One of the most magical rides in California can be taken on the 206-mile long Highway 120 that runs from Manteca in the west to Benton in the east.
It starts at Interstate 5 — the only north-south interstate that runs from Canada to Mexico on the West Coast — and ends at US Highway 6 also known as the Grand Highway of the Republic, the longest continuous highway (non-interstate) in the country.
Summer and early fall are the best time to take a road trip on Highway 120. That’s because often as early as November to as late as Memorial Day large segments of the highway are closed. The Tioga Pass portion that runs from Crane Flat to Lee Vining and Highway 395 plus the Mono Basin segment between Lee Vining and a point just west of Benton is closed during the winter due to snow.
Manteca, for the record, is the largest city on Highway 120.
Along the route from the Great Valley to the Great Basin you will find:
* The world’s largest stand of sweet smelling Jeffrey Pines.
* The highest paved highway in California at 9,945 feet at Tioga Pass.
* Hiking trail heads to two stands of giant sequoias (the tallest living things on earth) — the Merced Grove and Tuolumne Grove.
* Yosemite National Park and all the grandeur of the high country including Tuolumne Meadows.
* The unique ecological system of Mono Lake with its eerie limestone fed tufa towers.
* Groveland, one of the oldest and largest Gold Rush era towns still plugging along.
* The stunning Tioga Canyon.
* The trailhead to the easiest accessible 13,000-foot plus mountain hike in California.
* The largest covered wooden bridge west of the Mississippi River.
* The oldest continuous operating general store in California.
* The Cowboy Capital of the World complete with the boarding station for the Sierra Railroad dinner train that ran on rails used to film a long list of movies, TV shows and commercials including “Back to the Future”, “Petticoat Junction” and “Little House on the Prairie”.
* A unique campground with hot tubs filled with hot springs water.
And that’s just for starters.
Manteca has biggest draw along the 120
Most folks in the 209 think of Highway 120 and the 120 Bypass comes to mind — an often crowded four-lane connector between Highway 99 and Interstate 5 popular with Bay Area commuters as well as Bay Area residents fleeing to the Sierra on weekends.
But it is much more than that. Just ask the camera-toting tourists that gawk at the inside of Bass Pro Shops in Manteca. Some 3.75 million people walk through the massive pseudo drive-thru redwood that graces the lobby of the store at the 120 Bypass and Union Road. And while Manteca residents might do a “so what”, the Bass Pro Shops is the biggest visitor attraction that lures traffic to the 120 corridor save for Yosemite National Park although a slightly larger share of the 4 million annual visitors access Yosemite from Highway 41 and Highway 140.
Leaving Manteca and heading east on the 120 you will run across the largest number of large fruit stands on a Central Valley-Sierra highway — seven — over 14 miles between Manteca and a point just east of Escalon. The Nature’s Country Corner fruit stand at Jack Tone Road stand is famous for its fresh baked fruit pies.
Residents of the 209 may not realize it but tourists from around the world marvel at the fresh produce that come from the fields and orchards that Highway 120 passes through.
Oakdale has an interesting cowboy museum just down the street from the Sierra Railroad passenger station. The museum (oakdalecowboymusuem.org) is open Wednesday through Saturday 10 am to 3 p.m. and is closed Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday. It is located in an old railroad station.
Oldest operating general store in California
East of Oakdale a quick side trip takes you to Knights Ferry.
It is here where you can walk among the ruins of California’s first hydroelectric plant, walk across the longest covered wood bridge west of the Mississippi and buy a cold ice cream bar from the Knights Ferry General Store complete with old-style wooden plank floor complete with gaps that has been filling orders since it opened in 1852.
This is where Sunshine Rafting (www.raftadventure.com) operates rafting trips (more like float trips) as flows on the Stanislaus River are much more dependable there all the way down to Orange Blossom.
The route to Yosemite’s northern entrances takes you through Chinese Camp (the site of the famous 19th century tong wars), the northern arm of Don Pedro Reservoir, Groveland, and endless access roads to campgrounds and rivers. You can also see the massive destruction of the Rim Fire of 2013, the fifth largest ever in modern California history. It can be taken in with all its starkness at the Rim of the World vista point just east of Buck Meadows.
120 runs through Yosemite high country
Highway 120 takes you by the trailheads for two of Yosemite’s three redwood tree groves — Merced and Tuolumne. Each require fairly easy two to three mile hikes from the highway and are within distance of services at Crane Flat.
