Saturday, June 29, 2019

Tioga Corridor

NPS opens the Tioga Pass Road on 1 July. Our big snow year made clearing snow, avalanche zones and downed trees more laborious than usual. Because water and wastewater systems in Tuolumne Meadows both have problems, it's not easy to have park staff living up there yet. These important people are needed to staff the entrance gate, patrol the road, provide information to visitors, oversee Wilderness access and permitting with backpackers, patrol trails, manage a huge campground, clean public restrooms, set up seasonal housing and make sure that all utility systems are functioning well. It's been our disappointing experience that when the Tuolumne Meadows area isn't staffed by NPS, some visitors can be more destructive to the high country's values.

The partial opening of Tioga during the past week, with one-hour morning and afternoon windows is something new. While cars can't stop on the transit (except to drop-off or pick-up backpackers with permits), the windows have been heavily used by visitors and locals moving between eastern and western California.

NPS has generously allowed bicycles to ride Tioga during all daylight hours. This is one of the best bike rides on earth and is a terrific national park experience. Birds, running water, and the purr of bike tires - so nice!

Of course, as mentioned elsewhere, Tioga is open all year - just not to vehicles. Plenty of people travel this corridor all through the winter months. Those contemplating hikes in the next few weeks should expect lingering snow, difficult creek crossings, and wet, muddy trails. We hope that visitors will be gentle on the landscape as it dries out.

Saturday, April 27, 2019

April Flowers Bringing It

The Merced River approaches 'minor flood' stage tonight, with the previous two night's flows being near 5300 cfs, which is roughly double the average peak spring volume. Valley meadows are wet, some trails are under water, some campsites unusable, and it's a great time to be a duck. While exciting, this is the normal and predictable outcome from a winter that brought the Merced watershed 153% of average snowpack water content as of 1 April (and 176% in the Tuolumne watershed). The waterfalls are ripping right now. You may recall that (after vehicle accidents) swiftwater is the number one factor for visitor fatalities in Yosemite; respect the water. April has been warmer than usual (only one day of wist ice [frazil] in its typically most productive month) and we wonder if peak runoff has come 3-4 weeks earlier than the late May average.

There is still a huge quantity of snow at 7000' and above. While we did have some warm storms this winter that brought rain to high elevations, we had far more storms that delivered snow down to 2000'. Several recent SAR call-outs have resulted from people getting up into deep snow where they didn't expect it. Some have been getting their intel from various posts/photos about nice April hikes that others did last year - that was a very dry winter. The Fourmile Trail and the JMT below Nevada Fall (ice cut) are still closed and dangerous. The High Sierra Camps won't open this season. Expect stream crossings to be challenging and snow to persist well into mid-summer in the high country.

Dogwood flowers are at the puppy stage in Yosemite Valley. Tanagers, orioles and grosbeaks are singing and shining brightly. Peregrines are at their eyries. The green dragons are rolling. "This grand show is eternal..."

Thursday, March 21, 2019

Night Equals Day

Yesterday we were treated to the unusual intersection of vernal equinox and a full moon. Here was a nice moment when hours of sunshine were balanced by hours of - wait - moonshine? Let's say moonlight, rather. If you follow your horoscope (and if you don't) this coincidence of full moon and equinox means no more than an interesting astronomical curiosity in your life.

I am guilty of neglecting regular posts for most of the last year, but I'll try again to stay more up to date.

It's been a strong winter in the Sierra, with much more than average snowpack on the ground. It seems like we've had just one week without a storm since the end of January. As in other recent years, the snowline is higher than the historic average although Yosemite Valley got some heavy storms in February that damaged a lot of trees and the buildings beneath them. The Merced is running above average and the waterfalls are all at healthy volumes. Here's hoping for a gradual warming of spring that'll have the falls flowing well through the summer, instead of draining snowfields in a short burst.

The burned area of last summer's Ferguson Fire (shown here with a skier) has shed a bit of sediment (mostly from the South Fork) in storms but nearly all of that fire was of low intensity and is greening up nicely now. For all the rain and runoff we've had, there wasn't much intense rainfall and we haven't had the rockfalls along Hwy. 140 that we worried about. Not many trees were killed by that fire (lots of already dead trees didn't even burn) and the forest is healthier for it. Burned or not, as with much of California, it's looking like a good wildflower season. Kumlienia started in January, and the rocky banks that were cooked black in August are now coated in greenery and flowers. Poppies, popcorn flower, baby blue-eyes and fiddlenecks are already at photogenic quantities in the Merced Canyon, but are still densifying toward their peaks.

