A reader question from Gabino:
In August I was planning to hike the Pacific Crest Trail through the High Sierra from South Lake Tahoe to Horseshoe Meadow. But all of this rain & snow has me concerned about lingering snowfields, high stream crossings, and late mosquitoes. Should I reschedule to September, instead?
I’m sure that every backpacker planning to undertake the PCT, JMT, Sierra High Route, Kings Canyon High Basin Route, or any other high-elevation route in California’s High Sierra is wondering the same thing right now. Here are some thoughts:
California’s snowpack: The Facts
There are many ways to record and analyze the snowpack, but I’ve always liked these snowpack plots from California’s Department of Water Resources. They show the current snowpack relative to the “average” winter, or to actual past winters.
If you have backpacked in the High Sierra for many years, this “percentage of average” figure can be used to accurately predict summertime conditions. CDWR divides the Sierra Nevada into three main watersheds. The High Sierra is encompassed mostly by Central and South.
In the charts below, you can see that more snow blankets the Sierra Nevada right now than anytime since the winter of 2011-12. Of course, several of these years were droughts, with the 2014-15 winter being the driest ever recorded.
This winter is tracking more closely to the biggest winters in recent memory — 2004-05, 2005-06, and 2010-11. And in the central and southern parts of the Sierra Nevada, it is on par with the wettest winter ever, 1982-83.
And the winter is not over yet
The snowpack typically peaks on April 1. In an average year, before April 1 more snow falls than melts; and, after April 1, more snow melts than falls. But wet winters tend to be longer, and the snowpack often does not peak until mid- or late-April.
Right now it’s only late-February and the snowpack is already well above its April 1 average. Even if the snow-machine turned off tomorrow, there is already so much snow on the ground that conditions will probably at least be “average” in the summer. More likely, however, snow will continue to fall and it will be a late spring.
Conditions after a wet winter
A wet winter presents a few obstacles for summertime backpacking.
The High Sierra has a few glaciers and permanent snowfields. Everywhere else, the snowpack melts off completely. After a wet winter, it simply takes longer for the snow to melt.
Early-season hikers are affected most, with several miles of lingering snow on both the north and south sides of major passes. Look at the photo at the top of this page for a good example.
Sometime in June the snow becomes consolidated, and you can walk on top of it. But before that point, it rots in the afternoon (after the sun and warm temperatures melt the crust from the night before) and arduous post-holing ensues.
But even after it’s consolidated, the High Sierra snowpack is rarely pleasant. It becomes covered in small depressions (“sun cups”) that make for tedious walking.
High water and wet meadows
During peak runoff — normally in June, when temperatures are finally high enough to cause extensive melting — the rivers will be scary. At the right place and time of day, some will be pretty scary in July, too.
The creek flows are cyclical. In the morning, when temperatures are low and the sun is barely up, there is relatively little runoff. In the afternoon, after a full day of warm temperatures and intense sunshine, there is a lot. Plan your days around the creek crossings. And learn to read your map to identify safer ford locations — the trail is designed for July-September conditions, not June, and not July after a very wet winter.
By August the water levels should be manageable. When I did the JMT in 2010-11 after a big winter, there were only two crossings where we had to get our feet wet. Elsewhere, there were constructed bridges, downed trees, and rock steps.
Normally the High Sierra mosquitoes peak in July, and dwindle or die-off in August as the meadows dry up. I would expect a late hatch, because they can’t come out until the ground is snow-free; and they will probably persist through August, until the first frosts of September.
Thankfully, mosquitoes can be managed. Some reading:
- The Ultimate Hiker’s Gear Guide || Chapter 1: Clothing (newest info)
- Core Clothing || Item #3: The Bug Shirt
- Clothing system for peak mosquito season
- Tips for Coping with Horrific Mosquitoes
Should you change your itinerary?
Without knowing more about your situation, I can’t answer that for you. If you want some specific feedback, leave a comment below. Given the current conditions, I don’t expect any unprecedented challenges for 2017 hikers — we’ve seen these conditions before, although not often.
Some specific predictions:
May: Bring skis.
June: Anticipate extensive snow coverage at the higher elevations, and high water crossings, especially in the afternoons. Earlier in the month, the snow will often be rotten in the afternoon. Later in the month, most of it will have consolidated but it will be sun-cupped.
July: The snowpack will melt off and the creeks will come down, but the mosquitoes will hatch.
August: The first month of “normal” backpacking in the High Sierra, but with heavier bug pressure. It will be more like July.
Finally, September will be the nicest month of the year:
- No lingering snow, high water, or mosquitoes;
- Fewer people, especially after Labor Day; and,
- Cooler daytime temperatures and a less intense sun.
