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Over Tioga Pass on Opening Day

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.

Ice and Snow on Tioga Pass and Tioga Lake

Ice and Snow on Tioga Pass and Tioga Lake

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.)

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June 8, 2010 Posted by | Sierra Nevada, Trips, Yosemite | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Over Tioga Pass on Opening Day

They Call This Spring?

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!

May 26, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

A Strange Sierra Spring

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?)

May 22, 2010 Posted by | Commentary, Sierra Nevada | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on A Strange Sierra Spring

Annual Tradition – Predicting the Opening of Tioga Pass Road

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.

April 27, 2010 Posted by | Commentary | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

The Start of "Sierra Winter" Next Week?

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.

October 8, 2009 Posted by | Commentary | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on The Start of "Sierra Winter" Next Week?

May 22 Opening for Sonora Pass?

Sierra Journal reports that the opening of Sonora Pass is scheduled for May 22. This is significant for a number of reasons, including the following:

  • The availability of the Sonora Pass route considerably reduces the time/distance that SF Bay Area folks must drive to get to the eastern Sierra.
  • This suggests that other routes like Ebbetts and Monitor Pass will also be open at that time.
  • Tioga Pass often seems to open within about a week of the opening of Sonora. If that happens this time we could guess that Tioga might open before the end of May.

I’m ready!

(Although it is not a “pass,” the Glacier Point Road opened early this week.)

May 7, 2009 Posted by | Commentary | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Glacier Point Road Opening Delayed

This is certainly no surprise, given the “interesting” weather this weekend – and I guessed earlier that this might happen – but according to a number of sources, including the NPS itself, the opening of Glacier Point Road, originally scheduled for yesterday, has been delayed until this coming Monday, May 4 due to weather concerns.

Some might wonder whether the weather could delay the opening of Tioga Pass Road. My guess is “no.” First, they generally seem to open the road near the end of a week, if memory serves, so there must be some leeway about the actual opening day. Second, it is not at all unusual to get a bit of “shoulder season” (fall and spring) snow that melts quickly in a day or two. The only fly in the ointment here is that this damp weather could last into the first half of next week. If that happens, I suppose that it is possible that road clearing work might be delayed – but my hunch is that this won’t end up being the case.

May 2, 2009 Posted by | Commentary | , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Glacier Point Road Opening Delayed

Glacier Point Road Set To Open Friday… Or Maybe Not?

According to a variety of reports that have been floating around for the past couple of weeks, Yosemite National Park’s Glacier Point Road is scheduled to open tomorrow, May 1 “conditions permitting.” That last pair of words may well be important this season, as a respectable storm is scheduled to pass through northern California on Friday.

My bet at this point is that the NPS will delay the official opening of the road a bit.

Informal updates on Tioga Pass Road indicate that a decent chunk of the road from the west has been cleared, and I’m betting that other portions have also been cleared. The NPS won’t say in advance when it will open and I haven’t heard any unofficial announcements (I sometimes manage to pick up on a few of these a week or so before the opening) but it is likely to be at least a few more weeks. I’m betting against the first half of May, but I’m pretty confident about the second half.

Update: Right after posting this I saw an update on Tioga Road at Yosemite blog. The short story is that they have made it to the May Lake turnoff.

April 30, 2009 Posted by | Commentary | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Glacier Point Road Set To Open Friday… Or Maybe Not?

What's Happening in the Yosemite High Country?

I always look forward to reading the Tuolumne Meadows Winter Report from the rangers who spend the off-season generally keeping an eye on this part of the high country. There is a summary at Yosemite blog right now.

January 13, 2009 Posted by | Commentary | , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on What's Happening in the Yosemite High Country?

Snow? Yeah!

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.

October 2, 2008 Posted by | Sierra Nevada | , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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