PSA | Hazardous High Sierra creeks: List, map & alternates

Every spring, creeks in the High Sierra rage with snowmelt. For one to two months, they are a grave danger, especially after wet winters like 2018-19. Backpackers can still hike, camp, and explore safely, but they should be aware of and respect this hazard.

Swift and deep creek crossings will be found throughout the range, including but not limited to (the):

  • Yosemite National Park,
  • Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Park,
  • John Muir Trail,
  • Pacific Crest Trail,
  • High Sierra Trail,
  • Rae Lakes Loop,
  • Yosemite High Route, and,
  • Kings Canyon High Basin Route.

On this page you will find a list and map of known creek hazards. It’s designed to keep backcountry users safer, by highlighting problem spots and identifying wiser alternates.

A swollen Tuolumne River as it plummets from Tuolumne Meadows into the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne

Please contribute

This resource needs your help. While I have hiked extensively in the High Sierra, I cannot speak confidently about every creek crossing.

Please share your experience(s) to help make this a more accurate and thorough resource, ultimately helping to keep hikers safer. For instructions, refer to the end of this post.

About peak run-off

Before we get to the list and map of creek hazards, I’d like to share some context and complementary information.

Contributing factors

Creek crossings in the High Sierra warrant your attention. The hazard is caused by a unique set of circumstances:

  • Significant wintertime snowfall,
  • Arrival of hot and sunny weather in late-spring,
  • Steep gradients,
  • Few bridges,
  • Recreational use miles downstream of headwaters, and,
  • Non-porous granite substrate.

Timing

Water levels normally peak in late-May and June. But after wet winters and cool springs, they can be delayed until or remain elevated into July.

On a typical warm and sunny day, the creeks rise and fall considerably. They are highest in the early-evening, swollen with an entire day of melt; and lowest in the morning, after a night of near-freezing temperatures.

Gear & skills

Already I have written an in-depth tutorial about gear and skills for creek crossings. In short:

It’s helpful to use trekking poles and to cross in your hiking shoes. But it’s even more important to:

  • Plan crossings in the morning, when flows are relatively low;
  • Identify and use safer crossing points;
  • Cross larger creeks where they are braided, or take on their tributaries independently further upstream;
  • Find snow bridges, and log bridges and jams; and,
  • Cross with other hikers, as matter of safety and sometimes stability.

Data: Current levels

For current stream flows, refer to the gauges linked below. Even if they are not on your route, they will give you a sense for real-time conditions.

  • Kern River (at Kernville), which drains the southernmost High Sierra;
  • Kaweah River (at Three Rivers), which originates upstream of Lodgepole Campground and Kaweah Pass (on the High Sierra Trail);
  • Kings River (at Road’s End), which is downstream of Forester Pass, Rae Lakes, and Muir Pass;
  • Merced River (at Happy Isles), which captures melt in the southern half of Yosemite;
  • Tuolumne River (at Tuolumne Meadows), downstream of Lyell Canyon and Donohue Pass;

Warning

The list and map of creek hazards are increasingly comprehensive and accurate. But they are not perfect: some hazardous creeks are NOT included, and some information may be incorrect or out of date.

I am providing these sources as a matter of public safety, but ultimately you are responsible for your decisions and safety.

List of creek hazards

To make this list most useful to the most number of backpackers — who overwhelming start and finish at the same trail head, who stay within one land management jurisdiction, and who follow unbranded routes — I have decided to organize this list by agency and then by alphabetical order.

But in recognition of the popularity of trade routes like the Pacific Crest and John Muir Trails, and as an additional resource for my Yosemite High Route Guide and Kings Canyon High Basin Route Guide, I have included dedicated columns for these trails and routes to allow for quick filtering of applicable crossings.

To open this list in a new window, click here.


Map of creek hazards

To open this map in a new window, click here.

The default layer is the USGS 7.5-minute map series. But I recommend using the more updated FSTopo 2016 layer for trips in or through National Forests.