Of course, September is always the nicest month, except when the High Sierra is on fire.
If this year is like 2011, I don’t think you’ll run into serious difficulties on the PCT in August, other than some runoff on the trail here and there. Peak-baggers may want an axe and crampons for couloirs that have been dry the past few years, e.g. the standard route on Thunderbolt.
My son and I have a permit to begin hiking the JMT from Yosemite going south at the end of the first week of July. If conditions at that time are something like the Mather pass picture you posted above how would you advise handling footwear choices? We usually use trail runners and have no problem with them on the typical summer snowfield crossings, but we are starting to wonder if the prospect of cold wet feet all day long and the need to kick steps in snow for longer stretches might call for light boots instead. Thoughts?
Assuming the winter stays wet, you should expect a lot of snow before and after each pass. Fortunately for you, the northern half of the JMT is less snowy than the south, giving the snowpack some more time (days at least, maybe weeks depending on your pace) to melt out.
Donohue will be snowbound, but then you won’t hit much until Silver Pass, then another break until Seldon, then another break. In upper Evolution Creek, you will finally start getting into more consistent snow — that where the JMT really begins its pass-and-valley pattern, and stops dropping so low between the passes.
Re footwear, scroll down to the very bottom of this page, https://andrewskurka.com/2016/conditions-hiking-waterproof-footwear-winter-system/. Thick wool socks will do the trick for those regular submersions, just taking the edge off that numbing cold water. They’ll dry much faster than neoprene, and they’ll be acceptably comfortable while hiking on drier and warmer parts of the trail.
I would probably still bring a thinner pair of socks for reliably dry sections. Hot feet are more likely to get blistered.
Your feet will probably not be cold while hiking on snow — your outsole insulates you pretty well, and you’ll probably be pretty hot from the intense sun and reflection.
We are leaving at the same time as dgray, but heading NOBO. My question is whether or not we will need crampons?
It’s difficult for me to say that you will or will not need them, because I don’t know your comfort or experience on snow, and your trip is still three months away, during which time much will change.
At a minimum, I would have crampons ready to go, in the event you decide you want them or if reports are coming back about the need for them.
For more information you should read this post, which specifically address the question of floatation, crampons, and axes.
Great article. I am planning on hiking from Yosemite to Sonora pass in late July. I did a large chunk of the Jmt in July 2011. Do you think this trip will have more challenges from the snow then my 2011 trip or less ?
The final 6-8 weeks of winter will partly answer that question. But the differences will probably be more related to the topography and local weather patterns (e.g. average snowline at Sonora versus Whitney), versus the snowpack being at 150 versus 175 percent of average.
Thank you for the timely post! I was checking those very charts last night trying to decide on the dates to write down on my HST permit application — had aimed for early-July to avoid peak mosquitoes.
I am also planning to travel off-trail from Discovery Pinnacle, via the Miter Basin to Langley (mostly south-facing slopes except for the backside of Crabtree Pass).
The HST doesn’t go too high (mostly < 10k ft) until we reach Wallace Creek.
In your opinion, could we stick to early July with the Miter in our itinerary? Or would the snowfields be too dangerous in the Whitney region? I think mosquitoes will have to be managed no matter what, even in August.
I don’t know the Miter Basin very well. Maybe someone else can chime in. In general, the Whitney area does not get as much snow as other parts of the High Sierra, but it sticks around for a long time because of the high elevations.
The north side of Crabtree Pass could actually be more pleasant as snow instead of choss, provided you’re comfortable with crampons and an axe. Note that with a bit of cleverness and third class, you can contour around below McAdie and avoid most of the drop and climb getting from Discovery Pinnacle to Crabtree Pass. I remember the route on the Miter being partly north-facing as well, so there will still be snow in early July. Definitely Old Army, and possibly New Army Passes could also be snowy.
Just to add another data point to the discussion.
This link will take you to Wired’s blog, where she compared the JMT (Late Summer of 2012), to the JMT (June 18 – July 16 of 2011). There are a bunch of comparison shots that do a great job of illustrating the difference between June in a high snow year, and late summer in a low snow year.
Thanks for the write up Andrew! I am panning on hiking from Road’s End to Whitney Portal in mid August. I’ll prepare for more July-like conditions and more mosquitoes then I was anticipating.
Hopefully Forester and Whitney will have significant melt by then. Keeping a close eye on it.
There will be some lingering snow in places, but the route will be heavily boot-tracked by that point, so don’t worry about it.
Would carrying lightweight Huaraches be useful for stream crossings and non-steep snow hiking to keep feet dry on the pct this year? Or does the approach of using non waterproof shoes, wool socks, climbing salve and drying out during breaks alleviate the effects of wet feet better?
