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Chapter #357: Yosemite High Country Devastation - July 23, 2017


In Late June 2017, The venerable Tuolumne Meadows Lodge lay in devastation and disrepair - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)Yosemite National Park 2017 Devastation at Tuolumne Meadows

My family history in the Eastern Sierra and Yosemite dates back almost eighty years. In 1938, while on a hiatus from living in prewar Los Angeles, my fraternal grandmother, Dorothy met her second husband John A. McCollum there. At that time, he was helping construct U.S. Highway 395 near Bridgeport, California. They fell in love, were married and for the next fifty years returned to fish for trout in Gardisky Lake and Saddlebag Lake near the Tioga Road. In 1944, my mother, Phyllis married my father, Loron N. McGillis. For their honeymoon, in December of that year, they chose Yosemite Valley.

Loron N. (Duke) McGillis and Phyllis McGillis in Yosemite Valley, December 1944 - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)In 1959, I got my first taste of Yosemite National Park and nearby Mono County. For several nights, our family of five camped in Yosemite Valley. When we naively set out one morning to climb the Yosemite Falls Trail, we took no water or food. By the time we reached the base of the main falls, we were hot, tired and dehydrated. When my father wisely made the decision to turn back, at infamous Columbia Rock, I refused to move. The lure of the giant waterfall was too strong for me to admit defeat and return to our campsite.

At night, bears would roam the campgrounds, silently looking for food. On our final morning in Yosemite Valley, a neighboring camper showed me where a bear had licked the side window of his old truck. There had been a melon sitting on the front seat, but bears and people were more naïve in those days. Instead of smashing the window and taking the melon, the California Black Bear walked around our sleeping bags and headed back to his or her domain.

The author, James McGillis at Yosemite Falls in June, 1959 - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)When we left Yosemite Valley, we drove up Highway 120, heading for Tioga Pass and the town of Lee Vining, California on the far side. Although it was late June, there was still snow in the high country. Two years later, in 1961, construction crews completed the modern version of the Tioga Road, all the way to the eastern entrance of Yosemite Park, at the top of Tioga Pass.

Because the construction season was so short and there was no alternate route, traffic stopped for up to one hour at a time. Traffic would alternate at the construction sites and then everything would close down for an hour or more blasting and grading around Tanaya Lake. As a ten year old, the experience seemed to last forever. Even after the arduous trip over the Tioga Road of old, we motored on. In late afternoon, we arrived in the City of Bishop, California. There, we spent the night at a motel with a swimming pool. To me, it seemed the height of luxury.

John A. (Red) McCollum, Dorothy McCollum, Loron N. (Duke) McGillis and Phyllis McGillis in Los Angeles, ca. 1955 - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)From Bishop to our home in Burbank, California was about a three hundred mile trip, featuring desert heat and Sierra Nevada views much of the way. In the late 1950s, most of U.S. Highway 395 was a two-lane road, with only occasional passing lanes or other safe places to pass slower vehicles. To this day, one treacherous stretch of road between Olancha and Cartago remains as it was back in the day. With completion of a four-lane bypass scheduled for 2022, I guarantee every day, some fool will pull out to pass, even though there are twenty vehicles ahead of him.

Since my first visit to Yosemite National Park, it has held a place in my heart, as it did for my parents and grandparents before me. Over the decades, I would often visit Yosemite, driving north on U.S. Highway 99 to Fresno and then northeast on Highway 41. Once inside the national park, the highway becomes the Wawona Road. From Los Angeles to Yosemite Valley was a three hundred mile trip, with lots of San Joaquin Valley heat to endure. From Yosemite Valley to Tuolumne Meadows was only sixty miles, but that took another two hours via the Tioga Road. In recent years, I realized it was eight Ted L. McGillis and the author, James McGillis digging out the 1962 Ford near Crowley Lake California - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)miles shorter to drive from Los Angeles to Tuolumne Meadows via Highway 395 and then over Tioga Pass. In addition, once you leave Bishop, heading north, you ascend almost immediately into the high country, with its cooler temperatures and scenic views.

After a decade of drought in California, the winter of 2016-2017 brought record-setting snowfall in the Sierra Nevada. With a cool springtime and a late start to summer heat, many Sierra trails and secondary roads remained blocked well into July. After seeing a complete lack of snow atop Mammoth Mountain in August 2016, I wanted to see the Sierra snowpack that remained this summer. In order to avoid July 4th weekend crowds, I planned my trip to end on July 1, 2017.

