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The focus of this article will be on the major routes to Yosemite from San Francisco and Los Angeles:
Always check road conditions and other route restrictions before leaving. For highways, check with Caltrans or 800.427.7623. For road conditions inside Yosemite NP, call 209-372-0200 x1 x1.
Other articles that may be useful:
There are two main options: Highway 120 or 140. Both usually take about the same time to Yosemite Valley, but 120 has the psychological advantage of getting you into the park boundaries a little earlier: Your brain may not see the additional half-hour drive down into Yosemite Valley on 120 as part of the drive.
Which route to take would often be dictated by where your lodging is located, your driving preferences and the weather. In the winter, 120's elevation gains to 6,192 feet means that you may occasionally have to use snow chains. Therefore, you may want to choose the "lower elevation" 140 if weather calls for higher elevation snow or if you do not enjoy mountain driving. Note that due to the Ferguson rockslide, vehicles over 45 feet are not allowed on 140 and should choose either Highways 120 or 41.
Elevation profile from SF to Yosemite Valley via Hwy 120 (max elevation 6,192 feet before winding down at 4,000 feet in Yosemite Valley)
Elevation profile from SF to Yosemite Valley via Hwy 140 (slightly longer distance but lower elevation max elevation of 4,000 feet)
Taking Highway 120 (higher elevation route) into the Park:
From SF, taking Hwy 120 means following I-580 East out of the Bay Area (a route to avoid during the afternoon weekday commute hours.) I-580 connects to I-205 (Tracy/Stockton)
then you'll briefly jog north on I-5 North and take Hwy 120 towards Manteca/Sonora.
When you arrive at the junction with Hwy 99, you'll follow the signs for Hwy 99 North (Sacramento/Yosemite/Sonora).
But you'll only stay on Hwy 99 N until you get to the next exit, where Hwy 120 East (Yosemite Ave)continues.
Anyone driving from Sacramento or other Central Valley locations will pick up the journey at this point. For much of the rest of your journey, Hwy 120 will be a two lane road. You'll pass through the small towns of Escalon and then Oakdale. Both have services such as gas stations, grocery stores, restuarants (fast food and otherwise) ; Oakdale is larger and has more stores and even some decent chain motels. This is a good spot to pick up supplies and fill up on gas. Be aware that there is a left turn at a stoplight toward the center of Oakdale; if you follow the main flow of traffic and follow the signs pointed left for 120 East (Sonora/Yosemite), you shouldn't miss it.
At this point, Hwy 120 temporarily joins Hwy 108 as well. Soon, you will be heading into the foothills, and approaching the historic Gold Country.
Note: If you have the time, there are plenty of diversions along the way.There's a lovely park and picnic area by the river at Knight's Ferry along with California's longest covered bridge. Further along, you could choose to take the split from Hwy 120 onto Hwy 108 and visit Jamestown, Sonora and Columbia State Historic Park, all gold-rush era towns. This could easily be an overnight stay.>>
If you do continue straight on to Yosemite, pay close attention where Hwy 120 and Hwy 108split from each other. Make a right turn onto Hwy 120 E towards Chinese Camp - a gold rush town. Do not continue straight on the road, which takes you on Hwy 108 towards Jamestown. (Should this happen, you can continue on a few more miles until you reach the intersection of Hwy 49, then take a right turn onto Hwy 49 South. You will soon connect again with Hwy 120 E at Chinese Camp.)
After you pass Chinese Camp and the Don Pedro Reservoir, you'll approach the ascent into the mountains. You may notice some large pipe on the side of the hills in front of you; these are part of the Hetch Hetchy water system that brings water from Yosemite into San Francisco. As you pass the fish hatchery at Moccasin, you will be heading for Priest Grade, where you'll ascend rather rapidly into the higher elevations. If you stay on Hwy 120, you'll follow the more graded and less steep ascent that is required if you have an RV, large truck or trailer of any kind (this route allows buses and RVs up to 45' in length.)