Any attempt to keep your feet dry on the PCT will be an utter failure before sometime in August. If you carry multiple pairs of shoes and socks, you will simply end up with multiple pairs of wet shoes and socks, or your “dry shoes and socks” will sit in your backpack the entire time because every 800 meters you have to walk through water or atop wet snow.
Learn to manage wet.
Andrew, thanks for the post! I’ve got a more specific question on the Adams Region. A few friends and I have been planning to head to Agnew meadows in Mid-June, for a loop through Ediza lake, Cecil Lake (offtrail to the base of the Minarets), Thousand Islands Lake, and back to Agnew meadows on the PCT.
Last August I did this exact loop, and there was no snow except for the small ‘glacier’ that was about the size of a pool and no issue to get around when heading off trail to Cecil Lake.
Curious to see if you think this will be too difficult of a time to head up there again, or if we should hold off a few weeks!
There’s gonna be snow. Here are some pics from the area in August 2011: http://drdirtbag.com/2011/08/15/sierra-challenge-4-waller-minaret/
There will be a lot of snow on that route in mid-June. Not a terrible thing if you enjoy snow travel and are comfortable with it. But there might be so much snow that it’s annoying — miles and miles of it, wish-I’d-brought-skis, not just the final pitch on both sides of the pass.
Appreciate the write up! How would you expect Donohue Pass to look around July 20? …Any special equipment required? Thanks!
There will be snow on both sides, but you’ll probably be able to follow the trail on-and-off. By July 20 there will be a very good boot pack on both sides.
No special equipment. The grades are pretty moderate there.
Great info, Mr. Skurka! This is only tangentially related, but would you say the Rockies, specifically the Colorado Trail, are going through the same conditions this year too? If so, what would a late-June/early-July start from Denver to Durango look like? Would you recommend something like Microspikes and/or an ice ax if conditions are exceptionally snowy, or are trail runners with thick wool socks sufficient? Thank you.
Colorado’s snowpack is very healthy as well (relative to normal), https://www.wcc.nrcs.usda.gov/ftpref/data/water/wcs/gis/maps/co_swepctnormal_update.pdf.
However, 150 percent of average in Colorado does not translate into as much snow as 150 percent of average in California, because Colorado gets a fraction of the snowfall that California does, on average.
I did the Colorado Trail in 2004, leaving Denver in mid-June and finishing two weeks later, before Independence Day. I don’t recall what the snowpack was that winter — you could look it up. In any case, I didn’t hit much snow until was down in the San Juan’s. You hit a few pockets over Georgia Pass, the Ten Mile Range, and outside of Copper. But the lower route through the Sawatch and the Cochetopa Hills should be almost completely melted out by late-June.
Great article! I was just chatting with my friend about the conditions the other day. She plans to start the PCT Southbound around mid June – early July depending on the snowfall. I’ll have to send this article her way.
Do you think that micro-spikes and an ice axe would be sufficient for a late-June SOBO JMT thru-hike? Are snowshoes overkill for that time? My permit has me leaving on June 20th, and I’m hoping to be done by Independence Day.
What is your comfort on snow?
The primary purpose of an axe is to self arrest in the event of a fall on a steep slope. There are only a few spots where this might happen. Personally, I would just be cautious on these parts, and consider climbing around to avoid them entirely. Also, you will have soft snow to kick steps, and a boot track from other hikers.
The spikes seem more useful to me. They would give you the extra purchase on anything steep, and they may make the snowpack a little less slick. However, they add weight and are a bit of a futz, so not a pure win there either. Personally, I would not take them, as I find them most useful for hard snow and ice, and steeper slopes than you will find on the JMT.
Forrester nobo 19Jun2016 had a small sketchy section. Slow & relaxed worked, but it wasn’t a nice trench; instead at 2pm it was a ~22° tilted path of ice. Trekking poles found a few upslope holes when I needed assurance.
16oz axe is my TBD for a 16Jul sobo JMT.
22° slanted icy horizontal path (short section) on exposed 45° snowfield – yes, wimp in me wanted 2 minute use of axe
I have a similar question,.I’m doing the JMT, starting a cottonwood lakes NOBO, start on July 3rd. I have done a lot of hiking in the mid West, but have not had much time hiking on snow. Concerning microspikes and an ice ax, what is your opinion on there effectiveness for my JMT hike. I will also be starting with 8 days of food so my pack weight is a concern. BTW, thanks for the ultimate hiker, great book as it forced me to ask myself some questions, are my outings more hikng focused or camping focused, hiking focused I now know. And what is my goal.
You should read this page, https://andrewskurka.com/2017/early-season-skis-snowshoes-crampons-axes/. It’s part of a larger tutorial on early-season conditions, and you should probably read the entire thing if you’re going to be out there in early-July.
