Winter drought equals early Sierra summer

Red's sign

Ahhh, summer in spring. That’s the Eastern Sierra right now, thanks to an exceptionally low snowpack — 18% of normal as of the final seasonal measurement on May 1. At Tioga Pass in Yosemite National Park, the April 1 figure was 33% of normal. Right now, everything below 10,000 feet is pretty much snow-free.

Tioga Road opened on May 2 — the earliest opening since 1987. We drove it right after Memorial Day and snow was sparse in the park at about 9,000 feet, but still clung to the upper-elevation slopes. Tioga Lake was a gorgeous mosaic of breaking-up ice:


We stopped at Tuolumne Meadows to fish and snap some photos. The Tuolumne River was flowing mightily, flooding over its banks in some spots. We took the obligatory pix of deer in the meadow and Lembert Dome:



It’s such a gorgeous time of year at Yosemite. We usually visit Tuolumne in the fall, when the river’s low and vegetation is changing color. It was nice to see plenty of water in the river and green grass instead of brown.

Back in Mammoth Lakes, it was typical spring shoulder season weather: warmish (60s-70s), sunny days and cool nights in the 40s. In other words, perfect hiking and fishing weather. We had easy access to the Lakes Basin and the Red’s Meadow area, but as a story in the Mammoth Times reported, some areas weren’t open yet due to a bureaucratic snafu between the Inyo National Forest and its concessionaire who runs some facilities. Apparently the Forest Service hasn’t adjusted its opening schedule to account for climate change.

We tried getting to Horseshoe Lake and were surprised to see a locked gate restricting access. With our new rescue dog Blue in tow (more on her first Sierra trip in a future post), we didn’t feel like sharing the road to Horseshoe on foot with so many off-leash dogs, so we opted for Plan B: a hike from Upper Soda Springs campground (closed) to fish along the Middle Fork of the San Joaquin River:

San Joaquin

The fishing could’ve been better — we need to brush up on our early-season/high-water technique — but we had the trail to ourselves and the weather was fabulous. We returned to the Red’s Meadow area a couple days later to hike to Shadow Lake from Agnew Meadows, again seeing hardly anyone on the trail. I think Blue will be doing a guest post on this hike in a future installment:

Blue on Shadow Lake trail

It can be tough to get a handle on what’s open and what’s not at this time of year, but calling the Inyo National Forest for updates is a good idea because their online report isn’t always up-to-date. Their visitor center is right on Main Street in Mammoth Lakes and can be reached at 760-924-5500.

For a look at Tioga Road’s (and Glacier Point Road’s) opening dates and April 1 snowpack since 1980, check out this page on Yosemite’s site, which isn’t always easy to find. The park’s current conditions are online and their information number is 209-372-0200.

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