Highway 120 morphs into Tioga Pass Road as it runs through the Yosemite high country. It passes along the edge of Tenaya Lake, considered the best lake for swimming in Yosemite. There are picnic and camping areas around the lake plus an easy hiking trail that loops.
For the more adventurous Tenaya Lake is also at the trailhead to reach Cloud’s Rest that looms above Half Dome and stands guard some 4,000 feet above Yosemite Valley’s northwest corner. It is a strenuous day hike but worth the effort.
Further up near Tioga Pass is Tuolumne Meadows. It is the jumping off point for numerous multi-day hikes in the high country but it also has a slew of day hikes that aren’t exhausting at all allowing you to take in the expansive meadows and surrounding peaks.
At Tioga Pass (9,943 feet) itself, you are 2.9 miles from Mt. Dana’s summit at 13,061 feet. It’s a strenuous half day hike. It is also the most accessible 13,000-plus peak in California. While the trail is not maintained it is extremely obvious as it is well marked by cairns. Among trail accessed peaks it has the best commanding views of the Sierra topped only by the segment of the Pacific Crest Trail that starts on the southern side of Highway 108 at Sonora Pass. It also offers stunning views of Mono Lake, the White Mountains, and the Great Basin.
Just outside Yosemite Park’s eastern entrance is the rustic mountain Tioga Pass Resort & Cafe (www.tiogapassresort.com) that is expected to reopen next year after being damaged by snow in 2018. It serves as a great base to access the various Tioga Pass area lakes and trails or to reach points in the Yosemite high country around Tuolumne Meadows.
Mono Lake and its tufa towers
Dropping down from lofty Tioga Pass at 9,943 feet you swing by several alpine lakes and then start the descent down the Tioga Canyon to Lee Vining. It is here, just off Highway 395 heading west that you will find the farthest sign advising motorists they are driving toward Manteca. It is 160 miles from Manteca.
Lee Vining is just above Mono Lake. The lake itself is an amazing sight with its towering limestone towers exposed over the past 60 years once Los Angeles started diverting water from creeks that flow into the lake to try and satisfy their unquenchable thirst.
There’s a state-run visitors center just north of Lee Vining although it’s arguably the Mono Lake Committee visitors’ center and bookstore that offers much more information on Mono Lake, water politics, and the geology and nature of the Eastern Sierra.
Normally you can also book kayaking trips through the committee (monolake.org) to get an up close look at the unique ecological system but they have been suspended during 2021 due to the pandemic. The lake itself is significantly saltier than the ocean. The best tufa tower area to visit is on the south shore complete with an easy and well-marked hiking trail. There is a great old-fashioned frostie drive-in dubbed the Mono Cone that serves incredibly great milkshakes, burgers and even veggie burgers.
Highway 120 swings south and follows Highway 395 a bit until swinging to the east and ultimately ending in Benton. On the way, you will pass the world’s largest stand of Jeffrey Pines that soar up to 135 feet. Get close to a Jeffrey pine tree and sniff its bark and you will catch a distinct smell of butterscotch although some say it is vanilla or even pineapple.
Benton is a rarity among Gold Rush boom towns. It was founded in 1852 with the discovery of gold swelling the population almost overnight to 5,000 before silver replaced gold as the mainstay. And while more famous mining towns such as nearby Bodie — California’s largest Gold Rush ghost town that is kept in state of arrested decay — were eventually abandoned, Benton has hung on although its population is just several dozen today.
Highway 120 offers one-of-a-kind campgrounds
Just near the end of Highway 120 where it intersects with Highway 6 in Benton, you will find one of the world’s most unusual campgrounds and it’s just off the asphalt ribbon that started 200 miles to the west in Manteca.
Benton Hot Springs Campgrounds offers 11 private campgrounds each complete with a hot tub fed from the hot springs. Four camp sites have hot tubs that can accommodate up to three people while the remainder can handle up to 10.
The campground (www.bentonhotsprings.com) offers stunning views of the sunset over the White Mountains. There are hourly as well as nightly rates.
Prices start at between $70 and $80 for overnight stays.
For those not into camping nearby Benton Hot Springs Inn has seven rooms in an historic 1940s era building, also featuring hot tubs fed with the hot springs water.