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Scouting Report: Spring Review of High Sierra Backpacking Conditions, Late May-Early June

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By Alex Wierbinski - Posted on 30 May 2010

It is May 29, and I'm sure all of our thoughts are turning towards the High Sierras, wondering when the trails will open up for this Summer's backpacking season. Mine certainly are. Though it is late Spring, the Sierras are still packed full of snow at high altitudes. The sun appears to be coming out, and the temps are rising.

 I am departing tomorrow to check the snow and trail conditions through two scouting trips in the Central and Northern High Sierras. I want to answer two questions during this trip. First, how much snow sits above 8000 feet. And second, when will the high altitude Sierra Crest trails be snow free?

Doing two trips, one in the Central Sierras around Sonora Pass, and the second between Lake Tahoe and Carson Pass should be sufficient to give you all a heads up about the spring snow conditions along the central and northern Sierra Crest, river flow and fording conditions, and what conditions you can generally expect to encounter.

So I'm heading over to the Eastern Sierras, to start the first backpacking trip at Golden Gate Mine Road for a three or four day backpacking trip to Sonora Pass. (for more on this trip, see, "A Great Three Season Trip..."

Last week's late-season storms brought a fresh coat of snow down to the 5000 foot level. This is setting the table for fine short distance Spring trips up to, and along the Sierra Crest for snow backpackers.

In addition, there are a whole load of people heading North from Mexico, right now, along the Pacific Crest Trail towards the Snow covered Sierras. A series of late-season snow storms has packed the high country, and I'm really curious about the trail conditions that Pacific Crest Trailers are going to experience.

The amount of snow sitting along the Sierra Crest is very important to Pacific Crest Trailers and other long distance High Sierra Backpackers. The more snow there is, the slower the backpacker goes. If there is a heck of a lot of snow, much of the high country will be very difficult, if not impossible, for backpackers without extensive snow experience.

In any case, deep snow conditions will put a kink in the long distance or PCT backpacker's expected time and mileage calculations. 

So I'm going to go check it out, first heading from Walker, Ca, to Sonora Pass on what should be a three night trip.

I'm planning on starting my first backpacking trip from the Little Antelope Pack Station along the Eastern Flank of the Sierras just North of the town of Walker on Highway 395.

To get there I am taking Highway 108, which just just recently opened, Eastbound across the Sierras. This route will give me the oppertunity to check out the snow depth not just where the highway comes across at Sonora Pass, but I will be able to observe the Pacific Crest Trail where it comes down from Leavitt Peak to the North, and even more importantly for my trip, I will observe where the PCT passes Northward from Sonora Pass to pass along a cliff section on the Northern flank of Sonora Peak, where the Pacific Crest Trail is heading towards the Sonora Gap, and Wolf Creek Lake just beyond the Sonora Gap.

This is an important section to me because I hope to pass South through the Sonora Gap along the cliff section of the trail below Sonora Peak, on my way to end my first trip at Sonora Pass.

As soon as I return, in about a week, I will report on snow and trail conditions around the Sonora Pass Region.

My observations of the Pacific Crest Trail along the flank of Sonora Peak from Sonora Pass will indicate if this route is currently passable. If the trail along the cliff is packed with snow it is not passable, and I will be forced to turn East from Wolf Creek Lake, to end my trip on Highway 108 by passing through the US Marine Base, as will many Pacific Crest Trail hikers.

An examination of the local snow sensors indicates that the snow around Sonora Pass is deep and wet.

Sonora Pass does not have real time snow and temperature data, but the Sonora Pass Bridge, just East of the pass does.  Sonora Pass Bridge,  8760', reported 65 inches of snow and temps between 21 and 49 degrees during the past 24 hours. This location is 800 feet lower than Sonora Pass, which means Sonora Pass will have even more snow.


Ebbetts Pass, 8700', has 77 inches of snow and ran between 24 and 50 degrees during the last 24 hours.

Poison Flat, 7900', has 45 inches of snow and ran between 22 and 49 degrees during the last 24 hours

After completing the Walker to Sonora Pass trip, I will be heading to Lake Tahoe for the second segment of this two-part backpacking trip.

The plan is to complete a circle from the South Upper Truckee trailhead to Showers Lake via Round Lake. This should take two nights. From Showers Lake we will follow the PCT/Tahoe to Yosemite route out of the Tahoe Basin to Round Top Lake under the shadow of Round Top and the Sisters.

From there we will head back towards the South Upper Truckee Trailhead via Round Lake.

This trip will give us a good view of the trail conditions on both the Pacific Crest Trail and the Tahoe to Yosemite Trail between Carson Pass and Showers Lake. 

I look forward to returning next week and posting you up on the current trail and environmental conditions in these central and northern Sierra sections of the Pacific Crest Trail.

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