Over wine poolside this late September Wednesday evening (70F!), Hannah and I wonder if we should roll the dice to squeeze in just one more hike in Yosemite National Park? The weather forecast for Thursday is not promising. Is just one more hike on the Taft and Sentinel Dome Trails off Glacier Point in the central Sierras too much to ask?
Wayne, Hannah, Mary Lynne, and Dan with the Vernal Falls in the background
Moteled in Oakhurst, California, 16 miles from the southern entrance to Yosemite National Park, we struck hiking gold yesterday with our longtime friends from York, Wayne and Mary Lynne Boardman, climbing to the spectacular Vernal and Nevada Falls, on a golden day in the mid-60s. Click here for the link to that blog.
Waking Thursday morning, we look out our motel window to see heavy gray clouds, smothering the nearby mountains. The forecast hasn’t changed, but we have.
At 40F here in 2200′ Oakhurst, CA, we know it’s not likely that we’ll be hiking at 7000’ Glacier Point. If we did drive into the park to hike, our plan was to continue to the 9945’ Tioga Pass to South Lake Tahoe. Any precipitation today will likely be snow. If the pass is closed, we will have to backtrack on winding park roads that will make our travel day a travel day and night-mare.
Choosing not to roll the dice on the Glacier Point trails, we do the Columbus thing. No, not wipe out the indigenous population, but go west to reach the east. Driving west to Merced in the Central Valley, then north on the four-lane route 99 to Sacramento, we have the clouds parting and the sun emerging. Though stormy in the Sierras, it’s 70s here in the valley.
Texting us as we drive east, Wayne confirms our suspicions about the weather in the Sierras; he lets us know that Glacier Point Road has been closed due to snow. In Sacramento, I take over the driving with a sweet 100 miles of four lane Interstate all the way to Reno, Nevada.
In short order, ominous clouds are covering the mountains to the east where we will summit at the 7000’ Donner Pass. Passing signs saying 1000’ of elevation, then at 2000’ and 3000’, we have threatening gray/black clouds blocking the sun. Driving by pull offs for putting chains on tires, we are rolling along on this last day in summer.
Hannah riding shotgun doubles as snow photographer
Clearly, if there were to be weather issues at the Donner Pass, the California Highway Department would close the highway. They haven’t, and we motor on. But now the car thermometer has dropped from 73F in Sacramento to 40F and the first rain drops spot the windshield. Soon, heavy wet snowflakes bombard the windshield as the car thermometer keeps dropping, now to 37F.
As a major east/west truck route, the big boys are exiting the highway. Clueless, I don’t make the connection to their leaving the highway and the increasingly nasty weather. Cautiously driving at 40 mph, we are still climbing into the Sierras. Only later do we learn of the forecast of 3 to 6 inches of snow along Interstate 80 above 7,000 feet! That’s Donner Pass country, cowgirls and cowboys!
CBS News photograph
On the opposite side of I-80, we see a car off the road; for ten miles, as we head east, we see little movement in the trucks and cars heading west. Later we learn that the slick roadway caused a chain reaction crash involving 16 vehicles with at least one fatality. Click here for CBS News report
SUV leaving me in the dust (snow dust that is)
Having travel issues on our side of I-80 as well as we climb to Donner Pass with low snow clouds, we crawl at a snail’s pace as two lanes merge into one. Relentlessly, the snow comes down in large flakes as the wiper whips them away; we hear thunder and see flashes of lightning as the snow begins to accumulate. Over 45 minutes, we stop, we crawl, we creep, we inch, but we mostly stop.
Seeing signs for Donner Pass State Park, I notice another sign that warns us of a 7% grade descent over the next five miles. On one hand, that’s good news that we are getting off the summit; on the other, we’ll be picking up speed going down the mountain on these slick roads.
And all the while the ominous history of the Donner Pass comes to mind. Led by George Donner and James Reed, pioneers in the mid-19th century found snow blocking this very pass through the mountains. Forced to spend the winter in the Sierras, only 45 of 81 settlers survived. Reportedly some of the 45 resorted to cannibalism. Clearly, Hannah and I hope the snows don’t cause any such historical reenactment.
Even though I am the slowest one on the road, I never feel the rental car slide or shimmy on the wet, snowy highway, despite it being a little Hyundai Accent nothing. With few 18 wheelers on the road, we are trending well as we pass through Truckee at 6000’; the snow lightens and begins mixing with rain.
Soon the car thermometer rises to 35F, then 37F and the changeover to rain is complete. Nevada’s warmth beckons. Once in Reno at 4500’, 15 miles to the east of the California border, we are home free.
Tonight, at our Quality Inn, there are no news reports of cannibalism on I-80; Hannah and I celebrate with a gluten-filled mushroom pizza.
Click here for news link of this late summer storm.
One month later on Halloween, an early fall storm is on the horizon. Forecasters said Monday that gusty winds and 1 to 2 feet of snow are likely Saturday and Sunday along California’s main mountain passes, including Donner Pass near Lake Tahoe, Tioga Pass at Yosemite, Ebbetts Pass and Carson Pass, with perhaps a foot along the shoreline of Lake Tahoe this weekend. “There’s a potential for chain requirements, travel delays and possible road closures.” said Chris Hintz, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Sacramento.