Tioga Pass through Yosemite finally opened yesterday, July 22nd. That’s the latest opening date ever – by far. The previous record was July 8th, way back in 1933, before the road was even paved. In 1938, the year after it was paved, Tioga Road opened on July 5th. But since 1938 it’s always opened by the end of June, except for 1998, when it opened July 1st. Even in the prodigious snow year of 1983 it opened on June 30th.
An exceptional set of circumstances conspired to make this year’s opening so late. First, there was a lot of snow. There’s some debate about whether this was a record year for snowfall in the Sierra; it’s actually a hard thing to measure, as there are a lot of variables. But it was certainly one of the snowiest years on record.
But it wasn’t just the amount of snow that delayed the opening. Cool temperatures in spring and early summer meant that little snow melted in April, May, and early June, which are normally the months of peak melting and runoff. There was also high avalanche danger at Olmsted Point; ever since snowplow operator Barry Hance died in an avalanche there in 1995, crews have been understandably cautious in that area. When the park service finally did get most of the road plowed, they discovered that sections of the road had been damaged during the winter and needed repairs. (There’s still only one lane open near Olmsted Point, with traffic controls and delays.)
This year our workshop in the Yosemite high country was scheduled to start on July 10th. I knew there was a lot of snow in the mountains, yet felt pretty confident the Tioga Road would open in time for the workshop, since it had never opened later than July 1st since 1938! But as the workshop approached, and it became apparent that the pass wouldn’t open, we had to adapt. And sometimes that’s a good thing.
Knowing that we wouldn’t be able to get to the Yosemite high country during the workshop, we headed over early (via Sonora Pass) to our base in Lee Vining (near Mono Lake) to scout for alternative locations. And of course we found plenty of them, because the eastern Sierra is an exceptionally beautiful area. And we also got a big assist from Tim Aston, my assistant for the workshop, who lives in Mammoth and knows the area well.
Best of all, we found lots of wildflowers. There were flowers blooming everywhere, even in the sagebrush habitats in the high desert, even in July. All that late-melting winter snow left plenty of moisture in the soil, which the flowers apparently loved.
So while we weren’t able to go to some of the places we normally go during the workshop, we had a great time on the eastern side of the mountains. We were still able to photograph cascading mountain creeks, and alpine lakes with snowy mountain backdrops. And we got to photograph lots of wildflowers, in places I’d never seen flowers before, which was great fun.
Here’s a small collection of my flower photos from this summer in the eastern Sierra. A couple of these were made in June, prior to our Starry Skies Adventure workshop, but most were made either during or just prior to our July Range of Light workshop. It’s been a spectacular year for wildflowers in California, and it’s not over; in the highest mountains the bloom should continue into August or even September.
— 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.