The Scary Reason Yosemite National Park Closes This Iconic Road To The Public

For many, Yosemite National Park is synonymous with the great outdoors, and Tioga Road has provided a gateway to this breath-taking wilderness for over a century. This truly is high country, and the scenic stretch of Highway 120 twists and turns through the Sierra Nevada mountain range, providing access to Yosemite's celebrated natural wonders such as Half Dome and the famed El Capitan. Yet brutal weather in the Sierras means this iconic road is only open half the year.

Humans have been picking their way across the Sierran heights for over 2,000 years, and Tioga Road follows a route established by Indigenous people centuries ago. The origins of the modern road began in the mid-1800s when cavalry troops discovered ore deposits in the area. A gold rush never fully materialized, but over the coming decades, claims to potentially lucrative silver mines increased the need for public access to transport people, vehicles, and equipment.

Work began in earnest on the Tioga Road, then part of the Great Sierra Mining Road, in the 1880s. A road was built across the Tioga Pass in just 130 days, steeply rising from 4,200 feet at Crocker's Station to almost 10,000 feet. The road opened to regular traffic in 1915, and increased travel to the area resulted in more amenities opening up along the route, but access was always limited by the harsh elements.

Heavy snow makes Tioga Road impassable in winter

Tioga Road has always opened during the summer months and remained inaccessible in the winter due to heavy annual snowfall. The yearly opening of Tioga Road has become a cause for celebration, when the route is cleared and the scenic paths and trails beyond are once again available to nature lovers seeking a taste of Yosemite's stunning wilderness.

The extreme conditions in the Sierra Nevada Mountains is no joke. Rising to around 13,000 feet, the chain of peaks is subject to unpredictable weather, heavy snowfall, and natural hazards like avalanches and rockfalls. A grisly fate like that of the doomed Donner Party is unlikely to befall anyone attempting to cross the Sierras in the winter nowadays, but the risks are still very real; hence the closure of Tioga Road from late fall until late spring every year.

Depending on the amount of snow, the opening of the road can extend into summer. In 2023, the road was finally cleared on July 19 following record snowfall. It was the latest opening of the road since 1915. The record amounts of snow resulted in over 60% of buildings along the route being damaged or destroyed, and sections of the road itself were damaged or strewn with boulders and trees left behind by avalanches and retreating snow. A video (via AccuWeather) was posted from Zone 14 of the route on June 21, 2023, showing diggers and bulldozers still working hard to clear tons of snow.

Alternative routes when Tioga Road is closed

Luckily, there are other ways to reach Yosemite National Park even if Tioga Road is snowed in. First up is Highway 140, the All-Weather Highway considered fairly straightforward even in the winter. The route offers glimpses of the Old West and the gold rush at charming towns like Hornitos and Mariposa, the governmental center of the county. Heading northeast, the route ascends to Midpines Summit (2,960 feet) before sweeping down through mining country. Highway 140 continues across the Briceberg suspension bridge spanning the Merced River and on to El Portal, a small town that is a haven for hikers and campers. A little further on, you will enter Yosemite under the famous Arch Rock.

Other alternatives include Highway 41, which takes you through the southern end of Mariposa County with pleasant stop-offs at Fish Camp and Wawona and on to Yosemite Valley. Once you reach Tunnel View, you can pull over for a gorgeous glimpse of El Capitan, one of the world's most dangerous rock climbs. Taking Highway 132 leads you on a scenic route between Lake Don Pedro and Lake McClure on the way to Yosemite's north entrance. Along the way, be sure to stop off at Coulterville, a small town full of historic buildings including Hotel Jeffery, home to one of the oldest saloons in California. While these alternative routes may not be as breathtaking as Tioga Road, they all have their charms and will get you to the star attraction – Yosemite National Park.