Google Maps may direct you to leave Hwy 120 for a short cut that you can take to your right, called Old Priest Grade, following the old stagecoach road before rejoining 120. It's narrow, steep and winding, so it's not for the faint of heart or the heavy of load (it's scarier going downhill then uphill). RVs and large vehicles are not allowed on the old road. However, if you are in a car it can shave about 10 minutes off your drive. Be sure to turn off your air conditioning to avoid overheating if you choose this short cut.
Once you reach the top, you will sense a change in the environment, as you begin to drive through more forested areas. You will soon be in the towns of Big Oak Flat and then Groveland, yet another Gold Rush era town. Groveland is a good place to stop for lunch if you need to; the Iron Door Saloon and Grill bills itself as the oldest continuously operating saloon in California. There's also a grocery store and some nice places to stay in town. Check your gas gauge, too - the closer you get to the park, the more expensive and rarer fuel will become.
It won't be long until you reach the northern entrance to the park at the Big Oak Flat Station. If you're still curious for a little sightseeing, however (or are taking the route in reverse and reluctantly leaving the park) there are still a few stops you could make. You'll pass a pull-out on the left called "Rim of The World" which has an overview into the Tuolumne River Canyon, and you can see how nature is returning from a huge firestorm in that area about 20 years ago (there's also a rest room there!) And in the summer, you can visit and swim at Rainbow Falls, which is an unmarked right turn just before you go over a bridge over the South Fork of the Tuolumne RIver. There's a parking lot, picnic tables and bathrooms in the area (there used to be a restaurant that overlooked the falls that burned down many years ago.) Finally, you will reach the Big Oak Flat Entance to Yosemite, and barring any traffic or any of the stops mentioned above, it will have taken you between 3 and 3 1/2 hours from the SF area.
You'll still have another 45 minutes or so of driving to reach Yosemite Valley, if that's your destination. Along the way you'll cross the Crane Flat intersection where Hwy 120 turns left and becomes the Tioga Road; this will lead you to the Tuolumne Grove of Giant Sequoias and to the high country of Tuolumne Meadows. This road is closed in late fall through to the late spring. At this intersection there's a gas station- if you haven't done so, fill up now as there's no gas in Yosemite Valley. Continue straight on Big Oak Flat Road and you will be heading for the valley. When you see a sign for Foresta on your right, you'll be getting close the "sneak peek" view of Yosemite Valley that's well worth a stop. The following picture shows what it looks like on a fall afternoon. You'll then go through a tunnel and soon you'll descend to the Merced River. Your road will join the El Portal / Hwy 140 route for the final miles into Yosemite Valley.
Here is a page on what to see as you drive into the Valley.
Taking Highway 140 (lower elevation route) into the Park:
The other, and perhaps most common route from Northern and Central California is Hwy 140, which leads to the western or central entrance to Yosemite at Arch Rock. This route is also known as the "all-weather highway", as it enters directly into Yosemite Valley without reaching elevations above 4000 ft. This makes it a more reliable route in the winter, as it is less likely to require chains or snow tires to enter the park. It's also the route that you would be more likely to take if you were coming from the Monterey area, or other locations in central CA that are south of San Francisco.
From San Francisco, the initial route is the same as the route for Hwy 120. Take the Bay Bridge and merge to 580 East. 580 connects to 205. Then briefly jog north on Interstate-5 until you merge right onto Hwy 120 East towards Manteca/Sonora. Stay on Hwy 120 for only a very short while (5+ miles)
Exit on your right onto hwy 99 South towards Modesto/Fresno/Los Angeles. Ignore the signs to Yosemite/Sonora -- that leads to the other route (120 high elevation) to Yosemite.
Stay on Hwy 99 South for about an hour past Modesto, Turlock and Livingston. This stretch of highway has many truck stops and is a good place to fuel up if needed. When you get into Merced, you are rewarded with signs to Mariposa/Yosemite. Exit on your right to Hwy 140 East.
At the end of the exit ramp, turn left onto Hwy 140 East (Yosemite Parkway) where you will pass several gas stations and fruit stands by the side of the road. (Note: Costco members can get cheaper gas by hopping off earlier to the Merced store)
Hwy 140 is very straight until you pass Catheys Valley and head into Mariposa. If you need info and bathrooms, the Mariposa visitor center is at the very end of the town on the right. Note: The visitor center is also where the YARTS bus to Yosemite stops. This road ascends to 3,000 and then descends, following the Merced River as it meanders down from the mountains.
