It’s balmy in the San Joaquin Valley, but it’s still winter above 8,000 feet in the Sierra. Yosemite National Park on Monday will begin to assess the snow covering high country Tioga Road in preparation for plowing.
Each spring, the reopening of this road is anxiously awaited by businesses on both sides of the mountain, as well as many thousands of tourists.
In many years, it is open by Memorial Day, but not always. The earliest the road has opened in the last few decades has been April 29 in 1988, which was a drought year in California.
Will the road be open before that date? Nobody knows, says park spokeswoman Kari Cobb. She says crews on snowmobiles will take a couple of days to assess avalanche danger and snow conditions. Then park leaders will decide when the plowing begins.
By all accounts, it was a dry winter in the Sierra, but some places had more snow than others. The watershed for Yosemite’s two main rivers — the Tuolumne and the Merced — got a little more than half the usual snowfall. But the snowpack above 8,000 feet is 70% of average.
“There’s a lot of interest in the reopening,” Cobb said. “We will get updates on our web site as often as possible.”
The California Department of Transportation has cleared the road above the east-side community of Lee Vining all the way to the Tioga Pass entrance station, she said.
The big federal budget cuts — known as sequestration — might delay the reopening of Tioga Road in Yosemite National Park this spring, the National Park Service says.
That could take a bite out of the tourist business along the Eastern Sierra. If the road is closed, hordes of Yosemite tourists can’t drive out 9,945-foot Tioga Pass to Lee Vining, Bridgeport and Mammoth Lakes.
Tioga Road, the key east-west artery across the Sierra in this part of the range, is closed after the first significant snow in autumn. Often, it reopens by Memorial Day. On big snowfall years, such as 2011, 2005 and 1998, the snow plows are working well into June.
But this is not one of those years. The Sierra snowpack is 62% of average right now. Yosemite’s high country might be a little more or a little less, but it is not high enough to worry about 20-foot snow drifts in early June.
One of the sadder stories I have covered in Yosemite was the death of a snow plow operator in mid-June 1995. His bulldozer was crushed by a huge slab of ice that broke loose and slid down the slippery granite at Olmsted Point in the high country.
Since then, there has been an abundance of caution when plowing the snow from this road.
This year, the reopening could be complicated if the Sierra is hit with late March and April snowstorms. But if the spring melt gets going early, the delay from the sequester may not be a big problem.
Folks on the Eastern Sierra stay pretty close to this issue. For updates, check here for Twitter and here for Facebook. Yosemite’s updates on Tioga and Glacier Point road openings can be found here.