I am again leading trips to Yosemite's sister national parks in China. Mountain Travel Sobek has us headed to explore the natural and cultural history of Jiuzhaigou and Huangshan and to meet with park rangers to learn about China's park management. Hiking in both parks is truly astounding and I can't wait to get back there.

Friday, May 18, 2018

Wet Spring

After another very dry winter, Yosemite has had a bit of recovery with a wet spring. We had warm storms in March and April and are now enjoying a string of about 10 days of cool, cloudy afternoons. The first weekend of April we had the markedly unusual experience of a very late, warm, winter-scale storm. This atmospheric river brought high elevation rain instead of snow, a flood forecast, and a successful pre-emptive evacuation of Yosemite Valley. Sure enough, the Merced River came up through the campgrounds, over the roads, through Housekeeping Camp, and filled the meadows. NPS has nice footage online. There's a persistent myth that these 'Pineapple Express' storms melt a lot of snow, but they really don't. It's the high elevation rain over thousands of acres of bare rock and thin soils that fills the river. This flood event wasn't from a 'monster' rainstorm, just a pretty big storm up high. Lower elevation side streams barely rose, compared to what the river did.

Because of the poor winter and the late-season rains, our springtime runoff peaked a month ahead of normal. The Merced and the waterfalls are already declining in volume, especially with the cloudy conditions we've been having. The clouds are delaying our minimal runoff a bit, which will help waterfalls last and forests to stay watered a bit further into the summer.

The park is still busy felling hazard trees, the small portion of our dead trees that might fall on people/roads/infrastructure. This year's below-average precipitation and above-average warmth will continue to stress Sierra forests (over-thick with trees due to decades of fire suppression) and we'll see more of the weak trees succumb to native bark beetles. Despite changes in Washington, D.C., the NPS in Yosemite is sticking with science and is not dodging the reality of climate change in its training of new rangers. The climate IS changing, it's changing NOW, in ways more rapid than ever, it is because of OUR hydrocarbon use, and it'll have serious consequences for US. It's disappointing that some political leaders think they know more than NASA or the National Academies of Science. Among other things, our fire season is longer, more severe and is costing us all more money to deal with. I'll be heading up to Lyell and Maclure Glaciers with Yosemite Conservancy groups in August and I expect to see those small ice bodies closer to leaving Yosemite entirely glacier-less.

Luckily, because we are causing the current rapid changes in climate, we should have some influence over it. Let's work to reduce our mistake and bring back snowy winters.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Winter Bypass

We really have skipped past winter here again. Aside from last winter, this has been a season much like those winters of 2011-2016: mild and dry. There's still time for some catch-up precipitation, but it's extremely unlikely to make up for the absence of storms so far. I was up at 7500' along the shoulder of Half Dome with BK the other day. We explored an abandoned trail and stopped by G. Anderson's spring and cabin site; there was barely any snow to speak of.

Above Rancheria Flat (El Portal), numerous flowers are blooming: poppies, red maids, Erodium, woodland star, Nemophila, popcorn flower, fiddlenecks, blue dicks, Stellaria, dead nettle, birds-eye gilia, etc. Some buckeyes are still tight buds, while others are dazzling green with 10cm leaves out. Elderberries are also leafing out. Redbud still seem a ways off.

The Merced River is running below average. It's displaying the diurnal cycle of snowmelt, draining the water that's supposed to flow off in April/May. The aridity of the season means a poor showing for the Horsetail Fall 'firefall' phenomenon but crowds are coming nonetheless; viral imagery from other years seems to matter more than natural reality on the ground. NPS and YC have arranged an impressive structure for managing access to the main viewing areas. Without more than a wet streak at Horsetail, at least the system gets a dry run. (Yes, intentional.)

Summer stars are rising before dawn now: Scorpio and the Triangle. The Falcon Heavy orbital burn was visible for a few minutes over Yosemite last week, an unexpected celestial apparition.