Awesome post, thank you! I have a trip starting in Tuolumne Meadows on June 27. What are your thoughts on Tioga pass being open, and if so, the amount of snowfall on the trails (Rafferty Creek – Vogelsang)? I’ve seen the opening/closing dates from the NPS, but I’d appreciate your opinion on this. How much would my chances improve if I could postpone my trip until July 5th or so?
Really appreciate you for your time!
Tioga opened the day before Independence Day in 2006, which was was a “less wet” winter (but a lot of late snow). NPS tries *really* hard to get the road open by the Fourth, because that is the first really big holiday of the summer. But you’re cutting it close, based on current snowpack and weather.
I think I remember snowline being at 10,000 feet on Donohue on the north side in early-July. If that is the case again this year, expect snow from around Tuolumne Pass to Vogelsang. It will be melted out mostly on the south side.
Thank you Andrew, I appreciate your input. I’ll see if I can postpone my plans!
Great post Andrew!
My fiance and I have a northbound PCT permit starting March 31st. Our typical thru-hiking pace puts us on the JMT portion in late May, entering Mammoth Lakes in the first few days of June.
I am convinced we will need snowshoes to prevent postholing this early in the season; my fiance less so.
But then you go and suggest skis for people traveling through the Sierra in May. How serious were you being? We have some introductory backcountry skiing experience but have never travelled 200 miles on/with skis before. That would be a pretty awesome challenge that we both would be interested in. I’ve taken an AIARE 1 course and we both ski single-black diamond resort runs.
At that time of year I think you will want some type of floatation, either skis or snowshoes.
Snowshoes are lightweight, compatible with standard hiking shoes, and work in all conditions (e.g. slope aspects and snow conditions). But they are horribly snow and non-fun.
Skis are heavier, need specific footwear, and are fussier. However, they are f’ing fun and you would have a blast skinning around the high country and blazing the descents. Ski gear is not cheap, but the optimal spring kit for the JMT/PCT would be ultralight AT gear. Not necessarily race gear, because it tends to be pretty niche. I’m thinking Dynafit TLT7 boots and tech bindings (Speed Radical, Speed Turn, Low Tech). For skis, personally I would go with something long and skinny with a little bit of curve, maybe some camber so that I can use wax or kicker skins, because I’m touring so much more than going downhill. But a ski like the Broad Peak would be more fun on the downhills.
Hi Andrew – I’ve got itinerary to do mono meadow -> red peak pass loop incl. half dome end of may 29th -> June 4th. How should I prepare? I have not planned for so much snow. Thank you.
Assuming that the winter sticks to its trendline, on that particular route at that time of year I would expect snow from about Merced Pass Lake to Triple Peak Fork. The biggest challenge will not necessarily be the extensive snow coverage, but that the snow will not yet be consolidated at the higher and shadier aspects. It will be spring corn, ideal for skiing in the morning, and probably crusted hard enough to walk on, but horrible postholing in the afternoon.
Depending on your comfort on snow, you might find the steep pitches immediately below Red Peak Pass (on both sides) to be pretty exciting. You might have first tracks. I would probably bring some microspikes for reliable purchase. Personally, I would not take an axe, but I’ve been on slopes of that steepness many times and feel very comfortable. YMMV.
Finally, the trail is going to be snowbound, completely invisible to you. So I hope you know how to navigate using a map, compass, altimeter watch, and/or a GPS.
I’ll be doing this loop the first week of July. What should I expect then?
By then the snowline will be higher, but plenty of snow will still be lingering. At least it will be consolidated by then, so much less post-holing, if any. You’ll hit intermittent snow at first, then consistent snow, especially on the north side of Red Mountain Pass.
I’m applying for a permit to hike the High Sierra Trail in September. It’s my first trip to the area and I’m going solo. I hike and backpack solo here in WV and on the AT but the terrain is nothing like the Sierra’s. I’m a little freaked out, I have no snow experience whatsoever. Any advice?
You might encounter a snowfield or two, but probably nothing more than 100 yards long and nothing steep. By September there will have been thousands of people on it before you, to show you the way. In other words, stop freaking out. You have nothing to worry about.
Thanks so much! I just needed some confirmation.
This is the best article I have read on the subject. Thanks.
But September is the worst time to go to Yosemite for backpacking, everyone should go in July (yah that’s it, that’s the ticket).
I have a NOBO JMT permit to start on July 22 from Horseshoe Meadows, and neither my friend nor I have any snow experience. Do you think we’ll need microspikes (or more) by that time of year?
