Friday, January 15, 2016

Ahwahnee Hotel, No; Ahwahnee, Yes

Interesting changes may be underway in our park regarding the historical nomenclature of a handful of facilities, related to the turnover of the concessioner. (It will be some time before we hear the last word on this matter.) These changes are profoundly upsetting to many people, but it's my sense that Yosemite will not notice our legal squabble. Remember Hutchings House? How about Hutchings Hotel? What about Sentinel Hotel? Upper Hotel? Maybe Coulter and Murphy's? These were all more or less the same place, operating under different names over the years. No harm done.

A key Yosemite Valley location in a certain point of time was Royal Arch Farm. To the surprise of locals and visitors it was replaced by Harris' Camping Ground. With some fuss from some people, that, in turn, was eliminated and replaced with a commercial stable that came to be called Kenneyville. Kenneyville was central to the experiences of thousands of park visitors for decades; most people couldn't imagine it being removed from Yosemite Valley, yet it was. Its location was taken by the Ahwahnee.

Even Yosemite Falls, North Dome and giant sequoia trees had different names (many) over the millennia.

Can you picture Yosemite Valley in 1925? In 1925 there was no such thing as The Ahwahnee Hotel - and Yosemite was still grand. Neither John Muir nor Galen Clark ever imagined such a hotel but Yosemite moved them nonetheless. Now there is such a hotel, and its traditional name appears to be changing. The hotel will really be the same - so will Curry Village, Yosemite Lodge, Badger Pass and Wawona Hotel (which reverts to an earlier name), whatever they're called.

Not neglecting the importance of labels and traditions, I genuinely feel that Yosemite won't be changed. Have amenities distracted us from what the national park and the land truly are? Rocks and trees, water and seasons, won't be a whit less wonderful. Jays and oaks won't care, bears and domes won't be diminished if we re-label a hotel. People will come from around the world to experience this landscape. They will marvel at the park's terrain and heritage, but won't miss the luxurious Stoneman Hotel, stopping at Oh My! Point or browsing Jorgensen's Studio. Kudos to NPS for not spending $51m of public money (or letting Aramark spend this, which their customers will have to make up), but black marks on NPS/Interior solicitors for allowing this difficulty to develop, starting in 1988. Let's remember that our structures and names are transient, but nature's beauty endures (and changes) no matter what we do.

Saturday, January 9, 2016

Hwy. 140 Occupied

A group of boulders has peacefully occupied Highway 140 between El Portal and Yosemite Valley. They claim that this canyon has always been theirs and that they intend to take it back from the federal government, no matter how long it takes. An unnamed spokesperson made numerous references to their granitic constitution and made an appeal for other patriotic rocks to join their takeover.
NPS has stated that they respect the heritage of these boulders and hope this occupation can be resolved without issue. Last week's continuous wet weather may have triggered this outcome.

Monday, December 28, 2015


Days grow longer at last, and we are having a real winter again. Healthy snowfall on Christmas Eve brought joy to skiers, firefighters and sugar pines. Snowline dropped to almost 2000' and the Merced is running at about twice normal flow.
A group of 3 river otters has been seen at least twice in the past couple months in El Portal. Clark's nutcracker and pileated woodpecker at Crane Flat yesterday. White-throated swifts flew over El Portal today, despite overcast, 40F, and no evidence of their flying insect food.

Summer-volume visitation filled the Valley over the holiday weekend. Snow occupying parking spaces made traffic even more challenging than it is in summer. People chaining up in the uphill lane at Cascades on 140 backed up cars, and the sheer numbers of cars squeezing into Arch Rock entrance snaked down more than a mile. It's great that so many people want to see Yosemite in winter, but I find it sad that sitting in traffic will be their memory of a park visit.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Merced Nadir

Rain and snow over the weekend have brought the Valley's waterfalls back from the dead. Bridalveil, Staircase, Royal Arch, Snow Creek, and Yosemite Falls went from trickles or dry rock to photogenic surges overnight. On Sunday, some of us witnessed Mirror Lake going from dry sand basin to reflecting Mt. Watkins in a matter of moments as thousands of gallons per minute poured into the lakebed in a flash flood. There are six inches of new snow along parts of the Sierra crest.

The Merced River is typically at its lowest point for the year at the end of September. Until these rains, it was continuing to drop, running at about half its normal low flow. The river and waterfalls are dropping again now as the rainfall runs off; the Merced is very muddy due to erosion from steep areas that have burned in the past two seasons.

