Take a look at this short video about the fellow who has been the Ostrander Lake hutkeeper for something like 35 back-country winters in Yosemite.
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.
Earlier this week I spent a few days in the Ten Lakes Basin area of Yosemite National Park. Although I’ve backpacked widely in the high country of the park over the past years – OK, decades… – this was actually the very first time that I visited this popular backpacking destination. I think I had shied away from it for a couple reasons: it seems perhaps too popular and accessible, and I tend to prefer somewhat higher and more alpine terrain. But it was time, I visited, and I’m glad I did.
I managed to get to the park fairly early on a Monday morning and pick up a wilderness permit without problems. (Congratulations to ranger “Elizabeth” who issued her very first Yosemite wilderness permit to me… ;-) It was less difficult to get the permit than it might be under different circumstances: school has started for many and the midweek backcountry “traffic” begins to decline near the end of August. Although I had permit in hand by 9:00 a.m. or so, for a variety of reasons I did not hit the trail until about 1:30.
Although I carry a map and can do a fine job of finding my way around in the mountains with or without a trail, these days I sometimes don’t obsess over “knowing everything” (as if that were even possible!) about the route ahead of time. That was the case on this trip. I was familiar with the trailhead, having driving past it many times, and I had often looked up the valley into which it goes. But beyond that I initially had almost no idea of the actual terrain – in fact, I had long be under the mistaken impression that the Basin is on the south side of the ridge. Wrong.
Before I actually hit the trail I did consult the map more carefully and discover that the lakes are actually on the other side of the ridge… and a few hundred feet below the high point of the trail on a ridge that divides Mariposa and Tuolumne counties. I was starting to catch on that there might be a bit more climbing on this trip than I had really imagined – I sort of intentionally did not measure the climb… which turned out to be about 2000 feet. Now a 2000 foot climb is not a giant one, especially compared to some of 3000′ to 5000′ that I’ve done in the southern Sierra – but neither is it exactly a happy little afternoon walk. In the end, what with stops for photography and food and water along the way, it was close to 7:00 p.m. by the time I arrived at my campsite at “lake three,” the lake to the left of the trail when it arrives in the Basin. I basically set up camp, fixed dinner, did a bit of reading, and went to sleep.
Day 2 was fairly lazy. I did not get up early, so I missed some possible early morning photo opportunities, though I used the better part of the rest of the morning to scout out shooting locations for later. In the afternoon I wandered on up to the next lake and did a bit of photography, especially on the way back down when shadows from the cliff to the west were starting to create some interesting lighting conditions. I also visited the main lake (“lake two”) and found a couple scenes that I returned to photograph later in the evening.
By the end of this second day I was thinking more about the tremendous panorama I had seen as I crossed the high ridge above the lake on the way in. I was stunned by the wide open views, especially toward the peaks of the Sierra crest from Dana and Gibb past Conness to other high peaks far to the north, all set off against the rock-strewn summit of the ridge, tree covered ridges below, and below all of that the depths of the Tuolumne River canyon. I started to make a plan to do a “dry camp” on the ridge on the next night and try to photograph the evening and then the following morning.
On the third day I still had this plan in mind in the morning. But first I did more photography around lake three, including near the outlet stream where I had found some still-fresh vegetation and flowers. (By this time much of the summer plant life is starting to show signs of going dormant. Many flowers have blossomed and gone to seed and some very early hints of fall color are already starting to appear.) After this I decided to explore further up this creek and by a combination of use trails and cross-country scrambling I managed to get up to lake five. I returned to my camp by about 2:00 – hungry for lunch! – and soon packed up with the plan of doing that “dry camp” on the ridge for the photography.
Late in the afternoon I started up the trail and I reached the ridge by about 4:45 or so – but I was somewhat disappointed to find that a very large wildfire was burning to the west and sending quite a bit of smoke my way, and also generally adding a lot of brown haze to the scene that had been so clear two days earlier. I poked around a bit and found a potential camp spot for my bivy sack in a clump of trees on the ridge, but in the end I decided that the photographs I had in mind just weren’t going to happen in these conditions – and I decided to head out and drive home that night. (One often doesn’t know for sure whether such decisions are right or not – but I think this was the right decision given that the fire continued – continues, as I write this – to grow and shortly forced a closure of the Big Oak Flat road into the valley.)
So, at about 6:00 p.m. I started down from the ridge, having resolved to make a beeline for the trailhead. Most of the trail is conducive to fast downhill walking, with the exception of a few steep and rocky sections near the beginning and end of the descent, and I made good time. I arrived at my car before 8:00 p.m. – still enough light to see well, but fading fast – and was soon on the road back to the Bay Area.
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.)
I escaped the worst of the awful smoke that covers vast portions of California this week by spending some time at near 10,000′ in the Yosemite backcountry. The smoke affected the views even that high, but it was much worse at lower elevations – as I discovered on my drive home last night.
California Wildfire Smoke and Yosemite Forest. Tioga Road, Yosemite National Park, California. July 10, 2008. © Copyright G Dan Mitchell – all rights reserved.
And it only got worse as I continued my descent into the Central Valley. At one point it was so awful that – for the first time in my experience – the smoky pall actually made the sun disappear.
Edie Howe’s Little Red Tent blog, that is. Edie lives in Yosemite Valley and often posts her photographs at her site and elsewhere. Recently she did the Four Mile Trail (from the Valley to Glacier Point) and she has posted a sequence of photographs from the hike. For everyone who wondered whether the smoke from California wild fires has gotten into the Valley, here is a partial answer.
(Another way to check on this is to look at the Yosemite Web Cam page, which hosts links to four web in and near Yosemite Valley and one at Tioga Pass. When I looked this morning the smoke was visible in the Valley but not as bad as it was a few days ago, but there is also a big smoke cloud to the west.)
Correction: I just saw that the road did not open today… It will apparently open on WEDNESDAY. Sorry!
Just a few days late for me – I was up that way late last week – Tioga Pass
has opened will open this Wednesday, at least according to a story in the West Coast Imaging Blog. Let the fun begin! :-)
I discovered something interesting last weekend. I thought that the road, while open for administrative traffic ahead of time, was simply closed to other traffic until the entire thing opened. I was surprised to see a sign about a mile up 120 from the turn off in the park late last week stating “Road Closed 19 Miles Ahead.” I guess it may partially open a bit earlier than the full opening.
BTW, I got a real kick out of the tags at the end of the West Coast Imaging Blog post: Fish Tacos, Lee Vining, tioga pass, Tuolumne Meadows. Anyone who travels over the pass to the east side a lot – as I do – very much understands the reasoning behind the first tag. :-)
Up at 3:00 a.m. and on the road yesterday morning with Yosemite Valley my goal. Photographed the usual spring subjects: wateralls, creeks, park visitors, new spring growth in the valleys and forests, and a sunset – this one at Glacier Point. (Oh, I made it home just before 1:00 a.m.)
Vernal and Nevada Falls, Alpenglow on Mt. Clark. Yosemite National Park, California. May 16, 2008. © Copyright G Dan Mitchell – all rights reserved.
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