Spokesmodel Carrie McCoy at Mammoth Mountain in July 2015 - Click for 2017 image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)When I left Los Angeles on June 28, my initial destination was the Mammoth Mountain RV Park. I planned to road test my New Titan XD truck, towing our travel trailer to that location. From there I could venture to Lee Vining and then over the Tioga Road to Tuolumne Meadows. Over the winter, the meadows had received up to thirty feet of snowpack. In Mammoth Lakes, at an elevation of 7,500 feet, there was no trace of snow. At an elevation of 8966 feet, nearby Lake Mary was still frozen. As is often the case in July, the days were warm and the nights were cool.

After arriving at Mammoth Lakes, I remembered that it takes almost a week to acclimate to the altitude. On Thursday morning, I slept late and did not venture away from my campsite until late afternoon. Wanting to test my four-
New Nissan Titan XD turbo-diesel at Obsidian Dome, near June Lakes, California - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)wheel drive system, I drove my new truck to Obsidian Dome, just fifteen miles away. One of five volcanic craters in the Mono-Inyo Craters group, I knew that the Obsidian Dome forest trail was challenging but not too daunting for such a big truck.

Looking more like a huge pile of volcanic rocks than a crater, I decided not to hike to the top of the dome. Instead, I drove to a turnout in the woods and enjoyed the solitude of the place. Soon, two other vehicles pulled up to my secluded spot and idled for several minutes before moving on. One might think my spot was the only place to stop in the Eastern Sierra. After the interlopers departed, I noticed that there was still snow a few hundred feet above my location.

The author, Jim McGillis at Mono Lake in late June 2017 - Click for lower lake level in July 2016 (http://jamesmcgillis.com)Upon returning to the RV Park, I confirmed that the Tioga Road had indeed opened to traffic on that very day. The next morning, I started out for the historic town of Lee Vining and then up the Tioga Road to Yosemite National Park. While talking on my mobile telephone, I became distracted and missed the Tioga Road turnoff. That was a lucky break, because a trip through Lee Vining on Highway 395 is always a treat. Just north of the town, there are spectacular views of ancient Mono Lake, so I stopped to take pictures.

In all my years of visiting Mono County, I had not seen the lake level so high. This summer, there was more water available to the City of Los Angeles than it could divert. As a result, Lee Vining Creek and other streams in the Mono Lake watershed appeared to disgorge directly into the lake.

Mt. Dana in late June 2017, with snow-pack still clinging - Click for July 2016 image of the same peak, with no snow-pack (http://jamesmcgillis.com)After researching historic water levels at Mono Lake, I determined that the July 7, 2017 elevation of 6380.4 ft. was up 2.1 ft. from the same date the previous year. Even at that, the lake level was forty-seven feet lower than it was in 1919. Today, the City of Los Angeles and the Mono Lake Committee have an agreement regarding diversion and partial refilling of Mono Lake. With its gently sloping shores and shallow depth, even a small rise in water level covers a vast expanse of the original lakebed.

After gazing at Mono Lake, I realized that I had driven right past the Tioga Road Junction. Soon, I turned around and headed back toward Highway 120, also known as the Tioga Road. When I stopped at the service station just off Highway 395, I could see that it was busy. Inside the store and deli, several hundred people milled around and blocked every aisle. Luckily, I had brought my own snacks and did not need to wait in line for food.

A bicyclist stops at Tioga Lake on June 30, 2017 to photograph his bike with the partially frozen Tioga Lake in the background - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)Back on the Tioga Road, I used the torque of the Titan XD’s turbo-diesel engine to glide up the steep grade. I was passing slower vehicles and appeared hell-bent to get to the high country. Then, I saw the first of two large lakes visible from the highway. It was full to the brim and the spillway was open. I stopped to see a cascade of water plunging down the rocky slope into Lee Vining Creek. At each subsequent stop, I positioned the truck off-road, so I could and take pictures through the open side window. On the return trip, I would photograph points of interest on the other side of the road. One place I stopped, the Tioga Pass Resort, founded in 1914 was flooded and partially destroyed. That was my first taste of infrastructure destruction in the area. Later, I learned that the resort would not open for the season in 2017.

The Tuolumne Meadows Store, broken and beaten by winter weather, shown on June 30, 2017 - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)By the time I reached Tuolumne Meadows, I realized that I had missed the sign for the Tuolumne Meadows Lodge, which is located in the woods, to the east of the actual meadows. Strange… I thought. Did they cover or remove the signage? Before long, I arrived at the Tuolumne Meadows Store. I should say… what was left of the store. In the late fall, the store is stripped of its canvas roof. As winter snows fall, they drift and accumulate inside the skeleton of the wooden structure.

