Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Vernal Disease

After 4 dry winters, this wet season has brought on an explosion of spring flora at lower elevations west of the park boundary. Though the mature ponderosas west of the park are undergoing shocking mortality, the forbs are flaunting the virtues of an annual lifestyle. Poppies, redbud, popcorn flower, fiddlenecks, woodland star, baby blue-eyes, birdseye gilia, filaree and more are all at/near their maximum bloom. The Merced Canyon is lush and dazzling right now.

Last week was warm and dry, the snow line retreated uphill. We had a bit of rain yesterday and last night, also with a high snowline. Depending on the aspect, there's a lot of dry ground at 6000' already. All this melt has swollen the river early; the Merced has been running above average for several months now. Today it's at over 200% of average, and it shows the classic diurnal cycling of melting snow. This is exciting to have all this water flowing but it's early; the river and waterfalls shouldn't be so big for another month and a half. We are seeing some of May's runoff happening now, suggesting that mid-summer flows will be quite low. This projection could change, depending what the next two months bring us for cloud cover (sun is a more important snow-melter than warmth), cold and storms.

Despite green spring conditions down low, there's still abundant snow above 7000 feet. With yesterday's overcast numerous snow worms were observed on the surface at our ski area at Monroe Meadows. These are not a mythical creature; they're relatives of the better-known (though still mysterious) ice worms of Alaska (Mesenchytraeus). Like the ice worms, our winter annelids are seldom seen atop the snow.

March 28th marks the 202nd birthday of Guardian Galen Clark. Mr. Clark will again be appearing to share his tale at the Yosemite Theater this spring starting on April 7.

Friday, March 4, 2016


February was remarkably warm in Yosemite and we had only one storm. The Merced Canyon below the park is filled with flowers now. Redbuds and poppies are near their brightest already. Popcorn flower, rue anemone, shooting stars, fiddlenecks, fiesta flower, and many others are profuse in bloom. Many of these flowers will suffer from the heavy storms that are arriving this weekend. We had a bit of rain last evening, but it'll be heavy on Saturday and Sunday, with possible flooding. The snowlevel is forecast to start high (7-8000'), and later drop to below 4000 feet.

The warm temperatures have melted a lot of snow, such that our snowpack has below-average water content now. Yosemite Falls and the other falls are running really big. We are seeing April's runoff now; an extra-wet March is needed to get the Sierra a 'normal' season of precipitation.

Those facility names/logos did change with the arrival of our new concessioner this week. Many people seem not to realize that this names trademark situation is not over yet. Temporary signs have been put in place, and there are several legal proceedings underway that will finalize a determination at some future point. Whatever the outcome, it's my hope that people will focus on the real Yosemite, rather than on the transient resort infrastructure or the names of these facilities. Our national park and the experiences it offers are treasures belong to us and that can never be taken away.

Friday, February 19, 2016

Otters and Waters

The river otters (at least 3) that had been in El Portal for a couple of months, are now being seen in Yosemite Valley. Our natural 'firefall' has suddenly made national news, though Horsetail Fall has been putting on its bright February sunset displays for millennia. Conservancy naturalist, MRoss reports 15-16 species of wildflowers in bloom along Foresta Road above El Portal. Bobcat sightings seem to have increased in the Valley recently. Swifts have emerged on some warm days to feed on airborne insects over the canyon. Many of us felt a couple of earthquakes on the 16th; they were a 4.8 and a 4.3 magnitude, 16km deep, on the east side of the Sierra, NW of Big Pine.

Our snowfall has been near average at this point in the season; it's been warm here for two weeks, so there's been a lot of snowpack consolidation and melting. The Merced River is flowing at better than 150% of average. Sentinel, Ribbon and Royal Arch Falls are very healthy now. We are all hoping that there'll be another couple stormy months yet.

The Valley has been incredibly busy this winter, with holiday weekends featuring hour-long entrance gate waits, crawling traffic, and parking very hard to find. The road to Badger Pass had to be closed last weekend, as there was nowhere for cars to go. Is it pent up excitement that we finally have a real winter? Will this spring/summer be extra crowded because we'll have more (enduring) waterfall flow than we've seen in five years?

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.