Yearning for Yosemite scenery with fewer people? Head south of the national park to North Fork, the exact geographical center of California, and prepare to feast your eyes on granite domes, glaciated peaks, high mountain meadows, and not many other people on this 90-mile loop. Pick up a byway map at the North Fork Visitors Center, fill your tank with gas, and plan on a full day.
The loop begins two miles outside of North Fork on Minarets Road. Your first stop is the Jesse Ross Cabin, a hand-hewn log home built in the late 1860s. The twisty-curvy factor ramps up as the road winds from foothills to alpine country, hitting the mile-high mark at Mile High Overlook. Get out of the car to survey the panorama of the San Joaquin River, the Mammoth Pool Reservoir, and a wealth of peaks: Mammoth Mountain, Balloon Dome, and the Minaret Range. As you pass a succession of car campgrounds near the Mammoth Pool Reservoir turnoff (a worthy side trip for anglers), consider packing a tent next time. Pushing north, pause for a leg-stretcher at Arch Rock, its graceful granite curve caused by water erosion.
The pavement turns to dirt at the Minarets and Beasore roads junction. Your next stretch is slow and bumpy but still manageable in a passenger car. Jounce along to Globe Rock and snap selfies next to this giant, egg-shaped sphere balanced on a granite pedestal. (Teddy Roosevelt had his photo taken here.) Nearby, the century-old Jones’ Store is a must-stop for tri-tip and pie. Owner Diane Ortmann says, “We have no electricity, no telephone. When people come back here, they always say this is like going back in time.”
Hang a right on Sky Ranch Road. Two short but spectacular side trips await: a half-mile tromp to the summit of 7,539-foot Fresno Dome, for sweeping views of Soquel Meadow and a sea of conifers; and a walk through the Nelder Grove’s massive sequoia trees. On the one-mile Shadow of the Giants Trail, pay your respects to the (approximately) 2,700-year-old Bull Buck Tree, one of the world’s largest sequoias.
Too soon, your wheels return to fast-moving U.S. 41 near Oakhurst, where civilization awaits.