How to use these resources in the field

The list and map will be regularly improved, specifically:

  • June 10-15,
  • July 2-10, and
  • Again before the 2020 season.

List

For a PDF of the list that you can print or download to your smartphone, click here.

To create your own copy of the spreadsheet that you can tailor to your itinerary and then either print or download, either:

  • Sign into your Google account, click here, and then select File > Make a copy; or,
  • Download it as an Excel file.

Note: After creating your own copy of this file, additional updates to my master spreadsheet will not automatically download to yours.

Map

To bring this map (or its data) into the field:

  • To start, click here, which will open the map in a new window;
  • Under Export, select Download GPX file.

This downloaded GPX file can be:

  • Opened on your smartphone, with an app like GaiaGPS;
  • Loaded onto a handheld GPS unit;
  • Uploaded to an online mapping platform (I highly recommend Caltopo), where you can edit and print it.

As with the list, your GPX copy will not update with changes that are made to my master map.

Contribute to this resource

If you would like to share information about specific creek crossings, leave a comment below. Please include:

  • Creek name;
  • Description of or GPS coordinates for the location;
  • Jurisdiction (e.g. Yosemite NP, Sequoia-Kings Canyon NP, Inyo NF);
  • A description of the crossing, including its watershed size, swiftness, underlying bed surface, and overall risk level; and,
  • Potential safe alternates, including GPS points if they’re available.

Is the information accurate? Have an experience to share? Curious about an unlisted creek? Leave a comment.

23 Comments

  1. Hunter Grantham Hall on June 10, 2019 at 1:55 am

    THIS IS SO SICK! Thank You on behalf of all High Sierra hikers.

  2. Ginny on June 10, 2019 at 9:38 am

    Wow. An amazing resource. Tbh I would expect nothing less from you. Personally hoping for less snowpack in 2020 😉

    • Michael otnisky on June 10, 2019 at 12:25 pm

      Remember to unbuckle your waist strap before crossing

      • George on June 12, 2019 at 11:42 am

        Yes, I second that. Watching, for instance, the incredible stream crossings of Little Skittles on PCT video (worth watching) I notice they don’t loosen shoulder straps or release waist belt at crossings. If you go in, you need to get rid of pack instantly. Good advice. Worth watching her videos for excellent visual of current conditions.

        Oh, and snow bridges! They’re incredibly dangerous right now. If you have to cross, test with hard strikes of hiking poles ahead of you.

  3. Hobbes on June 10, 2019 at 10:10 am

    Andrew, nice list. Couple of comments and a question.

    Question: the Palisades creek footbridge was washed out when I hiked through the LeConte three years ago in May. Do you know if it’s been rebuilt?

    Comments:
    1. Taboose creek can be moderately dangerous during a high snow year. The lower crossing was really flowing July, 2017. The double crossings created enough worry/concern that some people where sticking to the north side and doing a full day bushwhack to avoid the fords.

    2. Woods creek @ the Sawmill pass junction can be impassable during high afternoon flows. I met a group of hikers who had turned back a few years ago as I was heading in. I was worried about getting across since I was meeting some friends up in middle basin. I got up early and was able to cross over to the PCT/JMT without issue.

    3. The crossing between Arrowhead and Dollar below Rae lakes can be stomach deep. Water isn’t flowing very fast, but the experience is similar to the photo you have posted above (although not as wide.)

    4. Further down, the drainage coming out of 60 lakes basin (right before the Baxter creek junction) seems similar to the Taboose ford ie flowing pretty good.

    5. The north fork Mono ford can be similar to Bear. While the main Mono creek has a bridge, I think the north fork might have a log crossing.

    6. Both Window peak and White creeks flowing down to Woods creek (above the suspension bridge) create pretty nice obstacles. Doable, but need to be careful.

    Lastly, had a nice quick fishing trip out of KM into the Golden trout wilderness last week. Ran into a bunch of PCT hikers, 95% of whom seemed perfectly aware of what they signed up for and well equipped to deal with alpine conditions.

    • Andrew Skurka on June 10, 2019 at 10:50 am

      This is fantastic, thank you. Will work on getting these up.

