The last time Caltrans District 10 had to close Highway 108 and Sonora Pass this early in September due to snow was Sept. 20, 2007

High-altitude rain and snow surprised some visitors Thursday below Sonora Pass, where Mother Nature dusted the high east edges of Tuolumne County, and Caltrans District 10 workers closed Highway 108 at Kennedy Meadows Road.

Amador Caballero, 66, said he came from Redwood City to fish, camp and relax, and he was disappointed to find the 108 closed below the Deadman Creek watershed below Sonora Pass.

“We want to get up to Chipmunk Flat,” Caballero said at Eureka Valley Campground, between Columns of the Giants and the Kennedy Meadows turnoff, where he and two friends were setting up camp instead. “Better fishing, better camping. I don’t know why they have it closed. This is nothing.”

The snowline was visible at noon Thursday about a thousand feet above the Middle Fork Stanislaus River, where fresh white snow clung to the boughs of ridge-bound trees and bare rock formations. Snow dusted part of the McCormick Fire burn to the west, above the Clark Fork of the Stanislaus, and more snow was visible on higher ridges and mountainsides to the east.

‘Road Closed’

A temporary sign advising the road was closed stood in the eastbound lane of 108 at Kennedy Meadows Road and a quarter-mile up the road a green-painted, steel-beamed gate was locked and closed across both lanes, with signs also advising “Road Closed” and “End.”

A tiny pile of melting snow lay just east and uphill from the gate.

Another camper at Eureka Valley named Tom Ingalz said he came the day before from San Jose to hike and camp up near the top of Sonora Pass and woke up Thursday surprised by overnight rains and snow.

“I expected to go up to Sonora Pass and this morning they locked the gate,” Ingalz said. “I’ve been coming three or four times a year, for 50 years, 55 years. I like the Emigrant Wilderness. I wanted to hike this time to Iceberg Meadow to the north but I guess I’ll have to wait til next year. Either that or get a snowmobile.”

Ingalz said he got rained on all night at his campsite in Eureka Valley. He had some of his belongings strung out on a line to dry in the intermittent sun that was breaking through unsettled storm clouds above.

“A ranger this morning said the road was closed because of the flurries and they might re-open,” Ingalz said. “But I’m not gonna wait. I’ll stay here one more day.”

Might open Friday

A snowplow driver returned eastbound on the 108 and parked on the roadside at a sign warning “Semi Over 38 Feet Kingpin to Rear Axle” are not allowed 10 miles ahead, up at the top of Sonora Pass.

He said he’s based in Long Barn, he expected Highway 108 to remain closed Thursday, and it might open about noon Friday. He declined to give his name, but he showed photographs and video he made earlier Thursday morning from the cab of his plow truck. They showed white snow blanketing high ridges and at least a couple inches on a section of Highway 108 below Sonora Pass.

“It was spitting some earlier,” he said. “It might come back in tonight. We could get a bit more snow up there.”

At Pinecrest, Kim Azevedo and Eleni Hughes said they came from Turlock expecting to sunbathe and they were surprised to find themselves outside in 40-degree temperatures. They both had long-sleeve tops on. Azevedo wore shorts and Hughes wore pants.

“We’re freezing, it’s crazy,” Azevedo said, smiling near the reservoir beach area as she and Hughes finished walking the loop trail all the way around Pinecrest. “We thought it was going to be warm. My hands are cold. It’s like in the 40s here.”

Up at Dodge Ridge Ski Area, an employee named Adam Fox sent out messages Thursday proclaiming “It’s official! Thursday, Sept. 21, 2017, is the first snowfall of the 2017/18 season. Overnight we picked up about 2 inches of snow starting at 7,000 ft.”

Leila Brothen, an employee at Zak’s Auto Shack in Sugar Pine, just down the hill from Mi-Wuk Village, said she is certain climate change is a factor in the early arrival of winter.

“Absolutely this is because of climate change,” Brothen said. “Earlier this year we went from winter to summer with no spring. Now here comes winter. We have to expect the unexpected because our climate has changed.”

Brothen said she remembers a long, long time ago it snowed on Halloween in Sugar Pine.

“We get so many tourists from Europe and they’re shocked when the pass is closed,” Brothen said. “I’m going to put my snow tires on as a soon as I can.”

Signs say ‘Closed’

Multiple signs advised eastbound motorists from Soulsbyville and farther up the hill that Sonora Pass was closed Thursday at Kennedy Meadows. One sign east of Strawberry states “Sonora Pass Closed: California 108: Winter Closure Point at Kennedy Meadows Rd 20 Miles Ahead.”

Before 10 a.m. Thursday, people with Caltrans were advising motorists that all three major passes over the Central Sierra crest from the Mother Lode were closed due to snow. Highway 4 was closed at Ebbetts Pass, Highway 108 was closed at Kennedy Meadows, and Highway 120 was closed in Yosemite National Park from Crane Flat to Tioga Pass.

By 4:30 p.m. Thursday, Ebbetts Pass on Highway 4 and Sonora Pass on Highway 108 remained closed. Highway 120 in Yosemite was open from Crane Flat to Tioga Pass. Elsewhere in Yosemite, Glacier Point Road and Badger Pass Road were both closed due to snow.

Just three weeks ago, people in the Mother Lode were suffering through the longest, hottest heatwave of the year over Labor Day Weekend. Technically it was still summertime this week when authorities decided to close Ebbetts Pass, Sonora Pass and Tioga Pass due to snow. The autumnal equinox occurs at 1:02 p.m. today.

Jim Mathews, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service, said equinox means “equal days and equal nights, 12 hours each,” when the sun’s rays are directly over the equator. Mathews said the autumnal equinox marks the beginning of the fall season.

Whether this week’s cold snap, rains and high-altitude snows foretell an early winter or a wetter-than-average winter remains to be seen.

Mathews said short-term forecasts show it’s supposed to start getting warmer again the next couple days, with more summertime temperatures this weekend and early next week.

While fresh snowfall in September when it’s still technically summer may sound unusual, snows at the highest altitudes of the Central Sierra are possible every month on the calendar.

“It can snow a little bit over the mountains, every month of the year,” Mathews said. “Not every year. But it can happen. The elevation is high enough and it can snow and then it melts right away.”

Forecasts for Sonora Pass call for a 40 percent of scattered snow showers Friday, with daytime highs around 35, clearing Friday night with a low of 22, then warming and sunny to 40 degrees Saturday, 45 Sunday and 49 Monday.

Today in Sonora is supposed to warm up to the mid-60s and daytime highs this weekend are supposed to climb back up into the 70s.

Warren Alford, a public information officer with Caltrans District 10, said Sonora Pass was closed at 11:10 p.m. Wednesday. The last time Caltrans District 10 had to close Highway 108 and Sonora Pass due to early snow in the late summer season was Sept. 20, 2007.

Hard winter closures on Central Sierra passes are typically imposed much later in the fall and winter seasons. Last year, according to Caltrans District 10, Ebbetts Pass and Sonora Pass were both closed for the winter on Nov. 30, and Tioga Pass was closed for winter on Dec. 1.

Contact Guy McCarthy at gmccarthy@uniondemocrat.com or (209) 588-4585. Follow him on Twitter @GuyMcCarthy.

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