Last weekend I decided to do one of my favorite Tuolumne Meadows area hikes – the Mono Pass trail. This trail starts below Tioga Pass, just inside the park, and goes out the Sierra crest near Mount Gibb, passing through forest and beautiful alpine meadows on the way.
As I loaded up my pack – filling with a lot of photography equipment – it was a beautiful, clear morning. The previous day I had hiked out toward North Dome and carried what turned out to be too much extra clothing. Since I usually tend to over-prepare for the weather, and was perhaps more aware of this than usual having done so only 24 hours earlier, I decided to just take what I was wearing. That’s right, no rain gear.
Is there a better way to ensure that it will rain?
About an hour into the hike, near the junction with the trail to Spillway Lake, I was pleased to see some white, fluffy clouds appear – they relieved the uniform blue sky and occasionally produced a welcome bit of shade. I began to consider how I would incorporate them in photographs near the pass.
I reached the area of the pass at about 1:00 and wandered over to the historic mine site that sits on the pass. (I had visited the mine remnants before, but this time I found out a bit more about it. The site is older than I had thought, first being used in the 1860s and abandoned in about 1890.)
I sat down on a comfortable rock to drink some water, have a snack, and look around for photographic subjects. I noticed that the fluffy white clouds had morphed into something much darker and a bit menacing to my south, in the direction of Parker Pass. I figured this meant that there might be some thunder and perhaps a few showers by late afternoon when I returned to my car. No worries!
Not five minutes later it started to sprinkle. I thought “that’s a bit surprising, but it will stop in couple of minutes.” It didn’t stop. The drops became larger. I began to think about my lack of rain gear. As I sat there munching on my snack there was a sudden clap of thunder right overhead – what I call “flash bang” thunder because it is so close that there is almost no delay between the flash of lightning and the bang of thunder. A few minutes later another clap of thunder exploded right overhead.
OK, time to leave! By the time I had the pack reloaded and on my back, the light rain was becoming steady. Two thoughts became prominent in my mind. One, I had left my tent windows open back in Tuolumne Meadows – I hoped the rain didn’t head that way! Two, I was either going to get lucky and watch the showers move on, or I was about to get very wet on the nearly two-hour walk back out.
I got lucky. Although the trail was wet all the way down, there was constant thunder, and I could see rain coming down all around… it barely sprinkled on me until I got to my car. As I loaded the car it began to come down in earnest.
My tent was not so lucky. Back in Tuolumne it had rained, and hard.
Lessons learned and relearned. Never leave camp without closing everything up and putting all of my gear away. And, what the heck, toss that lightweight parka in the pack!
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.)
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.
Coming in to work this morning, the radio station reported that snow chain requirements are up on highway 80 across Donner Summit, and that eastbound traffic is being held at Colfax! Wait a minute – this is supposed to be spring!
While reports say that the overall weather in much of the rest of the world is warmer than normal so far this year, here in northern and central California this has been anything but a warm May. One report on a Bay Area television station earlier this week suggested that by the end of the month one quarter or a third of the days of May will have seen some precipitation.
I’m not complaining though. I prefer cool and “interesting” weather to the boring and consistently beautiful and warm weather of summer in the part of the world, and I welcome the possibility of a very green and wildflower-filled summer in the Sierra this year!
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?)
Sierra Nevada fans, especially those trying to get to the “east side” from the Bay Area and those on the east trying to get to Yosemite Valley, watch eagerly each spring for the opening of Tioga Pass Road, the trans-Sierra route through the park. The opening date varies from year to year based on a range of factors: the amount of winter snow fall, late storms, the condition of the underlying road, and so forth. Over a period of many decades the average opening has been very close to the end of May. However, I’ve been up there earlier in dry years, and during one memorable wet season in the mid-1990s the pass did not open until July! (I drove over shortly after it opened and was amazed by the amount of remaining snow and by the unbelievable amounts of runoff water everywhere.)
