A couple of years ago, I drove up to Yosemite to experience what promised to be a cool little road trip. Weirdly dry weather in the late fall and early winter had left the Tioga Road in Yosemite National Park open to travelers all the way into January. It was the first time since the 1930s the road, state Highway 120 across Tuolumne Meadows and the nearly 2-mile-high Tioga Pass, had been open so late in the season. The rare chance for a winter visit to the high country was irresistible. As it happened, I made my trip across the nearly snowless roof of California just a couple days before the onset of serious weather closed the road for five months.
What no one could have known then was that the winter of 2011-12 was just the first in a series of dry snow seasons for Yosemite and the rest of the Sierra. The winter of 2012-13 started out stormy and wild, but the wet-season storm door slammed shut on New Year’s Day 2013 and didn’t really open more than a crack for more than a year — until around Groundhog Day 2014. We’ve seen stormy episodes since then, but not nearly enough of them to lift us out of what has become a dangerously deep drought.
Now, straight from Yosemite, is the latest sign of what drought has wrought: National Park officials opened the Tioga Road on Friday at 10 a.m. It’s the earliest the highway has been clear for travel since 1987, when it also opened on May 2, and weeks ahead of the average opening date, in late May. According to data from the Mono Lake Committee, May 2 is the third-earliest opening date since the Tioga Road went into service in 1933. The earliest dates ever? During the historic drought of the 1970s, it opened on April 10 in 1976 and April 8 in 1977,
The National Park Service says the latest opening date in the past several decades was after the El Niño winter of 1997-98, when travel resumed on July 1 (the latest date ever was July 8, 1933, in the road’s inaugural year).
Of course, just because the road is open doesn’t mean the high country is a summer vacation paradise. Here’s the caveat on conditions travelers might find along the Tioga Road:
There are no visitor services open between the town of Lee Vining east of Yosemite and Crane Flat, on the western side of the park. All campgrounds, the gas station, the store and the village grill are closed, with no anticipated opening dates yet. Due to the high elevation of Tioga Pass (nearly 10,000 feet above sea level) it’s still very early spring up there, with snowy and icy conditions along hiking trails.