This year, over thirty feet of snow accumulated on the concrete floor of the store. We perceive that snow melts vertically, disappearing into the earth without a trace. The reality is that deep, wet Sierra Nevada snow-pack behaves like a slow-motion glacier. As the snow-pack accumulated in the store, it could not melt through the concrete floor, so it pushed sideways, contorted by both the lower reaches of Tuolumne Meadows became a seasonal lake in late June 2017 - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)wind and gravity. The result was about ten-years of weathering in only one season. The ends of rafters snapped under the load. Anything left standing looked decrepit and derelict.

Compared to the summer drought of 2016, this year Tuolumne Meadows looked green and lush. There was no remaining snow in the upper meadow, but high water flowed down the Tuolumne River. When I headed west another mile along the Tioga Road, I came to the lower meadow that gives the place its plural name. There, the river had backed up at the entrance of a small canyon, creating a seasonal lake. A later check of Google Maps showed no lake in that location, only a wide spot in the river.

Tuolumne Meadow in summer 2016, devastated by ten years of drought - Click for a greener image in late June 2017 (http://jamesmcgillis.com)Traveling back to the east, toward Tioga Pass, I turned right on to the Tuolumne Meadows Lodge Road. At a fork in that road, temporary barriers blocked blocked vehicle access. Parking in the adjacent parking lot, I began a short hike up the closed road. My goal was the Tuolumne Meadows Lodge, with its famed tent-cabins, dining hall and general store. With no one else in sight, my hike alternated between hot sun and gentle shade from the pine and fir trees. When I arrived at the lodge parking lot, I saw the first signs of destruction.

During the spring melt, the Dana Fork of the Tuolumne River had breached its natural banks and an errant stream had cut through grounds of the lodge. Below, mud, rocks and gravel lay fanned out across the parking lot. Closer to the wood-framed lodge, the new stream had cut a v-shaped channel in the
Spokesmodel Carrie McCoy at Tuolumne Meadows Lodge in summer 2016. Click for a similar view in late June 2017 (http://jamesmcgillis.com)pathway. Although a dozen of the tent cabins had their canvas tops and sides installed, there was no sign of any additional work or work parties.

On August 25, 2016, I had visited the Tuolumne Meadows Lodge. By chance, it was the centennial of the U.S. National Parks Service. On that date, the lodge was bustling with activity. Some people sat in the shade, reading, while others had lunch in the dining hall. Hikers and visitors crowded the little store, buying backcountry supplies. Unless one had a prior reservation, no lodging was available. After ten years of drought and insignificant snowfall, the lodge had opened early in 2016.

On the Friday before the July 4th weekend of 2017, the scene was quite different. No other humans were in sight. Almost nothing of the old wooden lodge had received attention. The white-painted structure looked like the
In summer 2016, the Dana Fork of the Tuolumne River was merely a trickle at the Tuolumne Meadows Lodge - Click for an image from late June 2017 - (http://jamesmcgillis.com)bleached bones of a beached whale. The shed roof in front was broken and falling down. Many of the hand-made trusses that supported the dining hall roof were broken. One dangled over the concrete floor, hanging by a length of old electrical conduit. No one had yet taken a broom to the floor, let alone repaired any of the extensive damage. It appeared that the many layers of flaking white paint were all that held the structure together.

Out back, I had the cascading falls of the Tuolumne River’s Dana Fork all to myself. I could see where the river had jumped its banks and toppled an enormous old tree. Steel lunch tables, where campers had sat reading the previous year lay crumpled and broken by the weight of the winter snow-pack.

The Tioga Pass Resort, founded in 1914, lies broken and destroyed in late June 2017 - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)With no one working and the road so recently opened, repair of both the Tuolumne Meadows Store and Lodge appeared to be an overwhelming task. With California experiencing the lowest unemployment figures in a decade, I wondered who would endure the hardship of living in a tent cabin in order to rebuild derelict buildings that might not be repairable. With meager federal government funding for the National Park Service, where would the money come from to repair structures that my parents had first visited seventy-five years ago?

At the old Tuolumne Meadows Service Station, I noted that there were no gas pumps. Where once had been a concrete pad and a service island was a large patch of gravel. Nearby, I photographed an old roadside sign. For motorists heading west to Yosemite Valley, it read, “No Services Next 39 Miles”. The The author, Jim McGillis and his father, Duke McGillis in a tent cabin at Tuolumne Meadows Lodge in summer 2004 - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)irony was that there were no motorist services for the seventy-five mile stretch between Lee Vining and Yosemite Valley. As I departed Yosemite National Park, I realized that high country visitors would find no food, fuel, campsites, wilderness permits or lodging any time soon. As with everything else in Yosemite and Mono County this year, unprepared travelers could be in for a rude shock and a very long wait.

Email James McGillis
Email James McGillis

By James McGillis at 05:32 PM | Travel | Comments (0) | Link

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