On a spontaneous whim, we decided to drive from Las Vegas to San Francisco instead of fly. B had read that there was still snow in Yosemite and thought it would be nice to surprise the kids with their first snow sighting. We broke our trip in Mammoth Lakes after 5 and a half hours. The next morning, we continued on to the Bay Area, which was another 5 hours away through Yosemite National Park.
Tioga Pass is the road that cuts through Yosemite National Park
When the innkeeper at Mammoth Lakes learned we were continuing on to San Francisco, she said she heard Tioga Pass was closed, and to expect a long drive ahead. Tioga Pass cuts through Yosemite National Park and is the quickest way to get from Las Vegas to the Bay Area.
If the Pass was closed, we'd have to drive up north and pass another highway, and if that was also closed, we'd have to go even farther north and go through Lake Tahoe. That route would add 3 hours more to our already long drive. I'm usually very good at planning trips in detail, but I didn't bother for this particular road trip. I had general directions in my iPhone anyway, and how complicated could it be to just drive west?
It turns out Tioga Pass is only passable from May to November each year. People who plan a drive through the park during this time of the year monitor the weather very closely because sudden storms prompt the park authorities to close the road. Did we even know that? Of course not--we were being spontaneous, remember? This was mid-May, and it seemed like a beautiful clear day. But inside Yosemite National Park, a mini snowstorm was developing.
At a place called Lee Vining, right before turning left into Tioga Pass, a highway sign confirmed that the Pass was closed. There was nothing else in sight except for a Mobil gas station on the corner, and the picturesque Mono Lake across from it. We decided to stop at the Mobil mini-mart to ask about possible re-routing options.
We walked into a lot of excitement at the mini-mart. "You guys are sooo lucky--they just opened the Pass five minutes ago," the man at the counter greeted us.
With a sigh of relief we decided to take it easy, look around and maybe grab some lunch before driving on.
Just as I was about to order, B, who had just come from the restroom, said he wanted to order the World Famous Fish Tacos. Huh? Well, okay, he must be hungry. I'll just order something the kids can share too, like the St. Louis Style Baby Back Ribs for $18.95. I wasn't really hungry so I didn't order anything for myself.
We walked over to the dining area near the glass windows facing Mono Lake. On the way there, I admired the watercolors of Yosemite on the walls. I particularly liked this one below except that it was a print and not an original watercolor.
Then our food came. Gasp! When did mini-mart food look like this?
This was the "famous fish tacos" dish that came with a side of mango salsa and refried black beans. I was surprised at how delicious this was, the flavors and textures familiar at the same time, unusual.
The kids attacked the ribs, which were meaty and falling-off-the-bone tender. G loved the potato salad and wanted to order another serving. C enjoyed the "stringy stuff" and in between mouthfuls, kept asking me what it was (she eventually went back to the kitchen and found out it was spaghetti squash). We enjoyed every bite and licked both platters clean.
Maybe I'm being too gushy here, but remember we were in a gas station in the middle of a vast expanse of nature with no other establishment in sight. I really didn't expect this type of food.
It was only when I kept saying I couldn't believe how good the food was that B casually said, "yes, this place is supposed to be quite famous for the food, that's why I wanted to try it." Whaaaat?! He knew? We should've ordered one dish each, if only to try as many dishes as we could!
A number of framed articles dating back to the early 2000's fill the hallway walls at the back of the store, and B had read them on his way to and from the restroom. People who know about the "Mobil gas station mini-mart", which is really named "Whoa Nellie Deli", make the effort to drive an hour or two from their "nearby" homes to get here. Others who make the cross-state drive regularly also make it a point to stop here for their gourmet fix, and tourists who do some research will be on the lookout for it.
But for us, discovering it was pure serendipity.
We were all happy after this delightful surprise of a meal and we were ready for the upcoming five-hour drive to the Bay Area. I don't think we'll ever find ourselves on this route again, so I'm glad that the food gods lead us here. I'm also thankful that B had to use the restroom.
The Mobil minimart looks over Mono lake
Our luck continued. Tioga Pass was passable and we made our way through Yosemite in the mild snowstorm without a hitch. The park was covered with newly-fallen snow, thrilling the kids to no end. Our road trip was full of exciting surprises that if I were not one of the two-person non-planning committee, I would've thought that this road trip was planned with much effort and thorough research.
P.O. Box 253 or 22 Vista Point Road
Lee Vining, CA. 93541