An outstanding base camp for exploring the Tuolumne Meadows area
Yosemite National Park is, of course, one of the crown jewels of the US National Park system, and an extremely popular destination for California residents and visitors alike. While most of the crowds pour into the justifiably world-famous Yosemite Valley, savvy travelers seeking to avoid the traffic jams in the Valley head to the Tuolumne Meadows area in the eastern part of the park. Located about one-and-a-half hours’ drive from the Valley, Tuolumne Meadows is the largest subalpine meadow in the Sierras. Trails radiate out from the Meadows in all directions, but only one road (the seasonal Tioga Pass Road) accesses the area. Nonetheless, the Meadows offer a host of services, including a visitor center, gas station, general store, and even a post office. Due to its remote location, most visitors will want to spend the night. Overnight accommodations are limited to just two options: 1) the Tuolumne Meadows Campground, or 2) the Tuolumne Meadows Lodge.
The name Tuolumne Meadows Lodge might easily conjure up visions of a rustic (but luxurious), log-cabin style lodge with a huge stone fireplace and a grand dining room filled with exquisite wooden décor. Maybe like one of those lodges built by the CCC back in the 1930s that are found in so many national parks… That’s, ah, not quite what you get. Instead, the accommodations consist of canvas tent cabins equipped with wood-burning stoves for heat. The main lodge building, which houses the front desk, dining room, and a small library is a hybrid structure with wood-frame walls and a canvas roof. Luckily, the central bathroom facility is a more-or-less permanent structure.
Why is this so? Well, at 8,775 feet above sea level, the Tuolumne Meadows area is usually covered by a deep blanket of snow for over half the year. The Tioga Pass Road, which is the only road that accesses the area, is only open during the summer months, usually from around Memorial Day until sometime in late October. Opening and closing dates for the road can vary greatly from year to year, and are dependent on seasonal variations in snowfall. The area receives a tremendous amount of snow in most years, and with such a short season it’s easier and more cost-effective to set up the tent cabins before the season starts and then pack them back up when the season ends with the first major snowfall. Mid-July through the end of August are the safest bets when planning your visit. So, about those tent cabins… There are 69 to choose from, and each cabin can sleep up to four people. The tent cabins are erected over a bare concrete pad, but some carpeting is provided to make them a little more comfortable. The bedding will be instantly recognizable if you’ve ever served in the military: twin mattresses, stiff white sheets, and a somewhat itchy olive green wool blanket. At least you won’t have a drill sergeant telling you to make your bed in the morning. The bedding also includes a nice, thick, synthetic-fill comforter, which is essential for sleeping comfortably at this altitude. Temperatures routinely drop into the mid-30s at night, and you will get cold if your wood-burning stove goes out in the middle of the night (which it will). Bringing extra blankets might be a good idea if you’re a particularly cold sleeper.
The wood-burning stoves in each cabin do an excellent job of keeping the interior of the tent cabin warm at night. The problem is that the stoves are small enough that they’re virtually guaranteed to go out… usually around 3:00 in the morning. Keep an ample supply of fire wood near the stove, and plan on having to get up in the middle of the night to add some wood to the fire. You’ll only have to do it once, but you’ll be glad you did. Firewood, matches, and fire starter are provided in your room, and the staff will gladly give you as much firewood as you need. Don’t make the mistake we did and buy firewood over at the Tuolumne Meadows Store. The tent cabins also include a small table and a tiny clothes closet. A lantern is provided, but you might want to bring your own for extra lighting if you think you’ll need it. That’s about it. If you haven’t guessed already, there’s no electricity or running water. There’s also (oh, the horror!) no cell service or Wi-Fi. Welcome back to the Twentieth Century… Fortunately, there is a communal power strip near the front desk, so you can charge your electronic devices while you’re eating breakfast or dinner in the dining room.
While you won’t find a luxurious bear-skin rug stretched out in front of a fireplace, there are plenty of real, live black bears in the woods around the Lodge. Because of this, you’ll be subject to the same rules and restrictions that campers in the nearby Tuolumne Meadows Campground have to follow. Basically, this means that you aren’t allowed to have either food or toiletries in your tent cabin, or in your car. You’ll be assigned a bear locker out in the parking lot, which is where you’ll want to store any food that you brought along with you. Toiletries go in a smaller set of lockers just outside the restrooms. This is actually a pretty convenient arrangement – just make sure that you collect all of your stuff after you check out.
