California State Route 120 begins at the San Joaquin River. It behaves like many other roads in the Great Valley as it makes a bee-line eastward through Manteca and Oakdale toward the foothills of the Sierra Nevada. It holds hands briefly with Highway 108, then strikes off on its own just past the Red Hills. It begins to assert its true montane personality with a steep and twisty ascent up the Priest Grade to Big Oak Flat, then settles into a steady rise and fall, crossing valleys and ridges all the way into Yosemite. Turning east at Crane Flat, it climbs into the Yosemite high country, providing some of the greatest road-side views in America. It crosses Tioga Pass at nearly 10,000 feet and descends dramatically into Lee Vining, overlooking Mono Lake.
Looking east from SR 120 at Olmsted Point
This is the Highway 120 most people know — from the edge of the Delta in the middle of California, through the Yosemite high country, to the edge of Mono Lake on the east side of the Sierra.
But SR 120 isn’t finished yet. It hitches a ride south on US 395 for a few miles, then takes off east again through another 45 miles of high desert, all the way to Benton, in the morning shadows of peaks on the California-Nevada state line. This secluded eastern end of the road passes through the youngest volcanic cones in North America, the largest contiguous stand of Pinus jeffreyi anywhere, and one of the loneliest valleys in eastern California. I’m quite fond of this road.
Looking back toward Yosemite from SR 120, between Mono Craters and Mono Lake
Adobe Valley and the north end of the White Mountains
Black Lake and the Benton Range, just west of Benton Hot Springs
Tim Messick Photography • Graphics
Copyright © 2011 Tim Messick. All rights reserved.