Snow threatened and an icy mush clung to the banks of Siesta Lake, but the High Sierra tourist season got started anyway Friday with the opening of Tioga Pass, a dramatic “back route” into Yosemite for thousands of vacationers from Southern California.
The opening of the 9,941-foot pass after six months of winter is a long-awaited spring event in Sierra Nevada country. It cuts hours off trans-Sierra trips to see family and friends and marks the annual return of tourists and their money, an increasing number of whom are Japanese and Europeans.
“It’s a big day, especially for the east side of the Sierra,” said Mallory Smith, a ranger with the National Parks Service. “People are waiting at both ends.”
Gates swung open about 11 a.m., allowing the first traffic to flow since November 14 on California 120 between Lee Vining, on the east side of the Sierra range, and Crane Flat, near Yosemite Valley. At least one driver told a ranger that the opening would allow him to catch a flight in San Francisco.
Another driver, Richard Jamison, said he was on his way to see friends in Mariposa, the Mother Lode area of the foothills west of Yosemite. In winter, the trip would take him six to eight hours from the east side, Jamison said, but now he could make it in less than three.
The first to cross Friday were treated to a California postcard scene. Tioga Pass, a steep drop from the Sierra into the Mono Lake basin, is a tourist lure of its own, the road clinging to cliffs and presenting views of glaciers and sheer granite faces thousands of feet high. Above the pass, inside the park, snow was still laced through the trees along the road, but many meadows had come out of hiding and the streams were full.
Even with the road open, the traffic Friday was sporadic past Siesta Lake, a glacial pond along the highway at 8,000 feet. Drops of melting snow falling from the lodgepole pines could be heard hitting the forest floor. Blue jays and chipmunks walked on the pavement.
By Memorial Day, the busiest weekend of the year in Yosemite, the setting will be transformed. For the rest of spring and summer until the first snow closes the gates again, nearly 200,000 cars and recreation vehicles will travel on at least part of the 60 miles from Yosemite Valley to Lee Vining, the town at the foot of Tioga Pass.
The pass is the closest trans-Sierra route to Los Angeles. Merchants on both sides of the Sierra range say the pass--one of the state’s most renowned picturesque drives--is on a route favored by many tourists, especially from Japan and Europe. The circuit includes Los Angeles, San Francisco, Lake Tahoe and Yosemite, with side trips to Death Valley and Las Vegas.
“This is a very eagerly awaited event,” said Ilene Mandelbaum, at the Mono Lake Committee Visitors Center in Lee Vining.