Although the Tunnel View is spectacular, its not the best view of Yosemite Valley from Highway 41. The best view from Highway 41 is hidden away from the crowds at the Tunnel View, and it is the Wawona Tunnel Emergency Access view. I discovered this spot when I was working for the National Park Service one summer. One night after work, I headed up to the Wawona Tunnel to watch the light play over the rocks of the valley as the sun set. I had driven through it plenty of times, but I was curious about the side tunnels I had seen in it. I drove up, parked at the Tunnel Overlook, and walked in to the Wawona Tunnel without any hesitation.
From the Tunnel Overlook, I walked through the Wawona Tunnel to the other end on the raised sidewalk. I checked out the solid walls of the tunnel, and marveled at the work that it must have taken to excavate all four thousand feet of rock. On my way back, it was time to do some exploring. I came upon the nearest side tunnel to the Tunnel Overlook, and peered in. The lights from the actual tunnel penetrated about five feet into the side tunnel, and then disappeared into actual darkness.
Since I was young and fearless, I strode into the side tunnel (after first turning on my trusty headlamp), and started walking. After about a quarter mile, the main tunnel was nothing but a dimly lit halogen spot behind me. The floor of the tunnel was (and remains) uneven, the walls were roughly hewn, and the ceiling seemed just inches away from my head. Despite all of these things, I was having a blast. It was easy to imagine that I was heading to the center of the earth, or was going to come out in a secret spot of the park that only I and John Muir knew about. After a while, I came to the end and found it partially blocked by a steel fence with a door-like opening. Out on the other side there was a small clearing to stand before a steep drop-off. The view from the spot was spectacular, as it was a calm, unobstructed and secret replica of the Tunnel View, not even a mile away.
After I watched the stars for a while, I wandered back down the tunnel and realized that it must have been cut for ventilation or perhaps runoff flow or emergency access to the Wawona Tunnel. These practical thoughts about the purpose of the side tunnel didn’t ruin my enthusiasm for the spot I found, and I’ve returned several times over the years to hike the tunnel, and to enjoy a quiet moment of serenity while watching the valley.
Directions: if you fancy a walk away from the Tunnel View crowds, and you’re willing to take a bit of a risk, and proceed with a little caution, leave your car at the Tunnel Viewpoint , and walk up the Tunnel no more than a quarter mile on the sidewalk. The side tunnel which I have been discussing here is the first entrance on the right (East) from the Wawona Tunnel, and is no more than a half mile either direction, and is probably more in the range of a quarter mile. Take a flashlight or a headlamp, and enjoy the view at the end just like John Muir.
DISCLAIMER: This is not an actual trail, nor hike. I’m not sure what official NPS policy would be should they find you traversing the tunnel on foot, or coming and going from what I like to call “Highway 41 Emergency Access”. Moreover, traffic in the Wawona Tunnel can be unpredictable, so watch yourself despite the “sidewalk” that is in the main tunnel. Finally, the side tunnel could have bats, large bugs, or other animals, and there is that steep drop off at the end. Proceed with caution should you go, and be prepared for these risks.