When I heard that a) the Merced River was about to reach its peak flow and b) Tioga Pass Road was scheduled to open on June 5 I quickly put together a one-day quick trip to Yosemite last weekend. This is a bit of a tradition for me – to get up there for at least a quick look at the spring waterfalls and to try to get over the pass as soon as possible after it opens.
For a one-day up-and-back trip (amounting to a bit more than 20 hours on the road, all told) I have to start early. So, long before dawn I was up and in the car and on the road in the dark. The sun comes up – duh! – a lot earlier this time of year, so it was getting light by the time I stopped in Oakdale for a quick on-the-run Starbucks breakfast and got right back on the road. In order to arrive in the Valley by sunrise I would have had to be driving by 2:00 a.m., and that didn’t happen, but I did arrive relatively early and before the really big crowds were out and about. I spent a few minutes at my favorite first view on El Cap and Half Dome along the road just past the turnoff to Foresta and then headed down into the Valley to make my traditional first stop for a thorough drenching under Bridalveil Fall.
I spent a bit more time in the Valley before realizing that the crowds were growing way beyond my comfort level. I don’t blame folks for flocking to the Valley for a scene like this: all of the waterfall in full flow, the sound of falling water everywhere, seasonal falls that aren’t usually seen, new green growth everywhere, flooded meadows, and a warm and clear spring day. But since I can come back on less crowded days, I decided that the drive over Tuolumne would be at least as special and much less crowded.
As I started up 120 I soon saw significant amounts of snow, and by the time the road rose to 8000′ of so the snowpack was pretty continuous. The higher peaks appeared to be in full winter mode still, and I was surprised to see lakes like little Siesta Lake completely frozen over. I’ve been over Tioga before soon after the road opened, but the amount of snow remaining from the cold and wet May and the generally wet winter was quite impressive. Tuolumne Meadows itself was completely covered with snow, excepting the large areas flooded by the surging Tuolumne River. (The entire meadow area just upstream from the bridge by the campground entrance was completely flooded and there were only a few inches between the rushing water and the underside of the bridge.
I continued on up to the pass with a goal of grabbing an early dinner at the Whoa Nelly Deli in Lee Vining. At the pass there were still several feet of snow with plow cuts being five to six feet tall in places. Tioga and Ellery Lakes were almost completely frozen over, and quite a few people were still going back-country skiing in the area. After stopping for dinner in Lee Vining (and grabbing a quick espresso at Latte Da) I headed back up the pass to shoot late afternoon and evening light before heading home.
I made this photograph at Tioga Lake as afternoon shadows from clouds and nearby peaks stretched across the frozen lake surface with Tioga Pass and Kuna Crest looming beyond. (Photograph © Copyright G Dan Mitchell – all rights reserved.)
According to a post at Yosemite blog, the weather service is forecasting that high levels of spring runoff water in the Merced River may cause some flooding in Yosemite Valley this weekend. Before you panic, a bit of flooding in wet years is a normal thing and is part of the natural life cycle of meadows there. And, if you are a photographer, this can provide some very special photographic opportunities.
I’m just passing this along as an as-yet-unconfirmed rumor, but I’ve heard that Tioga Pass Road may open this weekend. Expect that many areas will still have a lot of snow and/or be quite wet, especially up high. Also, don’t expect any services or campgrounds to be open along the road in the park.
I just checked the California Mountain Hiways page at Caltrans and it looks like Ebbetts Pass and Sonora Pass may now be open – do check directly before driving up there, but I’m optimistic. The opening of these two passes is often an indication that the opening of Tioga Pass Road may be about a week away. Fingers crossed…
The most recent update at the Yosemite National Park web site confirms what many suspected, namely that Glacier Point Road will likely be available over the upcoming holiday weekend but that Tioga Pass will not open quite yet.
Glacier Point Road:
The Glacier Point Road will open on Friday, May 28 at noon, conditions permitting. Expect 30-minute delays between Chinquapin and Badger Pass Sunday night through Friday afternoon (except Memorial Day).
The Tioga Road will not be open for Memorial Day weekend; there is no estimated opening date.
Plows have reached Tioga Pass and will now be working on widening the road. Plowing continues Monday – Saturday. Average Snow Depth is 4 to 6 feet. Plowing operation will continue today.
As I have mentioned before, this has been an unusually cold and wet May. Just this morning I heard that chain requirements were up on Interstate 80 over Donner Summit. As of today, Ebbetts, Sonora, and Monitor Passes are reportedly still closed. You can be pretty certain that Tioga won’t open before them, though it frequently opens perhaps a week or so after they open.