So, when will it open this year? If anyone knows, they aren’t telling – and, in any case, Mother Nature has a way of throwing surprises at us. The NPS does offer periodic updates, and sometimes you can “read between the lines” and get some idea of when the opening might be. (And I understand from some friends who know about these things that the word does start to get out informally a bit before the official announcement. For example, it might help if you knew someone working on the road clearing…)
This winter produced a somewhat above normal snowfall, though not anything record-breaking. The season has lasted a bit longer than usual, with new snow still arriving as we approach the beginning of May. Both of these factors suggest a somewhat later opening than in the past few years. Some work on the clearing is already underway, as per the link above. However, it isn’t enough to simply plow across the pass. Various kinds of debris (fallen trees, rocks, etc.) must be dealt with, turnouts and side roads must be opened, and avalanche dangers must end.
I have no inside information on this at all, but I’m going to guess that we’ll see an opening fairly close to the historical average day of May 29.
Sometime between mid-October and (usually) early November, the first real winter storms start to arrive in California and the Sierra Nevada – and we move from occasional temporary closings on the highest passes to the annual winter closures.
Judging from the current predictions, travelers need to keep a watch out starting next week. Right now it sounds like a storm system may come through California that has the potential to drop much more than the “dustings” of snow what we’ve had in the high country up until now – quite possibly enough to close passes like Tioga, Sonora, and Ebbetts for a long time or even for the season, depending on what follows.
In an online discussion group I read and post to someone asked about hikes in the Tuolumne Meadows region of Yosemite. They were going to be there for only one day, and wondered what some of the options might be. Since I wrote up a reply and posted it to that discussion group, I figured I might as well share it here as well. Here goes…
You’re talking about MY country now! ;-)
There are, of course, a ton of interesting day hikes in the Tioga/Tuolumne region. Which one is right for you depends a lot on how much time you’ll have, your preferences for terrain and other features, what time of day you are there, and so forth. I’ll just mention a few to get you started.
1. If you are only there for a very brief time, a minimal hike is simply to hike out across the meadow to the Soda Springs area. You’ll enjoy this more if you do it in the morning or late in the day. This is an easy and essentially flat walk – and there are several alternate routes – that takes you across the meadow and the river and into the edge of the forested areas.
2. Another short walk can take you to the the bridge across the Tuolumne on the John Muir Trail as it starts up Lyell Canyon. You can start this at any of the parking areas along the spur road to Tuolumne Lodge, though I think the route from the main campground is more scenic.
3. To get just a _bit_ more flavor of the backcountry, you could hike the one mile trail to May Lake and its high sierra camp set beneath Mt. Hoffman. (This is not all the way up to Tuolumne – e.g. it is further west along the Tioga Pass road.
4. The relatively short hike from the back of the Tuolumne Campground to Elizabeth Lake is scenic and gets you to a wonderful, meadow-surrounded sub-alpine lake. There is plenty to explore there.
5. If you want to get to a high place with great panoramic views of Tuolumne and the surrounding peaks (especially the Cathedral range) the hike to the top of Lembert Dome is a classic. Some find sections at the top a bit exposed for comfort, but it is not really dangerous at all – hundreds of people climb it every day. I prefer to start this hike from the “dog lake trail” parking lot between the wilderness permit station and Tuolumne Lodge.
6. To quickly get to true high sierra terrain, the hike from the Tioga Pass entrance station to the Gaylor Lake Basin can’t be beat. The route is short but steep. There are tremendous views of 13,000+ Mt. Dana across the meadow, and the basin itself has plenty to explore. You can even visit the remains of the old mining site at the head of the basin.
7. If you have a good half day, the hike out to Mono Pass is spectacular. You’ll get all the way to the Sierra crest on foot, you’ll travel through wonderful alpine terrain, you’ll get to see more historic remnants of log cabins near the pass. If you are a very aggressive hiker you can work nearby Parker Pass and/or Spillway Lake into your hike as well.
8. Another classic day hike – of roughly the same length at the Mono Pass hike but at somewhat lower elevation – takes you from T-Meadow to Cathedral Lakes.
There are more… many more.
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