I think you’ll be okay without them. There might be a few places where they would help, but overall the extra weight and futz will not be worth it, and you’ll never truly need them. Remember that by July 1, never mind by late-July, there will be a VERY good boot track across all of the snowfields.
Thanks for the advice! We’re planning on re-supplying at Onion Valley. Do you think it’d be worth it to have them for the first part of the trail and then ship them off or are they not worth the hassle?
Not a bad strategy if you are nervous.
You might also keep them in your “last-minute” pile, and get some feedback from hikers via the JMT Facebook page (or some other resource) about whether the current conditions warrant them.
Thanks for the help!
Wow, all I can say it that this has single-handedly been the best info I’ve come across so far. I have read through a fair amount of your blog regarding anything JMT and Snow. I did a SOBO JMT in 2013 and that, in terms of weather, was cake compared to what my NOBO will be this year. My lady and I are getting hitched on June 24th and headed out of Cottonwood Lakes on the 26th. We are going to tackle Whitney from Guitar lakes and take a total of 21days to complete since “enjoyment” is part of this experience. I did a 15 day completion in 2013 and was bummed I didn’t get to spend more time on the trail. I feel like this year that extra time will be eaten up by slower days in snow and river crossings. As for my question, we are bringing microspikes, poles and possibly ice axes. Extra weight is comfort weight. We will decide more closer to the departure date on what we are bringing. At that time, what would you suggest on times to tackle passes? Which passes should we be wary about? Would the backside of Whitney be too dangerous for a 2am start for a sunrise summit? My only real worry is being on any narrow trail at elevation with steep walls. We are doing snow training and have some self arrest/winter training coming up but still wanted some more info.
If you have spikes and an ice axe, and if you feel comfortable on firm and occasionally steep snow, the mornings are best, because the snow is not punchy or prone to postholing.
Topographic maps will give you the best sense for what passes are steepest. Tight contour lines = steep.
A friend and I were able to secure a seven day permit for the JMT from July 6-13. We are starting at happy isles and planned to complete the trail in the one week time frame. We will be travelling superlight but given that there is a certainty of snow and serious run-off is there any specific gear that you would consider essential ? We are obviously trying to carry the least amount of weight possible.
I don’t know how “easy” this trip would normally be for you. If it’s an all-out effort, then you need to equip yourself so that you can move regardless of the conditions. For example, you may have to climb passes in the morning before they are melted out, and you may have to sleep immediately below a pass (on one side or the other) because that’s where you were when you ran out of daylight or energy. So microspikes and an insulated pad would be smart.
Another factor that will screw with your schedule is run-off. It’s best to cross bigger creeks early in the day, before they get filled up with the day’s melt. But you may not have that luxury. It’s impractical to bring a raft. So my recommendation is to identify beforehand alternate routes around major creek crossings (e.g. locations where it is wider & slower, or take on multiple tributaries rather than the single crossing) so that you aren’t wasting time in the field identifying these options.
Thanks a lot for this informative write-up, Andrew! I was thinking of bagging Williamson and Tyndall over the July 4th weekend via Shepherd’s Pass, but am not so sure now given the increased snowpack. Do you think it would be feasible to successfully do such a trip at that point in the season? And if so, do you think it would be a good idea to bring snowshoes/crampon and an ice ax? I appreciate the help!
The snow should be set up by July 4 and you should be able to walk on top of it with a problem. Snowshoes might actually not work because of the sun-cupping.
I don’t know the route up either of those peaks, but I’m assuming there are some steep snowbound pitches or traverses. In those cases, crampons/microspikes can make the difference between being comfortable and turning back. An ice axe is more discretionary — it really depends on your assessment of the fall potential. If you’re on something really steep in a no-fall zone, it would be smart.
I have a permit for a trip in Yosemite leaving Tuolumne Meadows on July 1, exiting at Happy Isles on July 4, with stops at Glen Aulin, Cathedral Lakes and Cloud’s Rest. My group has no snow experience or snow gear. Assuming Tioga is open, do you think this trip will be doable for us?
If not, is there another trip you could recommend, either in Yosemite or within a 4-5 hour drive of San Fran? We are flying into SFO on June 30 in the morning and flying out on the 4th at night. Thanks for the great info.
Tioga will probably be open. Historical dates, https://www.nps.gov/yose/planyourvisit/tiogaopen.htm.
It’s not difficult to hike on snow at this time of year — it’s sun-cupped, but you should be able to walk on top of it mostly. The challenge is that the trail is buried. By early-July there will have been a lot of hikers through, setting the trail, assuming they know where they are going.
Since your itinerary is just a few days long, I would stick with it. You’ll have to hike on some snow, but it’ll be different and possibly fun. If you were planning a JMT thru-hike I might suggest trying to push it back, because 220 miles of that gets old.
