Yosemite Road Trip: San Francisco to the Sierra

Driving to the park from the Bay Area…it’s a trip I’ve made countless times throughout my life. While there is a lot of focus on the destination of Yosemite itself, I thought it would be fun to share scenes from the journey getting there. As you may notice, these Yosemite road trip photos actually consist of multiple drives – in various seasons.

Forest along SR120 (Big Oak Flat Rd) after winter snow storm - Yosemite road trip
A Yosemite Road Trip

Leaving the Bay Area

This may be one of California’s most loved and well-traveled routes. I usually start my journey off in Santa Clara, where my family resides. After cutting over to Highway 680 from 880, I jump on 580 East, and start heading up and over Altamont Pass.

Wind farm on the green hills of Altamont Pass - Highway 580
Wind farm on the green hills of Altamont Pass

What is essentially a 767 foot hill somehow feels higher than it really is. I took the photo above while driving. Although some prefer California’s “golden hills” of summer, I actually enjoy the vibrant green grass of early spring…March, in this case. There’s really only a brief window when you get to see color like this in the San Joaquin Valley.

The hot, dry, open road - SR120 near Oakdale, California
The hot, dry, open road

Now the image above – that’s more of a typical California grassland. By this point I had already passed through Tracy, and turned off the freeway onto more scenic (and intimate) SR 120. I assume “SR” stands for state route…

SR120 Road with green grass in March
Conversely, in spring

In contrast, here’s a similar section of road – also in March. I just can’t get enough of California’s beautiful (albeit fleeting) green hills.

SR 120 takes you through the charming small town of Escalon, then prompts you to turn left when you reach noticeably larger Oakdale – an agricultural community of about 20,000 people. From here on it’s a nice gradual climb, one that you barely even notice.

You make a right just before the gold rush towns of Jamestown and Sonora. Here, the route doubles as SR 49 / SR120. Soon you pass through the historical “ghost town” of Chinese Camp (population 126 now)…and get your first glimpse of the foothills near Don Pedro Reservoir.

Ah, the foothills…yes, it’s time to start our ascent…

Through The Foothills – Yosemite Road Trip

Driving the curves on Old Priest Grade Road, near Groveland
Shaving off minutes & miles

Even though most people are advised to take the longer, less steep route (by remaining on SR120), I took the photo above on Old Priest Grade Road. This is actually quite a shortcut, and it’s mostly used by locals (and Yosemite aficionados.) Large trucks and RVs are not permitted.

Groveland Town

SR120 passing through Downtown Groveland with Hotel & Famous Iron Door Saloon
Downtown Strip

Once nearing the top, don’t forget to look back on the beautiful view of the foothills. A few minutes past the tiny community of Big Oak Flat (recommended to gas up here), you’ll be in Groveland town. You’ll drive right through the main strip – it has a charming “wild west” type of feel to it.

Welcome to the “Gateway To Yosemite”…and your last chance to find a reasonably priced grocery market (google Mar-Val!).

Driving into Yosemite

Snow covered SR120 near Crane Flat - Winter storm in Yosemite
If you see this and you don’t have chains – game over

Now it’s on to the park. After about 20–25 minutes you’ll reach the entrance gate. Just beyond that, you’ll climb to over 6,000ft. This is where chains can be required in winter. The picture of the snowy road above was taken just after a winter storm. Luckily the road was still open at that time.

The shorter (and more scenic) mountainside tunnel on SR120 to Yosemite
The shorter (and more scenic) mountainside tunnel

Jumping around a bit, this photo was taken in spring – miles after Crane Flat and Foresta, at the first (and most scenic) stone tunnel. A few minutes later you’ll reach a stop sign. Make a left…and start venturing into one of the most iconic valleys in the world.

On The Road in Yosemite Valley

Tourist cars parked near Pohono Bridge- Yosemite road trip
People seem to love renting Mustangs for Yosemite Road Trips

As should be quite apparent, these Southside Drive photos were captured in Autumn. October, to be exact. Keep an eye out for these trees when you enter the valley and cross Pohono Bridge.

A Particularly Dazzling Stretch of Fall Color on the drive - Yosemite road trip
A Particularly Dazzling Stretch of Fall Color on the Road

Again, there is only a brief window when the leaves turn this vibrant yellow color. Below is the same stretch of Southside Drive, although it was taken in spring.

Yellow convertible driving under Bridalveil Fall on Southside Drive.
That guy is living the life

If I had to choose just one season hit the open road in Yosemite, it would be spring. Early May is excellent, for a variety of reasons.

- Yosemite road trip
Parking lot & Tourists @ “Valley View Yosemite”

Note, this photo at the “Valley View Yosemite” turnout was taken after making the whole loop through the valley. I then returned to Pohono Bridge on Northside Drive. If you take this route, you can head up Highway 41 to Glacier Point Road after (or do this first, then continue into the valley on Southside Dr.)

Driving up to Glacier Point – Yosemite Road Trip

A Half Dome Sunset View from Glacier Point Rd - Yosemite road trip
A Half Dome Sunset View – Without Leaving The Car

In any case, up driving up Glacier Point Road can be quite memorable. Don’t forget to pull over and check out Summit Meadow about halfway up, and know that it is illegal to pull over at the “Half Dome hairpin turn”, like the tourists above have done. Incredible views on this road, it’s kind of hard to blame them.

Vibrant Forest Sunset During the Drive on Glacier Point Road.
Vibrant Forest Sunset During the Drive

I thought this sunset picture was a fitting end to this epic Yosemite road trip. Do keep in mind…just like equally scenic Tioga Road, Glacier Point Rd also closes in winter.

Looking for lodging? Check out my Yosemite Hotels page.

Show the Sierra some love – Share this page:

About My Photos

The images on this website are available for licensing and/or sale as framed prints. If you’d like to purchase them for a blog, news article, or gift, feel free to contact me with the specifics. This way you’re supporting photographers such as me directly (as opposed to buying from a faceless stock photo corporation).

Pinterest users: By all means, feel free to pin!

– Nathan Allen

About Me

Photographer Nathan Allen

I’m Nathan Allen, photographer / creator of YosemiteParkPhotos.com (Yosemite Photos) and international travel site I Dreamed Of This. In truth, I lived in San Francisco, New York, & Singapore…but nothing compares to life in the mountains. I share my experiences HERE.