    • Andrew Skurka on June 10, 2019 at 11:56 am

      Where is the Palisades Creek footridge? At the Middle Fork? I’ve never see one there, but I haven’t been there since 2014.

      Or do you mean the footbridge over the creek that drains Dusy Basin, near the ranger station?

      • Hobbes on June 10, 2019 at 12:53 pm

        Yeah the one you have listed as Palisades creek/middle fork.

        https://caltopo.com/map.html#ll=37.05322,-118.57648&z=15&b=t&o=mbt&n=0.3

        Also, while not part of the JMT/PCT, the SHR from Mammoth to Yosemite crosses a number of water obstacles in high snow years:

        The first would be the waterfall coming out of Catherine (might create misty/wet conditions getting down the class 3 cliff face to the north). Then you have to get across the upper N fork San Joaquin (usually not a problem).

        But then you have the wade across the Twin lakes outlet which is deep (if slow) even in normal years. Then you have Bench canyon/Blue lakes. Then you have the Lyle fork of the upper Merced. Last, you then need to cross Lewis creek to get over Vogelsang pass down into Tuolumne.

        Do you remember any of these obstacles when you did the SHR?

        I’m guessing no one, man nor beast, is back there right now. Talk about being on your own. It’s empty enough later in summer.

        • Andrew Skurka on June 10, 2019 at 4:39 pm

          Can you give me a waypoint on your map with the Lake Catherine waterfall? I can speculate where is based on the maps, but I don’t recall it specifically. Buzz I did that route eleven years ago after a dry winter.

          I remember Twin Lakes, and I remember fighting to keep the contour through that section. Don’t remember anything significant in Bench Canyon — should it be mentioned.

          Definitely the Lyell Fork is an issue. Thankfully it looks like you can jog upstream to a meadow at 9,300 feet.

          Is Lewis Creek worth mentioning? It doesn’t have much flow when the trail crosses it below Gallison Lake.

    • George on June 12, 2019 at 11:48 am

      The Palisades/Middle Fork footbridge has never been rebuilt. That’s essentially not crossable for probably another month.

      • Andrew Skurka on June 12, 2019 at 3:37 pm

        I think it’d be crossable about a mile up, where the USGS map shows a campsite. It’s flat through there, and Landsat shows log bridges. Of course, you’d still have a mile cross-country in a tight canyon to get back on the Middle Fork Trail, but overall it’d be a much safer tactic versus trying to ford it at the confluence with the Middle Fork.

  4. Hobbes on June 10, 2019 at 10:24 am

    Hey, a few more:

    7. Without even checking with SEKI, I’m guessing the HST is considered impassable. No one is getting across the Kern river, either via Colby or Kaweah. I crossed it years ago in July during a low snow year, and it was still fairly wide and fast.

    8. West Walker river (below Sonora pass). Like the Kern, you’re not getting across unless you use the bridge. These aren’t even possible fords with gear, ropes, etc – more like Niagra before the falls.

    • Andrew Skurka on June 10, 2019 at 1:01 pm

      I updated the resources with all of these, thanks.

  5. David Longerbeam on June 10, 2019 at 10:35 am

    Wonderful resource, thank you! But I don’t believe Kerrick Creek is on the JMT? (As listed in the PDF file matrix.)

    • Andrew Skurka on June 10, 2019 at 10:49 am

      No, it’s definitely not, thanks for catching that.

  6. Ian on June 10, 2019 at 8:28 pm

    Just saw this via your reddit post. This is an excellent resource. Thanks for putting this together.

  7. Ryen on June 10, 2019 at 10:57 pm

    Thank you! This is incredibly valuable and really important to spread the word on how dangerous some of these crossings can be at peak melt. In 2017 on the pct Evolution creek was over 6 feet deep and raging. Although I made it across via swimming I got way to close to the drop off that leads to rapids. Crossings half to a mile before the official crossings is the way to go if conditions are similar to what I encountered.

