At a gas station near the entrance of a national park, almost everyone is just passing through. It’s dawn in the Eastern Sierra. Tioga Pass, the alpine route that travels from Lee Vining into Yosemite, has opened for the season after months of snow clearing. Travelers stop at Tioga Gas Mart to fuel up, buy hiking guidebooks, and eat ham and cheese croissants while gazing over the blue expanse of Mono Lake. It feels remote in a way — the last stop at a gas station before heading into the wilderness of a national park often does. You fill your arms with essentials, send a few texts while you still have service, gas up the car. Who knows when you’ll find civilization again.
In that sense, Tioga Gas Mart should be like other gas stations in touristy areas: a brief stop on the way to somewhere more interesting. And yet it’s the kind of place where people linger, even during the pandemic: With outdoor seating and a location far from the locked-down city, other than masks and increased social distancing, business remains as usual.
Tioga Gas Mart, also known as the Mobil, opened in 1997 as a gas station and deli in Lee Vining, a Yosemite gateway community with a high elevation and a low population. Denise Molnar, who manages Tioga, remembers building the store’s shelving with her sister. The family had no grand plans for what would ultimately become the main attraction, the Whoa Nellie Deli. They served sandwiches at first, but then, as Molnar puts it, they decided, “We might as well serve good food if we’re going to serve food.”
From there, the deli evolved into what it is today: a culinary gem steps away from the gas pump, open in the months when snow is scarce in the area. In the morning, there’s steak and eggs, pancakes, and omelets. The afternoon and evening menu, however, is what really put it on the map. The beer-battered mahi-mahi tacos — one topped with mango salsa, another with ginger coleslaw — are the sustenance hikers dream of when they’re in the backcountry. The ahi sashimi on seaweed salad is what one Yosemite employee referred to as “the only ahi tuna I would eat without being able to see the ocean.”
The wild buffalo meatloaf with port wine au jus and garlic mashed potatoes gives meaning to the phrase “sticks to your ribs.” There’s also pizza, burgers, hot dogs, french fries — in other words, anything you might be craving after days of nothing but trail mix. There’s even a full bar (the mango margarita is especially popular) with cocktails, wine, and beer from local breweries including June Lake Brewing and Mountain Rambler Brewery.
In addition to serving as a restaurant, bar, and gas station, Tioga Gas Mart has also become a de facto Yosemite information station. “We probably get more questions than the visitor center,” says Molnar. “People come from all over the world to see Yosemite. We get to tell them how to enjoy it at the beginning of the day, and at the end, they come back and say ‘Oh, thanks, that was such a great hike.’”
They also come back for live music. On a typical summer night, musicians play banjos on the lawn outside. People dance in the grass. Yosemite employees, who might otherwise work a whole season at separate locations in the park without meeting, come together. For these wilderness-bound locals who don’t always have access to cell service, making plans to hike together often involves the phrase, “Let’s meet at the Mobil.”
Bethany Kindiger, who has worked 11 years in Yosemite, remembers the summer Tioga Gas Mart transformed from gathering space to temporary home. It was 2013, and the Rim Fire, which would ultimately burn 257,314 acres, had just begun blazing in the mountains. Kindiger was working as a guide at the Evergreen Lodge when she found out that she and her fellow employees had 15 minutes to gather their belongings and evacuate.
“We ended up at the Whoa Nellie Deli,” Kindiger says. “A band was playing. It was smoky, but we were all there. We were all fine. The owners let us stay in the parking lot for the night. During that fire, we were displaced for weeks. We encountered people who were very giving and people who wanted us to pay to stay at their RV parks and such. But the Whoa Nellie Deli saw this large group of disheveled people who were stranded, and they stepped forward.”
Jarod Azzarito, another seasonal employee and Tioga Gas Mart devotee, recalls a summer night when he stopped there to fill his tank. While using the gas station microwave to heat up a stale bagel from his backpack, he ran into a Yosemite employee whom he’d worked a ski resort gig with in Colorado. They drank boxed wine, mingled inside the gas station with locals who were “barefoot and on a mission to get more booze,” crowd-surfed as the band played Grateful Dead covers, and ended up camping beside hot springs. The night left him stunned by the magic of the Tioga Gas Mart.
“I recall looking around dumbfounded at where I was,” Azzarito says. “Was this a concert venue? A bar? A fine dining restaurant?”
While the Tioga Gas Mart and the Whoa Nellie Deli inside have evolved into all of the above, Denise Molnar doesn’t see things changing any further. “The menu has been the same for a while now,” she says. “We can’t get rid of anything because people will know. We have a lot of repeat customers, people who have been going to the Eastern Sierras for years with their parents and now they have families and they’re taking their kids.”
The humble gas station her family opened in the ’90s has achieved something of a cult following. “I’ll be down in Baja and people will be like, ‘Oh, you’re from the Mobil,’” Molnar says.
If you’ve never been to the Tioga Gas Mart, you might not realize how common it is to see one of its souvenir T-shirts. They show up far from Yosemite and have become an inside reference among those who speak fondly of starry nights outside the gas station — a cold IPA in hand and a view of granite cliffs. Molnar even once saw someone wearing one at an airport in New York. “We see them everywhere we go,” she says.
Tioga Gas Mart is open year-round, but the Whoa Nellie Deli operates seasonally, depending on how quickly the snow is removed from Tioga Pass. Once the road is clear, the Whoa Nellie Deli brings in about 35 seasonal employees, most of whom live in on-site housing for the summer (another thing you won’t find at your average gas station). Sometimes the pass opens as early as April, sometimes as late as July. In any case, it marks an awakening for locals and a pilgrimage for travelers.
Or to put it simply, as Bethany Kindiger does when she talks about that first trip of the season across Tioga Pass for fish tacos, “It’s like Christmas.”