Most of your route should be melted out. Cathedral Pass will probably be the snowiest section of your route.
The bigger hazard will be water crossings. I would check to confirm that there are bridges across all the major creeks or rivers you will cross. You’re all set getting to Glen Aulin. But I don’t know the other trails as well.
Expect water and check with the Yosemite rangers closer to your arrival. Last year in Mid-June, the trail to Glen Aulin was 10ft underwater. We decided against the Lyell Canyon hike for a similar reason. Cathedral Lakes trail might be muddy and you might have water in the meadow but doable. Cloud’s Rest – ask the rangers. They can also suggest alternatives. The current snowpack is 190% normal.
Thank you for sharing this information, Andrew. My husband and I are planning to hike the High Sierra Trail and summit Mt. Whitney the week of July 3-July 9 provided we are able to secure a permit for those dates. We are 28 and 30 years old and are both very physically active with significant hiking experience and moderate backpacking experience. We have limited experience with snow at higher altitudes as we live close to sea level on the East Coast. Do you think our trip would be feasible and safe on those dates? If so, do you recommend any additional gear? We are up for a challenge but definitely want to make sure it is safe and enjoyable. Thank you in advance for your feedback!
You’ll hit snow on your way over the Great Western Divide and again on Whitney. In both cases, there will have been plenty of traffic on the High Sierra Trail and the way across the snow will be obvious, although perhaps circuitous if the first route-finder didn’t put in a good track.
So long as you don’t attempt to hike on steep snow early in the morning (when it may have a hard crust on it), you shouldn’t need any additional equipment. However, at a minimum I would recommend footwear with at least moderate lugs, so that they will bite the snow. If you really want peace of mind, bring some microspikes, which will give you really good purchase on slopes up to moderate grades.
If a section totally freaks you out and feels really unsafe, find another way around, or bail out.
Hello! I received permits for a June 28 start date and i’m pretty anxious about all this snow. What do you think about ice axes and snow shoes? Also, is there any safety mechanism I can bring along for stream crossings? Maybe paracord? Or is that a stupid idea? I guess lastly i’m wondering if you’d recommend waterproof boots or just trail runners. Thanks!
Peter – Enough people have been asking these questions that I think I’m going to do a dedicated post on it. Stay tuned.
thanks for doing these posts! you’re awesome!
Starting my southbound hike in Happy Isles on July 20 and the plan is to end at Whitney Portal on August 17. Am I’m being naive to think that the snow pack will be consolidated in the later half of this hike (Muir Trail Ranch to Whitney ish) by the time I get there? I’ll just be dealing with North side of the pass snow and high and fast creek crossings? Worst case scenario is that I get out there and then have to turn back right? I can’t just defer my permit and wait for next summer.
The snow will most definitely be consolidated by late-July. The rivers will be manageable, although you might want to plan to hit the biggest crossings (e.g. Bear Creek) earlier in the day just to make them a bit easier.
Thanks so much for this post. I share a similar love for nature. I hike because I love being the outdoors, photography, the wonders of nature, etc. I have no need to break individual records…going mainly for the overall experience. I was lucky enough to get a JMT-permit from HI (June 15th)…and if all goes according to plan, exiting Whitney July 7th. Your ultimate hiker book has been a great tool, and those Alaska trips…man, please don’t get a real job!!
I’m moving back to California from MA, so this JMT will be a “welcome home”. Looking forward to the snow, to the high sierras. Hoping to figure out some combination of a Type I and II JMT trip. Bringing spikes or the Kahtoola hiking crampons.
Cheers! Thank you!
Hey, Andrew: Really good of you to be doing this. Two questions. On other sites, I see a lot of dismissal of micro-spikes, but you seem to be recommending them over crampons. Am I misreading that? If not, what’s the reasoning? Second, I don’t see anyone contemplating or recommending glissading anything. I would have thought there would be some enthusiasm for that, especially on south facing slopes with decent runouts (Mather? Forester?)
1. With crampons you can confidently hike on steeper and harder slopes. But Microspikes perform pretty well, are lighter, and are more useful on less technical terrain (e.g. some extra traction on slick sun-cupped snowfields). Frankly, unless someone knows what they are doing, they should probably stay off slopes that require crampons.
2. Glissading is fun but risky. Plus, your butt gets soaked and can get scraped up (unless you put on rain pants).
OK, thanks. In fact I know what I am doing on short stretches of steep technical terrain and have no experience with long stretches of flatter stuff with suncups. The other advice I have been looking at advises against microspikes for anything, but rather hiking or trail crampons (slight shorter spikes and no front points, EG Kahtoola K-10, for everything. do you (or would you) go with one set for everything, micros for the less technical and say Petzl Irvis or similar for the steeps? Something else?
