Head into the Eastern Sierra as you travel to Yosemite National Park through 9,945-foot/3,031-meter Tioga Pass, aka Highway 120—the east gateway into the park. The highway goes into serious high country and closes for winter (typically November to May; check for current conditions). When the road is open, so is Whoa Nellie Deli, a surprisingly good restaurant near the town of Lee Vining at the start of the route. Why so surprising? The deli is in a gas mart, of all places. Order delicious lobster taquitos or wild buffalo meatloaf, then head outside for tables with big views of nearby Mono Lake. This remnant of an ancient inland sea is famous (especially among photographers) for surreal natural formations known as tufa towers (they look a bit like towering, weathered chess pieces lining the lakefront). Drawn by the lake’s high-desert location and unique chemistry (three times saltier than the ocean) millions of birds also flock to the lake, making it a top destination for birdwatchers. Learn more at the visitor center of Mono Lake Tufa State Natural Reserve.
Once you climb Highway 120 from Lee Vining into Yosemite, you’ll find quick access to alpine lakes (such as Tioga Lake and Ellery Lake), granite domes, and summer wildflowers at Tuolumne Meadows. Continuing on, veer north off Highway 120 on Evergreen Road to the serene Hetch Hetchy Valley, a lesser-known area that boasts the park’s longest hiking season. Follow the trails to a waterfall (like Wapama Falls) or an expansive wildflower view at Beehive Meadow Trail.
On the west side of the park, 25 miles from the Big Oak Flat entrance, make a stop in the Gold Rush town of Groveland. Dig into biscuits and gravy at the Iron Door Saloon, a onetime post office building. Stay in Victorian-style rooms at The Groveland Hotel, a former gambling house and ranger station, where you can dine on California cuisine at The Cellar Door. And escape into a wonderland of native gardens and whirring hummingbirds at Mountain Sage nursery, where you’ll also find live music and a café. Highway 120 ends after it edges Don Pedro Reservoir, a great summer and fall fishing destination.