Near-record snowpack is still melting bigtime in the Central Sierra, so streams, creeks and rivers are still ripping fast, fat and swollen with ice-cold snowmelt.
Until the current snowmelt eases up or ends entirely, this column will remain focused on snowmelt, waterfalls and snowpack. This week that means recounting a return trip to the Mist Trail along the Upper Merced River and a midweek motorcycle journey to the top of Sonora Pass, which opened this week for the first time in more than six months.
As of Thursday this week, the California Nevada River Forecast Center justifies any return trip to the Merced River in Yosemite National Park this weekend or early next week. A heatwave is expected to melt tons more snow and, once again, the Merced is expected to rise above its 10-foot flood stage at Pohono Bridge.
That means everything upstream, including Vernal Fall and Nevada Fall on the Upper Merced, will be roaring full-throated at volumes comparable to recent weeks.
It’s important to note that at least one person is reported missing from the Mist Trail this month. About 12:30 p.m. June 5, a hiker described as a 6-foot-2-inch-tall man in his 20s was reported to have fallen from the Mist Trail and into the Merced River. Park rangers have identified the man, but they have not released his name.
Both he and Alexander Joseph Sevier, a 24-year-old active-duty Navy serviceman who came to Yosemite Valley to hike and was last seen May 3, are still considered missing.
Whatever you do this weekend, you can make the most of your days, beat traffic and beat crowds by starting as early as possible.
Early in this case means getting parked near Happy Isles in east Yosemite Valley by 6 a.m. Saturday. That’s what two friends and I did last weekend, and we were walking by 6:15 a.m.
The early start is more necessary now, because unlike two weeks before when the Half Dome cables were down, the cables are now up. That means a lot more people are out bright and early heading up the Mist Trail, which is a popular start to the longer walk-and-scramble up Half Dome.
We made it to the steep stone steps leading up Vernal Fall and stopped midway for selfies at 7:15 a.m. Spray coming off Vernal soaked all of us thoroughly, including those wearing raingear. A pair of younger visitors without raingear turned around before reaching the top of Vernal Fall. We saw them later much higher up the trail with plastic bags they used as ponchos.
There is so much airborne mist and spray coming off Vernal right now there is still water a quarter-inch deep flowing off the steep stone steps in places, and literal raindrops splashing in the moving water. If you don’t want to get wet, take the longer alternative trail to the top of Vernal Fall.
We made it to the top of Nevada Fall before 9 a.m. and noticed many people we’d seen on the Mist Trail had turned off and headed toward Half Dome. Upper Merced River had a bit less water in it than it did two weeks before. But it was nevertheless impressive, still roaring at fighter jet and jumbo jet volumes, still deadly for anyone who ends up in that churning, rushing, crushing body of speeding snowmelt.
We spent about two hours at the top of Nevada Fall and we took our time walking the less steep, alternative trail back down to the Merced River below Vernal Fall. We made it back to the parking lot by 2 p.m. We encountered some bumper-to-bumper traffic jams before exiting Yosemite Valley, but we still made it back to Sonora by 5 p.m.
It cannot be overstated how having Sonora Pass on Highway 108 open this week — while Ebbetts Pass on Highway 4 and Tioga Pass on Highway 120 are still closed — presents a unique opportunity for Tuolumne County residents, visitors and road trippers.
The snowpack this spring exceeds the past five years at least, and the opening of Sonora Pass is the latest opening in more than six years. This means anyone who drives up the west side of Highway 108 this weekend will be treated to uncommonly snow-laden views of the Emigrant Wilderness south of the road and the Carson-Iceberg Wilderness to the north.
Snowbanks rise in places 6 feet to 12 feet and higher above the roadway, which feels enclosed in places due to the walls of snow on both sides.
On Tuesday this week, we learned in the newsroom that Caltrans intended to open Sonora Pass the same way everyone else on Facebook and Twitter learned it: via social media. Knowing the Caltrans plan was to open gates at 2 p.m., I left Sonora about noon.
I rode my motorcycle and I took cameras, a mobile wifi device and a small laptop with me to file a story later in the day from the Strawberry Inn.
By 1:20 p.m., I was at the “Road Closed” sign on Highway 108 at Kennedy Meadows Road. I was first in line when Caltrans workers removed the sign and other barriers and said “it’s open now.”
Being on deadline for a story later in the day, I restrained myself from stopping repeatedly on the way up Sonora Pass. The urge to stop is one everyone else should indulge. There are multiple pullouts where motorists in full-size vehicles and on motorcycles can safely stop and enjoy the panoramic alpine scenery.
Other pullouts and shoulders are still under snow right now, so take advantage of the empty roadside places when you come to them. Watch out for the usual curious critters like chipmunks and squirrels, and also watch for their larger cousins, pikas and marmots.
As of Tuesday at the top of Sonora Pass, space to pull off the road was limited. For lucky ones who arrive early enough to secure parking, the pristine, snow clad crest of the High Sierra is beckoning. People with heavy mountaineering boots or snowshoes should be able to cover miles on hardpack snow on both sides of Sonora Pass.
For those with time to burn, spend the whole day up there. Between Kennedy Meadows Road and the top of Sonora Pass, there is plenty to see and savor. A few steps from the road will put you in solitude and silence that echo into millenia.
Reporter’s note: Before I began working for newspapers in the early 1990s, I spent seven years with VisionQuest and Outward Bound as a paid, certified wilderness instructor and emergency medical technician accountable for groups of felony offender teens, court-ordered children and adult Cuban refugees. I am in my mid-50s, and anyone who walks OK on their own can keep up with me anywhere.
Out There: Backcountry ventures in the Central Sierra is an occasional Friday series.