I haven’t done every pass in the High Sierra, and especially not in early-season conditions. What’s best is a function of the terrain and the individual. Someone who has no snow experience might really appreciate an aggressive crampon like the K-10, whereas a veteran might not need anything at all.
Definitely just go with one system. The crampons will give you more comfort on steeper and firmer snow, but the spikes should be okay for moderate terrain and they are half the weight.
Hi Andrew, My JMT hike is starting in mid July. Of the 211 miles of the trail how many of them will be walking on snow? Your best guess.
Disclaimer: The snowpack melts really fast in June and July, and every week the high country looks dramatically different. It really will depend on how the snowpack finishes.
Maybe 10 percent snow coverage this year?
What is motivating your question? Why do you think snow coverage matters?
Hi Andrew, thanks for the post! I have a somewhat related question.
I am planning a SOBO section of the PCT, starting in Northern Washington (Snoqualmie or Stevens Pass) to Crater Lake. I plan to start when many southbounders do, on July 2, but 200 miles to the south, so there won’t be many before me. I am hiking solo and won’t be comfortable with substantial snow on the trail; couple snow fields should be ok. Do you think I’m better off reversing the direction? Or it should be fine? I’d love to postpone, but may not be able to do it.
I don’t know the early-season conditions in the Cascades as well as I do in the High Sierra, and I’m hesitant to offer advice. You might get better info elsewhere. The PNW has not been as dry as CA in recent years, so some recent alumni can probably speak to it.
Thank you for sharing your important opinion on an uncertain subject that has caused concern for many. I’m planning a September 2017 SoSHR and look forward to watching what happens to the snowpack curve in the early summer. That being said, do you have any High Route-specific thoughts on late-summer travel? Any special considerations or recommended gear for cross country snowfield travel in late summer? Thank you again. This shameless admirer also appreciates photos of your backside 🙂
By September most of the snow will be gone. What remains might be pretty firm, especially on the northern aspects and higher elevations. Keep abreast of trip reports, and decide last-minute whether you should bring some spikes.
Ha! I’ll see what other backside photos I can find for you.
Thanks so much for your response. It seems like microspikes would be sufficient for any lingering firm snow, but let me know if you think lightweight crampons are more appropriate. Being a PNWesterner, I’m used to carrying crampons for glacier travel and microspikes for our softer snowfields. Also speaking of the PNW, did you schedule any REI Seattle talks yet? Thanks again!
Thanks for the write up and your patient and diligent responses to everyone’s questions. I have a couple questions of my own:
1)KCHBR thoughts? I like the idea of walking over snow covered talus, braving any mosquitos for the sake of seeing wild flowers, etc. but don’t want to carry an axe or slide to my death :-). Any particular spots you would anticipate I should plan an alternative route if the snow is too much?
2) I’d also like to do the WRHR this summer. Do you have a recommended snow report source for this? Which route would you choose for earlier (July say) and which for later (Sept say)?
BTW you may want to PM those backside photos to Emily…not so sure I want to have that image in my head 🙂
1. King Col will be the toughest. It gets choked up with snow. There will be cornices elsewhere (e.g. Longley Pass, Amphitheater Pass) but they are a bit easier to get around. Ionian Basin will have a ton of snow through July. I would take lightweight crampons through August probably. I’d probably leave the axe at home, but I’m pretty comfortable on snow.
2. For Wyoming snow data, use SNOTEL, either the state point maps or the basin filled maps, https://www.wcc.nrcs.usda.gov/gis/snow.html.
Given current snowpack, WRHR is definitely the route to do in July, and KCHBR in September. The issue with KC is not the snow, but the run-off. You have to ford Bubbs and Woods further downstream than the JMT crossings (where there are bridges), plus the South Fork of the Kings (again downstream of the JMT, but at least near a wide meadow where the creek will be slow), Palisade Creek (where there should be some log bridges), and the biggest of all, the Middle Fork after Cataract Creek and Palisade Creek have dumped into it. Watch out for that one!
I’m planning to do a trip through evolution valley, a one week loop from north to south lake, going through piute, muir, and bishop pass. Starting the trip on July 23. No one in the 4 person group is super experienced with snow travel, what do you think the conditions at that time will be like?
There will be sections of snow near the passes, probably intermittent. All of those passes see a lot of traffic and there will be a track left by other hikers. The snow will be compacted and support body weight, but it might be sun-cupped.
Just bought your book and am super stoked to read it!
I’m taking my first trip to the Sierras with a friend who is new to backpacking on July 27-29. We were planning (and have permits) to do the Ediza Lake – Thousand Island Lake Loop. I have very limited experience with hiking on snow and the majority of my backpacking experience is on clearly marked trails.
