The “Big Melt” Hits Yosemite: Park Closes Valley as Rivers Flood

Overflowing rivers will close most of Yosemite Valley through at least Wednesday—and the park says more floods could be on the way as California's historic snowpack melts.

Photo: Mario Tama / Staff

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Yosemite Valley will close to visitors from tonight through at least Wednesday due to floods as the Sierra’s historic snowpack begins to melt.

In a news release, the park said that “Western Yosemite Valley will remain open but could close if traffic congestion or parking issues become unmanageable,” though no services will be available. The closure area begins at El Capitan Crossover. Wilderness permit holders will be able to reschedule their trips, the park said; visitors who had booked lodges or campsites will receive a refund.

This closure comes about a month after Yosemite restored public access to regions of the park that were damaged by February’s historic snowpack, which brought 15 feet of snow to some parts of the park. A recent survey showed that Yosemite’s snowpack is 240% of average. And at higher elevations, the park experienced its highest snowpack ever recorded, which many translate into heightened flooding throughout May and June.

The National Weather Service of the California Nevada River is predicting above-average temperatures throughout the weekend. As temperatures rise, this season’s historical snowpack is expected to quickly melt, heavily impacting the Merced River. This could result in washed-out bridges and additional downslope damage. By Sunday afternoon, the river is forecast to reach a height of over 11 feet—one foot above flood stage—and to increase in speed, creating safety hazards for those within the area.

Besides the west side of the Valley, other areas like Hetch Hetchy, Wawona and Crane Flat will be open, but visitors to this area should expect higher levels of congestion, strict parking enforcements, and potential closures. Park officials recently warned visitors that emergency response times may be delayed as the result of the flooding, as well.

Rockfall and flooding are common spring occurrences in Yosemite, but this year’s snowpack is likely to kick them up in severity. Additionally, trails that typically become accessible in the spring are unlikely to be accessible until July of this year. Rout-finding in Yosemite’s snow-covered elevations can be difficult to impossible. Additionally, this year’s snowpack will likely contribute to deeper river crossings as the season progresses although the water level levels fluctuate by day.

This could be bad news for Pacific Crest Trail and overnight hikers. One key bridge in nearby Kings Canyon National Park has been washed out in floods, likely forcing hikers to skip the section where it sits or take long detours to avoid it. Besides affecting hikers’ plans, the melting snow could also foil trail maintenance crews, delaying some improvements for another year.

Speaking to USA Today, park spokesman Scott Gediman said that additional flooding closures could last through June or even July.

“I’ve been in Yosemite for 27 years and I’ve never seen this much snow,” he said.

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