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Candy Weather Again

Warm, dry conditions continue in a very poor winter for the Sierra. We've had a few storms and there is some snow (mostly above 7000'), but we seem to be having a weak winter like those of 2011-2015. Things could still change, but this feels too similar to those seasons of poor skiing, thin waterfalls and early fires. The Merced is running just a bit above average volume, but this is runoff that shouldn't be happening until April. Candy weather: it's nice in the moment, but you know it's not good for anyone in the long term.

Fiddleneck, chickweed and blue dick are blooming in the lower Merced Canyon now. I always look for the first fiddlenecks on the grassy bank outside my Yosemite Conservancy office in El Portal; the first optimist opened 16 January. Waterfall buttercups are profuse in their favored locations (first flowers noted 31 December near Ned's Gulch).

I walked up the remnants of the 1856 Coulterville Free Trail the other day. This climbs steeply to the north and west from below Pohono Bridge up the canyon wall toward Tamarack Flat, intersecting with the Old Big Oak Flat Road somewhere west of the road's Cascade Creek crossing. The road was put through to the Valley floor in 1874, so the trail was used by stock and foot traffic for less than 20 years. Like most of the early routes built by Euro-Americans, it was developed not by the government but by entrepreneurs hoping to make a buck from tolls. In places the trail is still clearly built and obvious, in places it's been entirely absorbed back into the landscape since it was replaced by the stage road when Grant (who later visited Yosemite) was president 144 years ago. This photo shows rockwork along Fireplace Creek.

One special traveler who arrived via the Coulterville Free Trail and got his first view of Yosemite Valley was John Muir in 1868. It's interesting to imagine Muir and his traveling companion Joseph Chilwell finishing their walk from San Francisco Bay by leaving the snows of Crane Flat, descending this steep toll path, and seeing the cliffs and Bridalveil Fall. Muir was a nobody when he showed up in Yosemite; he was 30 years old, a transient laborer, who passed through the Valley and Mariposa Grove then went to find work in the ranch country of the lowest Sierra foothills to the west of us. The Valley and the Grove were well-known tourist attractions and had already become protected reserves four years before Muir came to California. More than a year after coming over the Coulterville Trail he came back into the high country above Yosemite Valley tending a herd of sheep and then found blue collar work in the Valley for two years. After that point he was mostly a resident of the East Bay, building a career that included plenty of return visits to Yosemite Valley and the higher terrain to the east. The rest is history. You never know which poor immigrant will go on to change our world so much for the better.

Monday, December 18, 2017


Apologies for my long absence; it was a busy summer in Yosemite, and I've been enjoying the recovery. My schedule slows down as the park's does.

Yosemite is truly uncrowded now; I've been hiking where I see no one all day. I went up to Little Yosemite Valley for the night last week, and saw 4 people on the way; in the summertime it'd be 400 people. The campground there was calm and quiet with most nighttime noise coming from a spotted owl and the brightest fires were from Geminid meteors overhead. Half Dome leans completely away from the sun before 5pm and its cold shoulders cool off quickly then. I went up to George Anderson's spring and cabin but no one was there, either.

The Merced has dropped to below average, for just the second short stretch in a year. Yosemite Falls and the others are light but not anemic. There's very little snow at any elevation.

Yesterday was our annual Christmas Bird Count wherein several dozen amateur naturalists spend the day afield accounting for all avians. All-star Michael Ross added the first-ever Say's Phoebes to the count. Thomas Say went to boarding school with John Kirk Townsend (of Townsend's Warbler, for example). Townsend did some of his western natural history work in the company of Thomas Nuttall (of Nuttall's Woodpecker). Nuttall never got to the Sierra but he came to coastal California in 1835 where he bumped into one of his former Harvard students, Richard Henry Dana, Jr. (that's right, "Two Years Before the Mast"). On his second trip to California, Dana made it up to Yosemite and spent time with Galen Clark. Clark, of course, is buried in the Valley's cemetery, the residents of which Michael and I think of as some of the people from our village. Even after all these years we are 4 degrees of separation from the fellow for whom the phoebe is named.

Winter solstice is at hand, when the darkest days will start to stretch and lighten a bit. Here's hoping the Sierra gets Nevada and all of us range in the light soon.