  8. Helena Danihelkova on June 11, 2019 at 9:42 am

    This is an excellent resource. Thank you.

  9. Liz Greer on June 11, 2019 at 3:16 pm

    Thank you so much for this Andrew.

    Would you (or anyone) care to hazard a guess how the Twin Lakes “wade” will be during the last week of July? I’m considering skipping that section of the SHR for that reason. Thanks.

    Also: I’m confused about your reference to crossing the Kern on the HST – when I was there (Aug 2017) there was a bridge, here: 36°28’25” N 118°24’26” W. – and it was there last year too. (Can’t attach a photo here but can send separately.) Just south of the Kern Hot Spring. Am I missing something?

    Agreed that the Kern/Kaweah crossing farther north at Junction Meadow (heading up/west to Colby Pass) will be nasty this year; it was an easy wade last year.

    • Hobbes on June 11, 2019 at 5:43 pm

      My fault for rushing and channeling Kaweah basin short-cut. That is, going x-country via Pants pass, you have to deal with getting across both Kern-Kaweah & Kern. Sorry for any confusion.

      As for Twin lakes, I don’t think that would present the major obstacle. The lake has a natural lip which would limit the wade to maybe stomach high? Worst case, I know someone who simply took the long, slow process around the upper lake.

      Maybe I was just tired those days, but I remember getting really beat up. The talus was sharp, so I got nicked a bunch. There was never any chance to really hike until Blue canyon – the rest was step-by-step route finding.

      My fear would be the Lyell fork of the upper Merced. You’re a long way from anywhere, and if there’s difficulty getting across, you could get stuck. I crossed in late July during a normal year, so it wasn’t anything really at all.

      But the ford point isn’t very far from where the drop off begins – maybe 400 yards? And it’s that super glacier slick Yosemite chutes & ladders – if you got going, sayonara. I remember looking back as I was hiking towards Lewis creek and really marveling at the drop.

      That being said, I’ve never been one to fear monger – always been pretty positive. OTOH, for the first time in my life, I actually turned back on a first attempt ford.

      As I mentioned way above, I hiked up the S fork Kern near the Golden trout wilderness last week. I started @ KM, and took the PCT to the bridge in Monache meadow.

      The next day I hiked x-c up to the Schaeffer barrier, staying on the north side. However, the next day I needed to ford the river to the south side in order to hike straight x-c across both Monache & Beck meadows to the PCT junction at mile 713.

      When I woke up, the river was flowing pretty good. I kept hiking south where east a south-east a bit, knowing it would open up a bit. Finally, I thought I found my spot, but just one step away from shore it was obviously a no-go. Way too much volume & flow. And I’m solo 20 miles away from anybody anywhere.

      So, I kept walking SE, until finally it broke into two ribbons. The first one was a normal ‘pay attention’ ford, the second an easy-breezy swap stomp. Hauled myself out on the other shore and walked down to the fish & game settlement (not yet open) to relax, change and set out for the rest of the day.

      Moral being, go for it, and don’t get scared off by internet advice.

      • Liz Greer on June 11, 2019 at 9:25 pm

        That’s really helpful Hobbes, thank you. I’m going SOBO Blue Lake Pass/Twin Lakes so I won’t be doing that upper Merced crossing at least not until the return in late August, so that’s good. Good to know I can circumnavigate that upper lake worst case. Thx—

  10. Hobbes on June 17, 2019 at 1:14 pm

    Hey Andrew and readers, here’s a recent video posted of many of the spring fords I mentioned above. It includes the White fork ‘stream’, the Rae lakes crossing, and some others listed on this thread. Enjoy:

    https://www.instagram.com/p/By0UMrClHSj/

  11. Mark on June 22, 2019 at 11:20 am

    Hi Andrew,

    Again, an awesome resource. Lost count how many beers we all owe you 🙂

    Just to check my understanding. I assume your alert levels are the dynamic element; i.e. something that is do not attempt today might move to Severe or warning as the summer progresses. I assume its that rather than a general description of the creek?

    Thanks again,

    Mark

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