Whoa Nellie Deli - Lunch Stop at Tioga Pass in Yosemite
Yosemite National Park is just four or five hours from the San Francisco Bay Area, but if you’re based in South Lake Tahoe it’s just a little over two hours to the Tioga Pass entry gate. Whether your base for exploration is in Tahoe, or you're just motoring through on your way south, save your appetite for Whoa Nellie Deli, a one of a kind gourmet restaurant located in the Mobil Gas Station. That's right. In the Mobil station. I live in South Lake Tahoe, and find it a great ride-to-eat excursion--just over two hours on my BMW 1200GS. Not that I need an excuse to ride in one of the most beautiful places in the world!
Whoa Nellie Deli is a unique establishment that serves some of the best gourmet food in the Eastern Sierra. No microwave burritos here! Instead, feast on skirt steak salad, jambalaya or the legendary fish tacos. Chef Matt Toomey was previously a chef the ski town of Mammoth Lakes for years before he had the great idea to put gourmet food in a gas station. In doing so he far exceeded expectations anyone would have for "gas station food." Check out this video tour and interview with Matt. The restaurant is open between the last Saturday of April and the end of October.
Located at the gateway to Yosemite, this place has become a crossroads for travelers. On any given day you will run into riders coming east through Yosemite, south from California, north from Death Valley and west from Nevada. It’s a great place to relax, have some food, talk to fellow riders and just enjoy the high Sierra vibe.
Yosemite was founded by legislation signed by Abraham Lincoln in 1864, and since then generations of visitors have enjoyed the very same vision that naturalist John Muir saw when he first laid on eyes on the singular beauty the park has to offer.
To get there from South Lake Tahoe, the best place to meet is Lakeside Inn and Casino, located on Highway 50 in the Stateline, NV area. Lakeside is a motorcycle friendly local’s casino and hotel, and has a great $4.99 breakfast special to get you on your way. From Lakeside, head up and over Kingsbury Grade (SR 207) and once over the grade you will take a right on Foothill Road (SR 206). Foothill Road takes you along the base of the Sierra, merging with Highway 88, which you will continue on as you head towards Markleeville, one of many tiny communities found throughout the Sierra. Turn left on Highway 89 at Woodfords, which will take you into downtown Markleeville. If you need gas there is a self-help station here that takes credit cards.
Leaving Markleeville, follow Highway 89 and look for signs for Monitor Pass, which is little two lane road that follows the Carson River. Highway 89 turns left and starts climbing away from the Carson River. The pass crests at 8,300 feet elevation. As you drop down, the entire eastern Sierra come into view, and there are a few places to pull out and take some pictures. And check out this video of riding Monitor Pass.
On the other side of the pass, Highway 89 intersects with Highway 395. Turn right (south) on 395 and you pass through a series of small little communities, including Coleville and Walker. As you continue south on Highway 395 toward Bridgeport you will enter the Walker River Canyon where, depending upon the time of year, you will see people fly fishing and spin casting for fresh mountain trout. In Bridgeport there are two gas stations if you need to fuel up. (See Carla's post on Highway 395 and Bridgeport.)
As you leave Bridgeport, notice the turnoff to Highway 182. Keep it in mind because that is the road back to Tahoe. This route is known by two different names. Those who live to the north call it Smith Valley after the valley it’s in, while those who live to the south refer to it as Sweetwater after the range of mountains that surround it. In any event it’s a really fun two lane road with some twists and straightaways. Along the way you will see the occasional ranch house.
Continue south on Highway 395, remembering to stay within the speed limit. About six miles outside of town you’ll come upon the turnoff for Bodie State Park, a genuine ghost town that has been incredibly well preserved. If you have the time to stop, I would recommend you do so. Be aware that part of the road into Bodie is a well maintained dirt road. Once in Bodie you will see a great example of those mining towns that at one time were found throughout California and Nevada but have since disappeared.
Continue south on Highway 395 to pass over Conway Summit (elevation 8,100 feet). As you descend, you will be treated to an incredible view of the Owens Valley and Mono Lake. On a clear day you can see for miles, and there is a turnout on your right so you can pull over to enjoy the view.
To Lee Vining and into Yosemite
Now you're just a short ride to Lee Vining, the gateway to the eastern entrance of Yosemite. As you approach Lee Vining remember to reduce your speed there is a sign telling how fast your going and its best to get under the speed limit. Driving through town you'll pass a number of small restaurants and motels that primarily serve those heading to the park, but save your appetite for Whoa Nellie Deli.
At the south end of Lee Vining turn right on Route 120, which is better known as Tioga Pass. The entrance to Yosemite is approximately a dozen miles of beautiful high Sierra riding marked by high meadows and lakes. You'll pay a $10 motorcycle fee to enter the park.
A few miles on the two lane road and you arrive at Tuolumne Meadows, which is one of my favorite places in the park. Yosemite Falls, Half Dome and the entire Yosemite Valley on other side of the park are the park’s most popular sights, I always feel a special pull to Tuolumne Meadows. Its beauty and simplicity speak to me in a special way, and I visit several times a year. Cruise through some of the most beautiful high mountain meadows you’ll ever see, but wait until you reach Tenaya Lake just up the road before you stop, see it all and take a sip form your water bottle. The water in the lake is so clear that it mirrors the surrounding peaks. There are plenty of pullouts so you can stop to admire the view and take photos.
Time to Turn Around
At this point I normally turn head home but if you’re interested you can keep on going and ride throughout the park, exiting on the western side. If you do decide to go through the entire park I would recommend you plan a two day trip and spend the night along the way.
As you head out the park and back down Tioga Pass, Whoa Nellie Deli is about a quarter mile from the bottom at the Mobil gas station. Enjoy your meal! Then head north on Highway 395 towards Lake Tahoe and retrace your route through Lee Vining up the highway past the turn off to Bodie. As you approach Bridgeport remember the Highway 182 turnoff on your right and cross the Nevada state line into Wellington, a small ranching town in Nevada. From Wellington take SR 208 west, back to Highway 395. Head north on 395, and within 45 minutes you will be back in Gardnerville and Minden with Kingsbury Grade in sight. The easiest way to get back to Lake Tahoe from here is to drive through Gardnerville and Minden until you reach the intersection with Highway 88. Take a left on Highway 88 and then look for the SR 207 turnoff on your right a few miles down. Follow SR 207 all the way over Kingsbury Grade to South Lake Tahoe.
After a Long Lunch
By now I'm usually read to go back to work... but you're probably on vacation, so you may be tempted to keep riding. Why not? There are plenty more to do!