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California’s High Snowpack Could Spell Trouble for Pacific Crest Trail Hikers

With the snowpack double the average so far, thru-hikers could face tougher travel in the mountains and more dangerous river crossings this year.

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It’s a snowy winter in California—and that could mean trouble down the line for Pacific Crest Trail hikers.

According to current measurements, the northern Sierra currently has 173% of the average snowpack for this time of the year, followed by 201% in the central Sierra and 222% in the southern Sierra. Statewide, snow levels are 199% the average amount. Amidst the worst drought in 1,200 years, the moisture could help restore some of California’s water supply. But there are drawbacks to the heavy precip.

“The significant Sierra snowpack is good news but unfortunately these same storms are bringing flooding to parts of California,” said California Department of Water Resources Director Karla Nemeth in a press release. “This is a prime example of the threat of extreme flooding during a prolonged drought as California experiences more swings between wet and dry periods brought on by our changing climate.” 

Besides the threat to communities, unusually high snowpack can also result in risky backcountry travel. High snow levels can contribute to hikers’ risk of hypothermia, avalanches, dangerous river crossings, and even springtime rock slides. 

If this year’s PCT class has to deal with tougher conditions due to snow, it wouldn’t be the first time. In 2017, the state of California received 166% as much snow as it does in an average year, creating treacherous hiking conditions across the Sierra. Two hikers drowned attempting river crossings in the span of a month, Wang Chaocui in Kerrick Canyon in Yosemite National Park in July and Rika Morita in the Kings River. So far, the first half of this winter is on par with snowpack levels from 2017. 

While preliminary measurements suggest that it could be a wet year in California, snow conditions are becoming more difficult to predict as the climate changes. If last year’s snowpack mirrors 2023’s, hikers could still be headed for drought conditions. The Sierras received an extremely high volume of snow and rain in December of 2021. Then the state experienced the driest January through March on record, resulting in subpar moisture levels. 

“We are seeing the best start to our snowpack in over a decade,” DWR tweeted on January 7. “But it is only a start – most of the winter season has yet to unfold, major reservoirs hold below-average storage, and last years’ experience demonstrates that powerful #storms can punctuate but not end a #drought.”

This winter’s weather may provide backpackers with an incentive to change how they plan their hike. At this time, the state of Oregon’s snowpack levels are right around the average for this time of the year, and Washington state is slightly above average. If western weather trends. This could potentially make a southbound thru-hike less risky than the traditional northbound hike. 

Sierra snowpack supplies about 30% of California’s water supply, making it a critical part of the state’s water strategy. But even with a high snow year, it’s unlikely that California will be free of its historical drought for the foreseeable future. In response to this year’s snowpack,:

“It’s definitely a very exciting start to the year and a very promising start to the year,” Andrew Schwartz, the lead scientist at UC Berkeley’s Central Sierra Snow Laboratory stated in an interview with the L.A. Times. “But we just need the storm train to keep coming through.” So hikers planning on an early start this year may want to keep a close watch on the weather: Whether the snow keeps rolling in could make or break their plans.

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