During a typical May we would be making our first drives over Tioga Pass and wondering if there might be enough snow left to keep Mammoth open until July 4th. The past two years were more typical and even drier/warmer than usual. However, this year is shaping up to be unusual. The overall precipitation for the season was (yes!) above normal – which is especially welcome after a few years of below normal precip. On top of that this has been a very cool and wet spring. During a typical May it usually feels more like early summer in the Sierra, but this year it has been more like an extended winter. The storm fronts have continued to pass through and even now in the latter part of May there is a string of cold, wet storms lined up to pass across the Sierra.
So, when will Tioga Pass Road open? I don’t have any inside information but I do know the history (average historical opening date is May 29) and I follow the current reports at the NPS and elsewhere. The road was reportedly plowed through recently, but this does not mean that it is yet ready to open. There is always a lot of additional work to take care of including clearing side roads and parking areas, patching road damage, and so forth. My hunch is that the NPS would like to get it open for Memorial Day Weekend in another week, but that this may be a challenge this year – especially if the forecast of another cold week with the possibility of snow pans out.
While the delay in “opening the high country” can frustrate some of us who want to get up there early, there are compensations. When the road does open, it is likely that we’ll see a lot of snow still in the high country – not like a few previous years when it seemed all too much like summer all too quickly. Even better, the heavy snow fall and late melt promises a long, green summer season and tons of wildflowers. (OK, and tons of mosquitoes, too – but let’s try not to think about that, OK?)
There is a progress report from Yosemite National Park covering the prospective opening date for the Glacier Point Road and progress on clearing Tioga Pass Road:
Tioga Road Plowing Update for April 20:
Start: Crane Flat
End: 7 miles past Crane Flat (just beyond South Fork bridge)
Miles plowed today: 7 miles
Average snow depth: 4 feet
The Glacier Point Road tentatively may open on Friday, May 1, conditions permitting.
The Mariposa Grove Road tentatively may open on Friday, April 17, conditions permitting.
I love to engage in the sport of predicting when Tioga Pass Road might actually open. I don’t have the sources that some people have so I really have to guess. My guess is sometime around the middle of May if conditions stay more or less on track. Sometime close to that date I hope to enjoy fish tacos in Lee Vining while overlooking Mono Lake, and perhaps stop at Latte Da for an espresso afterwards. (You can view a historical record of opening dates online.)
Looks like snow is what we may get in the Sierra this weekend. While it isn’t unusual to get a few dustings in late September and the beginning of October, this storm looks a bit more robust that usual.
If all goes as planned, I may be able to offer a first-person report early next week.
The autumn color season in the Sierra Nevada should start very soon. Actually, if you count – as I do – the dry grasses and the high elevation ground plants going dormant, it has already begun. But the real show is the turning of the aspens, mostly in the eastern Sierra, starting around the very end of September and likely peaking during the first week of the month. If conditions are right, it can last as long as the middle of October, but earlier is always better.
Several web sites have posted fall color guides in the past, and since timing is so critical it is a good idea to follow the as the time approaches. One site that is new to me is a US government site that reports on fall colors nationwide. Another that I’ve often followed in the past is the California Fall Color site, though it doesn’t (yet) appear to be active. In addition, I’ll summarize what I know and what I hear about Sierra fall color once the curtain begins to rise on this year’s show.
From a West Coast Imaging blog report:
Tuolumne Gas Station Closed For Upgrades Beginning Monday, 9/8, the Tuolumne Gas Station will be temporarily closed for vapor recovery and dispenser upgrades. Fuel will not be available from 9/8 until 9/29. The sport shop will remain open for business and propane will still be available through 9/21, daily from 9 AM to 5 PM. Fuel is still available at Crane Flat Station 24 hrs/day. (NPS Press Release)
I virtually never buy gas there anyway, but this is good to keep in mind if you aren’t one to watch the gas gauge carefully. Since I most often come in from the west side I usually tank up in Oakdale or possibly near Groveland on the way up – prices are a lot lower there than inside the park. If I’m coming up from the east side I usually try to get gas in Bishop – again, considerably lower prices here – or possibly Mammoth if I have a reason to go up there.
The gas prices in Lee Vining are notoriously high – generally among the very worst prices in the eastern Sierra – so I avoid purchasing gas there if at all possible. (Though a stop at the Mobil station at the junction of Tioga Pass Road and Highway 395 is worth it for the food. Really. Get the fish tacos. That’s all I’ll say.)
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