Restrooms are housed in a single, central facility just uphill from the main lodge building. They’re rustic, but clean and comfortable. The opportunity for a hot shower after a long day of hiking is one of the more attractive features of staying at the lodge. Surprisingly, the restrooms were never crowded during our visit, despite the large number of people who were staying at the lodge.
The dining room is open for breakfast and dinner, but not lunch. Since most people will be out hiking or sightseeing in the park around lunchtime, the lodge offers a boxed, picnic-style lunch that you can take with you on your adventures. Boxed lunches currently (as of 2015) run $10 each. If you’re thinking that you could put something similar together yourself for less money by stocking up at the nearby Tuolumne Meadows General Store, you’re probably right. It is a convenient option, though.
Breakfast is first-come, first-served, but you will need to make a reservation for dinner. It’s a good idea to make your dinner reservation in the morning when you show up for breakfast. With table space at a premium, the lodge’s restaurant will seat random groups of people together. This is an excellent opportunity to meet and get to know your fellow guests. We found that many of the people we met during our meals were repeat visitors who enjoyed the experience of staying at the lodge so much that they came back every year or so.
Meals at the lodge’s restaurant were quite good, and featured such High Sierra staples as trout, beef stew, and hamburgers. Because of the lodge’s remote location, the menu is necessarily somewhat limited, but you shouldn’t have any trouble finding something enjoyable. Prices are comparable to what you would expect to pay back home in a decent three- or four-star restaurant. In other words, it’s not exactly a bargain. It is, however, very much in line with what you can expect to pay at most restaurants in the national park system. Service is excellent, and it’s a real treat to talk to the employees who live full-time in the lodge’s tent cabins during the season when the lodge is open.
Hiking is the main attraction at Tuolumne Meadows, and there are a variety of trails to choose from. The closest trail, which starts right from the lodge’s parking lot, connects to both the John Muir and Pacific Crest Trails and quickly reaches some truly spectacular scenery along the Dana and Lyell Forks of the Tuolumne River. The very popular trail to Lembert Dome and Dog Lake starts from a large trailhead about a mile back down the access road from the lodge. For trails farther afield, you’ll either have to drive or use the free Tuolumne Meadows Shuttle bus which runs between Olmstead Point and Tioga Pass on Highway 120, with a stop in the Tuolumne Meadows Lodge parking lot. Trail maps and bus schedules are available at the lodge’s front desk.
Although it’s not a “hike” per se, you definitely do not want to miss a visit to the Miller Cascade on the Dana Fork of the Tuolumne River. Simply walk a few minutes uphill on an informal trail behind the main lodge building, and you’ll find yourself at the base of the Cascades, a series of small waterfalls that are very impressive, even after four years of drought. A brief scramble to the top of the Cascade rewards you with a nice view of nearby Lembert Dome, less than a mile to the west.
Overall, it’s easy to give Tuolumne Meadows Lodge a glowing recommendation. With a spectacular setting, comfortable (if not exactly luxurious) accommodations, excellent meals, and a wide variety of outdoor activities in the immediate area, it’s an excellent choice for an overnight stay in this corner of the park. Just be aware that the law of supply and demand is in full effect here. As the only non-camping option for an overnight stay in Tuolumne Meadows, and both the starting point and finish of the very popular Yosemite High Sierra Camps loop, it’s a very popular place to stay. Make your reservations early, as the lodge is frequently booked solid, especially on weekends during its short operating season. Rates are on the high side – about what you would normally pay for a regular hotel room. While the rates for tent cabins in Curry Village down in Yosemite Valley are significantly lower, you won’t enjoy the sense of privacy that you’ll find at Tuolumne Meadows Lodge. If you’d prefer a solid roof over your head (and solid walls), the only other option in the area would be the rustic cabins at the Tioga Pass Resort just outside the park on Highway 120. Rates are only slightly higher, but you’ll have your own bathroom, and you won’t have to get up in the middle of the night to put another log on the fire. The trade-off is that you’ll have to drive back to Tuolumne Meadows during the day to access the recreational opportunities there.