Continue on Hwy 140 and you will eventually reach a traffic light in the middle of the highway that regulates traffic across a couple of narrow one-lane bridges. Expect to wait 5-10 minutes for the light to change. This is a rock slide / mass wasting area so keep an eye for little stones and rocks on the roadway as you past El Portal and reach the Arch Rock Entrance into Yosemite National Park.
go from hillsides filled with poppies to a granite arch welcoming you to Yosemite.
Taking Highway 41 into the park:
The most common route used to drive into the park from the more southern reaches of the state is Hwy 41, which splits off of Hwy 99 at Fresno, your last large city before you head into the mountains and also the nearest major airport to the park. As you connect with Hwy 41 and head past Fresno, you will quickly find yourself entering the Sierra foothills and the southern Gold Country, passing the Chuckchansi Indian Casino and Resort along the way. In about 45 minutes you'll reach the small town of Oakhurst, where you can find a number if chain motels as well as two large supermarkets if you need some last minute provisions. This would be a good palce to stop for gas as well, if you didn't do so in Fresno. The vacation home area of Bass Lake is just beyond Oakhurst.
Once you pass Oakhurst, you will continue to gain in elevation and head through a rather thickly forested area as you climb higher into the Sierra. In the winter, this area may require chains, especially after a storm. About 1/2 hour later, you will reach the tiny hamlet of Fish Camp, where the Tenaya Lodge Resort is located, along with Big Creek Inn B&B. Soon you will reach the South Entrance to the park. Just after the park gates, there is a small parking lot and restrooms to the right. The road into the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias is to your right as well. If you are planning on seeing these amazing trees, now would be a good time to stop and visit the Grove, as it is almost another hour's drive to Yosemite Valley. In the summer, if the parking lot is full and the road to the Grove is closed, you can continue on for a few more miles to Wawona where you can park and catch a free shuttle bus into the Mariposa Grove parking lot. Mariposa Grove Information
Turn left, and continue on Hwy 41 which is now also called Wawona Road. In 4 miles you'll come to the historic community of Wawona, home to the Wawona Hotel and Golf Course. Much of this town is a pocket of private property that is not part of the National Park. Wawona has the last gas station before Yosemite Valley as well as two stores, a nice restaurant in the Wawona Hotel, a snack bar at the Golf Course, a swimmable river, The Redwoods rental homes, the Wawona Campground, and many private homes. Anyone with an interest in photography would enjoy a stop at the Ansel Adams Center housed in the Wilderness Center just north of the Hotel. In the summer, the Pioneer History Center is open with a covered bridge, restored historic cabins, and a stagecoach ride.
After you leave Wawona, you will continue to gain elevation on a winding road for about another 30 minutes until you reach Chinquapin, the junction of the Glacier Point Road. This elevation is 6039 ft.. A right turn here will take you to the specatular overview at Glacier Point about 40 minutes away, and it will also take you to many other trailheads. In winter, Glacier Point Road is only open as far as the Badger Pass ski area. To the south of this intersection is another cluster of vacation rentals in the community of Yosemite West.
Soon after you pass the intersection of Glacier Point Road, you will begin to see your vistas opening up on your left as you descend into the deep Merced River canyon. There are some pull-outs that allow you to stop and see the scenery, but those are on the opposite side of the road so you may want to wait until your return trip to stop. You will also see a "sneak peek" of El Capitan in Yosemite Valley, but don't worry about stopping- you are about to reach a spectacular vista point. As you travel through the long Wawona Tunnel, be prepared to pull over and park after you exit that tunnel. There is a parking area on the right as well as on the left. This is the famous Tunnel View vista, and you won't want to miss it. It is actually the spot where the first Euro-Americans "discovered" the valley, and it's no wonder that the glories of the place were soon known world-wide. When you're done visiting this amazing location, you will continue down Wawona Road and enter Yosemite Valley. From there, you may want to check out the Traveler Article What to see as you drive into the Valley to get an idea of sightseeing along the way through the valley itself.