As most of you probably heard, Yosemite got hit with some wild weather last week. The National Weather Service was predicting a major flood for the Merced River in Yosemite Valley on Sunday, January 8th. Their initial projection, issued on January 5th (I think) put the water level at Pohono Bridge at 23.7 feet, slightly higher than the 1997 flood, which closed the valley for two months. Then the next day the projection dropped to 15 feet, considered a moderate flood. On Saturday the projection climbed again to 16, 17, 18, then 19.7 feet – just below the “major flood” level of 20 feet. And then the projection dropped again to 15 feet, and then lower still.
Amid all these fluctuating river forecasts the park service preemptively closed Yosemite Valley to visitors on Friday at 5:00 p.m., and evacuated all non-essential employees on Saturday. They said they would reevaluate conditions by late Sunday or early Monday.
I had a workshop scheduled to start on Monday (January 9th) in Yosemite Valley with The Ansel Adams Gallery. Needless to say, the flood prediction and valley closure added a lot of uncertainty to that schedule. We initially pushed the start back to Tuesday, and then, when Aramark (the park concessioner) started cancelling everyone’s Tuesday night hotel reservations, we pushed it back to Wednesday.
As it turned out, the Merced River crested at 12.68 feet on Sunday night, barely above what’s considered the “moderate” flood level of 12.5 feet. The flood caused no major damage to infrastructure, and non-essential employees were allowed back into the valley Monday afternoon. The park service announced that the park would reopen to visitors on Tuesday, but with limited services. The hotels wouldn’t reopen until Wednesday.
And just to complicate matters, highways 120 and 140 were closed by rockslides on Monday. But 140 reopened around midday on Tuesday, allowing me to avoid a long detour, and providing a low-elevation route into the valley that didn’t require most vehicles to put on chains at that time.
Some of our workshop group couldn’t adapt to the change in schedule, but six adventurous souls made it to our Wednesday-morning meeting. And we ended up having great conditions. The water was high, as you might expect after a flood (even a relatively minor one). By the time I got to the valley on Tuesday afternoon the river was at 6.5 feet, well below flood stage, but still pretty full. All the meadows were partially flooded, and the waterfalls were at late-spring levels. The most impressive sight was Bear Creek, which parallels Highway 140 as it descends down the Briceburg grade. I stopped near the top of the grade and looked down into the creek, which descends over a series of small and normally-quiet waterfalls along that stretch. On that day I watched tons of deep brown water thundering down the cascades, throwing off plumes of spray.
It snowed on Tuesday in Yosemite Valley, then turned to rain on Wednesday, and back to snow on Thursday. We had some clearing-storm conditions Wednesday morning, and a moonlit clearing storm on Thursday evening. Thursday’s snow stuck to the trees for an unusually long time in shady areas, and we found mist along the river and meadows on Friday and Saturday evenings. All in all it was a great five days, which made all the scheduling uncertainty worthwhile.
Here are a few photographs from last week. We’ve got more weather on the way this week, with snow expected in Yosemite Valley tomorrow, and again on Sunday and Monday. Let’s hope there are no floods or rockslides this time!
— Michael Frye
Michael Frye is a professional photographer specializing in landscapes and nature. He is the author or principal photographer of The Photographer’s Guide to Yosemite, Yosemite Meditations, Yosemite Meditations for Women, Yosemite Meditations for Adventurers, and Digital Landscape Photography: In the Footsteps of Ansel Adams and the Great Masters. He has also written three eBooks: Light & Land: Landscapes in the Digital Darkroom, Exposure for Outdoor Photography, and Landscapes in Lightroom: The Essential Step-by-Step Guide. Michael has written numerous magazine articles on the art and technique of photography, and his images have been published in over thirty countries around the world. Michael has lived either in or near Yosemite National Park since 1983, currently residing just outside the park in Mariposa, California.