We continued our drive past more of Tuolumne Meadows, a couple more granite domes, and to Tenaya Lake, where Jim found a secluded campground lakeside to have our PB&J lunch al fresco, where we were the only ones there.  It was just incredible to have such solitude in such a magnificent (and usually very busy) place.

A bear. Standing there.

Fully nourished, we pressed on and stopped at Olmstead Point to photograph the deep valleys and distant peaks before moving along.  It was at this point we were discussing when we should turn around, as we didn’t have time to make it all the way to Yosemite Valley on the west side of the park, and we decided to press on just a little bit to Porcupine Flat before heading out.  Well, this turned out to be a serendipitous choice as just around the next bend was A BEAR LUMBERING ACROSS THE ROAD.  A BEAR.  LUMBERING.  ACROSS THE ROAD.  RIGHT THERE.  IN FRONT OF US.  LUMBERING AWAY.  A BEAR.  Jim immediately pulled the car over and we hopped out as the bear was disappearing down the rock embankment.  Oh, no, you aren’t going to leave us with just a memory, we are gonna photograph every last hair so c’mere, you big lug.

Yup, that’s definitely a bear

Fortunately, the bear was still visible (at a safe distance, of course), so we snapped away.  As we were snapping, a few more cars rounded the bend and stopped to see what we were looking at.  Once they realized it was A BEAR they started taking pictures, too.  And the entire time the bear just sat there, completely and utterly nonchalant and going about its business.  I kept thinking, no, that can’t be a bear right over there, it must be a Bernese mountain dog, but yes, yes, that was a bear.  Sitting there.  Incredible.

A pooing bear

Eventually we left the bear to its own devices and moved down the road to turn around and head out.  We were both feeling completely satisfied with our Yosemite visit at this point and ready to move on.  We started to double back to Tioga Pass and as we were passing by where the bear had been we couldn’t help but take one more peek.  And it was here and now the age old question “Does a bear shit in the woods?” was answered.  And the answer is yes.  Our beloved bear had moved farther away and was walking down the ravine when it stopped and went poo.  And we photographed it.  And then posted it on the internet.  A better person would have given it privacy, but we have no shame.  After it finished its business it continued to lumber off, still as nonchalant as ever.

If we hadn’t been super pumped before, we were almost through the roof now.  I mean, I am well over the age of 12 and still get completely enchanted at seeing a deer in the woods despite having seen hundreds of dozens.  This bear almost made our heads explode and it had nothing to do with the altitude.  We could now leave California and not feel taunted every time we saw one of those Bear Xing signs.  Now we would look at those signs and nod knowingly.  Aaah, yes, there are bears here.  Nonchalant ones.

Our departure from Yosemite took a lot less time than our arrival, as not only was it mostly downhill but we didn’t make any more stops.  The ride down Tioga Pass was thrilling, as we had the drop-off on our side this time, but we made it back down to around 6-7k feet without incident.

The next leg of our journey was a bit of a detour and a total gigglefest.  Prior to the trip, I had come across a tidbit that taking Highway 120 east from Yosemite was a treat, as it is unofficially known as the Roller Coaster Road and infrequently traveled.  So we decided to give it a whirl and see what was meant by “Roller Coaster Road.”  For the first 20-30 miles or so it was a lovely drive through some very unique topography, with desert-like scrub brush dotted with random trees and the whole valley, of course, surrounded by mountains.   We thought it interesting but perhaps not quite worth the extra 40 miles or so of a detour.

And then there it was.  A single yellow sign that read one word:  Dips.

That one word could potentially be the biggest understatement on earth.  ‘Dips’ does not begin to describe how the road got for the next 5 miles.  It was just like a roller coaster, going up a couple dozen feet and plunging back down, then immediately going back up a little farther and back down, one whoop-de-doo after the next, and at some points the up portion was so steep you couldn’t see the other side (or the road) until the trunk had crested the dip-top.  It was nuts.  And crazy fun.  I was in the passenger seat just squealing away and rallying Jimmy to go faster while he was trying to utter something along the lines of wanting to keep the car both intact and not bottomed out.  On each upswing I would throw up my hands and Jimmy would clutch the steering wheel with clammy hands and we were both giggling so hard and having the time of our lives.

When all was said and done, we had a couple of hours drive ahead of us to debrief that most memorable 5 miles of asphalt, possibly the most indelible 5 mile stretch of road we’ve ever been on.  I was thinking that maybe the local sign commissioner should consider adding the word “Big” to the word “Dips,” as “Dips” neither gives it justice nor even comes close to preparing you for what is to come.  But if you are ever in the area, you must take that slight detour.  If we had one trip regret it would be that we didn’t turn around and do it again (well, I also regret not taking a picture of the road but we were having so many thrills per minute that the camera was farthest from my mind).

The fanciest place in town

After all the excitement for the day, we were ready to get to our overnight base of Lone Pine, CA.  We drove the last couple hours through changing scenery, as we were getting closer and closer to the desert.  It would appear people farm rocks out here, as there were acres and acres of fields full of them.  Lone Pine was finally in sight and we pulled into our lodging, the Best Western Frontier Motel.  And, ironically enough, we got to pull up the car right to our room.  Aaah, memories.

{PS  A note to anyone stopping over in Lone Pine, CA, one of the only towns in the sparsely populated area:  bring your own provisions, as the town is well-aware of their geographic remoteness and charges accordingly.  I would also like to add a fun farm fact, and that is Inyo County, where Lone Pine is located, is home to both the highest peak in the contiguous United States (Mt. Whitney) and the lowest point (Death Valley).  Those are some big shoes for a modest little county.}

Leave a comment


  1. Chrsitine

     /  November 6, 2012

    If I were you I would have HAD to write the part about the bear first and filled in around it – my fingers would have been so excited to type it!

    • howieroll

       /  November 7, 2012

      Oh, it was hard not to burst out with it but somehow self-control took over…


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