In a screenshot from a National Park Service video, a crew is seen working on June 21, 2023, to clear Yosemite National Park's Tioga Road. After the previous winter's historic snowfall, the road is facing its latest opening date since at least 1938. (Courtesy of Yosemite National Park)
Update, 4 p.m. Wednesday, July 19: Yosemite National Park officials announced today that the Tioga Road will open for the season this weekend. It’s a historically late opening — the latest since the park opened the route in July 1915 — after the snowiest winter on record.
Yosemite ranger Steve Lyon said in an email that, following recent custom, the road will be opened to bicycles on Friday. That affords cyclists an opportunity to explore the sometimes narrow high-elevation road without having to deal with motor vehicles, which will get access at 8 a.m. Saturday.
The winter’s heavy snow damaged the road in several places, and park officials are advising drivers to be ready for stretches of one-way traffic.
Many of the buildings along the Tioga corridor were wrecked or seriously damaged. While vault and portable toilets will be ready, the park says that there will be no stores open and no food, water or fuel available along the road.
Before this year, the latest seasonal closure recorded on the Tioga Road was 1917, when the road opened on July 19. In several other years up through the late 1930s, the road opened as late as July 15. After 1938, the road never opened later than July 1.
Update, 5:20 p.m. Thursday, July 13: Yosemite National Park’s Tioga Road remains closed, with crews working to repair high-country facilities that suffered massive damage during the historic snows last winter.
“I wish I had something good to tell you, but it’s a mess up there,” Steve Lyon, a park ranger, told KQED Thursday. He said virtually all of the structures along the Tioga corridor were affected, with 62% being seriously damaged or destroyed.
A ranger station at Tuolumne Meadows is being torn down because it was wrecked by heavy snow loads. Staff housing and other structures in the area also need repairs. The lack of housing for rangers and other staff is adding to the long-delayed road opening, which is within a few days of being the latest since the route first opened to motor vehicles in 1915.
“The road itself is OK,” Lyon said. “But we can’t open it until we can have rangers up there patrolling.”
But there is some good news for those who are seeking access to areas near Tioga Pass but outside the park.
On Thursday afternoon, Caltrans opened Highway 120 between the town of Lee Vining and the national park gate at the pass’s 9,945-foot summit.
While travelers still won’t be able to enter the park, the 12-mile stretch of highway through Lee Vining Canyon will now provide access to campgrounds and trails that have remained inaccessible while Caltrans worked to removed snow and rocks and to repair damage along the route.
Original story, July 10: One of the rites of California’s late spring/early summer is the opening of the Tioga Road, the route across Yosemite’s high country and one treasured for its access to some of the national park’s best hiking and camping and its most memorable views.
This year, it’s a rite long delayed.
The last time the Tioga Road remained closed this late in the season was 1922, when the highway opened July 10. The only later openings occurred in 1917, on July 19, and in 1916 and 1921 — on July 15 both years.
This year’s long closure is the direct result of this winter’s historic snowfall, which not only buried the road in snow and ice but caused serious damage to parts of the 46-mile route and adjacent facilities.
“Everyone’s been talking about what a crazy, epic winter we’ve had and just the monumental task of getting that road open,” said Steve Lyon, a Yosemite National Park ranger, earlier this week.
That work has involved months of plowing with tracked vehicles, bulldozers, rotary plows and other heavy equipment. As it does every year, it has also involved trying to clear the more than two dozen segments of the road that are prone to avalanches.
Lyon said crews have cleared that section of road but that avalanche damage to one lane there will require traffic control regulated by temporary stoplights when the road opens.
Lyon said part of the delay in lifting travel restrictions in the area is the need to assess and repair roadside restrooms, staff housing and other facilities damaged during the winter.
“There’s a fair number of buildings up there,” Lyon said. “Almost all of them have taken some damage, and some of them are just completely destroyed.”
Because of all the assessment and repair work, the park says it still cannot say when the road will open.
Repair work is also continuing to the east of Tioga Pass along the road’s state-owned continuation, Highway 120. Caltrans crews finished clearing snow from that steep, winding section weeks ago and have been busy ever since removing boulders deposited on the roadway during the winter and restoring roadside berms that help contain rockfalls.
Christopher Andriessen, spokesperson for Caltrans District 9, said in an email Friday that rock clearing continues in an area called Blue Slide, about midway along Highway 120 between the pass and the town of Lee Vining. Once that last piece of rock work is done, Andriessen said, crews will begin repairing and replacing guardrails damaged or destroyed over the winter. He said that job will take about five business days.
Although in the past Caltrans has worked with park officials to coordinate the opening of the road, so that the state and Yosemite sections all become accessible the same day, Andriessen said that won’t necessarily be the case this year.
“We will open our gate once our preparations and repairs are complete, even if the park entrance remains closed,” he said. “This will give summer travelers access to campgrounds and lakes in the Inyo National Forest that are outside” the national park.
Because of its elevation and the heavy snowfall along the route — generally, the higher you go in the Sierra, the more snow you get when storms blow in — the Tioga Road is often the first of California’s mountain highways closed every fall and the last to open once the mountains emerge from winter.
Last fall, officials shut down the road on Halloween in anticipation of the season’s first major snowfall. The closure came a little earlier than it has in most recent years, according to records kept by Yosemite National Park and the Mono Lake Committee, but was far from unusual.
Then the winter came on in earnest, with two series of storms that were not only unusual but history-making, dropping record amounts of snow nearly the entire length of the Sierra. When the storms finally abated this spring, the country along the Tioga Road had received something like 240% of its average snowfall, leaving the route buried under a deeper layer of snow — and in some places ice, rocks and trees — than any living person has ever seen.
The road was first developed in the early 1880s as a route for mining operations near Tioga Pass. It was acquired by the federal government in 1915 and opened to trans-Sierra travelers when it was little more than a one-lane dirt track.
If you’re going to Yosemite National Park …
With the eastern entrance via the Tioga Road closed, the three routes into Yosemite National Park are:
Highway 120/Big Oak Flat Road, via Manteca and Groveland: This is the most direct route from most of the Bay Area.
Delays: Note that the park has experienced very heavy traffic in recent weeks, especially on weekends. Parking space in Yosemite Valley has been filling up early (often by 8:30 a.m.). Beginning later in the morning, waits of an hour or more have been typical at park entrances. At times, the eastern end of the valley has been closed to incoming traffic. Check the park’s Current Conditions page for more information.
Mobile alerts: Yosemite National Park is piloting a mobile alert service on parking and traffic conditions in the valley using Nixle. Text YNPTraffic to 333111 for updates.
An earlier version of this story was published on July 8.
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