Despite catastrophic blazes elsewhere in California our fire season in the park was mild; several early July lightning fires crept slowly along the forest floor for months at healthy low intensity. A few human-caused fires were contained before they got too far. A good stretch of the Valley floor's south side continues to smolder from last week's prescribed ignition.

The San Francisco Chronicle featured Tom Stienstra's cover story about the disappearing Lyell Glacier last Sunday; the best version is online only for subscribers but you can see a PDF of the print edition here. It'll be interesting to see what sort of layer this El Nino winter brings to the glacier; even if it's huge, it'll only delay the terminal decline briefly. I look forward to bringing a group (or two) of very fit backpackers up there late next summer to have a look.

My summer was VERY busy with lots of good stuff (Lyell Glacier, Switzerland, Half Dome, etc.) but now I look forward to resuming more frequent posts here.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015


Spring came early after our non-winter. So far, 2015 is California's warmest year on record, and the Sierra has one of its weakest snowpacks. Light storms over the past two months have left recent snow at the Sierra crest, have kept the Merced from bottoming out, and have delayed the blue-skies-til-October summertime that we expect for Yosemite Valley and below.
In the past two weeks I've enjoyed being rained on, snowed on and hailed on. These storms are not overcoming general drought effects, however: the Merced is flowing at about 1/5th of average volume and dead ponderosas greet visitors ascending from the foothills.

While you may read simplistic headlines that beetles are killing trees, they can only do this because the trees are weakened by drought and in some cases had been further stressed by a history of fire suppression. Preventing periodic ground fires allows too many trees to mature, each challenged by competition with too many neighbors. Regular low-intensity fires thin out young trees so that survivors are stronger and more resilient to drought and therefore to beetles.

On top of a precipitation deficit, warmer temperatures and an increased proportion of dead trees, these intermittent moderate storms have grown more light fuels - the kind that dry quickly and burn fast. Indications for an active fire season are worrying. For the moment, the wildflowers are still nice up and down the Merced corridor: globe gilia, LOTS of Clarkia, blazing star, tarweed, Datura, etc. Buckeyes are fading. There are still a few bright dogwoods in their highest, shadiest locales (Tuolumne Grove, Chinquapin).

Looking further ahead, strong El Nino conditions are shaping up in the Pacific and though there's no guarantee, we may have a wet winter coming.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Candy Weather

We can call it 'candy weather' because it is yummy/nice in the moment but we know that in the long term this dry, warm, sunny winter isn't good for us. We had a couple small, warm storms in the past two weeks but it's almost a month since our biggest storm (rain). Up on Clouds Rest(9960') the other day there were no clouds, no crowds and almost no snow. This photo from near the summit shows two snow-free roches moutonees on the left and some other dome.

Buckeyes are green, redbuds are pink in the Merced Canyon west of the park. More flowers are blooming and there are a couple of slopes with hundreds of poppies out.

The Merced River has slowly dropped back below average flow after the storms of 6-8 February and it continues to shrink. Yosemite Falls looks good, but at this rate it won't be much in July. Vernal was 3 modest strings yesterday and some ground squirrels have already been active at the top of Vernal for at least a week.

March 1 snow surveys show the Merced watershed's snowpack with 12% of normal water content. Candy is good; candy is bad.

Monday, February 9, 2015


The park has had good wet storms the past several days, but they brought much more rain than snow. Snow levels barely dropped beneath 7000' and not much more than slush was deposited below 8000'.

The rain runoff from up to 8000' in the watershed is departing the Sierra, rather than lingering in the ecosystem the way snow and snowmelt do. The Merced River leapt from a paltry 55 cfs at Pohono Bridge to an exceptional 2500 cfs last night, and is dropping as quickly as it rose. The current river volume from the high elevation rain is larger than any flow in 2014. Unless there is more snow in the next couple months, we wonder if this warm storm might be 2015's high water mark. A splash of mud and rock from the area of last summer's Dog Rock Fire closed Hwy. 140 above El Portal for a few hours this morning. The Merced and the South Fork are both turbid brown. Yosemite Falls is BIG, but there's no snow cone.

The lower canyon, west of the park is lush with bright moss and new plant growth. In bloom now: small numbers of shooting stars, poppies, a couple mustards, paintbrush, a saxifrage, more popcorn flower and fiddlenecks and abundant filaree. In favored spots the waterfall buttercups number in the thousands. Buckeye and elderberry leaves are emerging.

It is another odd winter of the new normal.