Should we look for a later date, or do you think the snow will be ok by this point in July? I know we need to be prepared for hordes of mosquitos, but I’m mostly worried about taking a newbie on a trip where we end up super uncomfortable due to snow cover.
Thanks for all of your help!
By that time of year there should be ample snow-free ground. Look first on open south-facing slopes and wind-blasted knobs.
I’m wondering if you have any experience in Tehipite Valley and what your thoughts on a solo approach from the west would be like. I’m aiming for mid-August. 2 concerns: 1) the Rancheria trail leading to TP sees very little traffic and could get wiped out by a heavy winter, and 2) I’ve read that a few of the creek crossings can be risky, particularly Crown Creek.
Bump, same question. I was planning the same trip with a friend in June, but a little worried about the Crown Creek crossing as well.
The closest I’ve been to TV is Simpson Meadow, so still quite a bit upstream.
I wouldn’t worry about the trail being washed out. It may be in a few sections, and slow you down a bit, but most of it will be there.
Crown Creek drains a lot of area. It’s south-facing, however, so it’s going to do most of its melting in June and July. By mid-August it’s probably not a show-stopper. If I didn’t like the trail crossing, I would move downstream to where the valley flatten out more. The rocks in the creek bottom will get smaller as you go downstream, too, because the creek cannot carry big boulders like it can when it’s steeper and moving faster.
The Theodore Solomons trail enters SEKI by Rancheria and TV. You might check with the Theordore Solomons Trail FB group on this: I imagine they are watching it pretty closely. ALso High Sierra Topix is good for specific trail conditions.
Hey there, as my boyfriend and I are coming in from Washington to thru hike the PCT, just wanted to see if there was any suggested deviations from the trail that you would suggest. We are starting April 27, hiking aprx 20 miles a day. We are going into Idyllwild through the alternate trail, as well as doing alternate route around Baden Powell. Anything else I should probably take into consideration?
I plan on doing the High Sierra Trail starting on July 12th, do you think I would be needing any extra gear due to the increase of snow? I’m prepared for the high river crossings but I haven’t had a lot of experience in hiking in snow before.
You will benefit from proper early-season gear and skills. I have written an extensive tutorial about this subject, https://andrewskurka.com/2017/tutorial-backpacking-early-season-conditions-gear-supplies-skills/.
As far as “extra gear due to the increase in snow,” I assume you are referring to floatation, crampons, and an axe. It’s pretty tough to give you a good answer on that, but you should read this article, https://andrewskurka.com/2017/early-season-skis-snowshoes-crampons-axes/
Hey Andrew, thanks for all of the advice and my apologies, in advance, if this question is redundant (all of the questions are so case-specific!). My siblings and I are planning to hike SOBO on the JMT starting right at the end of June (~June 29). We have all spent quite a bit of time backpacking, but have little stream-crossing/snow-hiking experience. Is this a trip that we can do? You mention that there will be snow on either side of all of the passes, but how far out will that extend (or, in other words, what proportion of the trail resides in these zones this year as opposed to other years)? Stream crossings concern me most; will there be any places that can’t be crossed safely? Are there any strategies for mitigating risk at these locations? Thank you so much, I’ve really loved the blog!
You should read this series, https://andrewskurka.com/tag/early-season-conditions/
I cannot say whether the trip is doable for you or not. I can only present you with info so that your expectations are accurate and decisions are informed.
If I were not sure, I would give it a go but have a Plan B and overview maps to find my way out.
Thank you Andrew! Our group is hiking nobo from thousand islands to happy isles starting Jul 20th this year. Last time I did this section was during a drought year, should be a fresh and challenging difference this time around! Thanks for all the information, this single page is EXACTLY what I’ve been searching for – and of course Erin ‘Wired’ Saver’s pic comparison page. Thanks again!
How to mitigate??
when some rotting afternoon snowfields coinciding with a heavier post-resupply pack cannot avoided.
I’ve shuffled, I’ve glissaded…yet to drag my 35-40lb pack…
Just call it a 6 mile day and hit next AM?
Once the snow is rotten the only option is to add floatation, e.g. skis or snowshoes.
Or stop hiking for the day.
Hi Andrew – I have hard-to-get spots in the Yosemite High Sierra Camps for me and my two sons(ages 7 and 9). Dates are July 30 – August 4 (Vogelsang last night). We have hiked and backpacked through the Tetons, Yellowstone, Shenandoah, etc. together, so they are pretty good in the backcountry, but they’re still only 7 and 9, and I’m concerned about long days on crappy snow/river crossings with them given what this winter has been like. I have never hiked the Sierra, so am unfamiliar with the area. Before I book non-refundable airline tickets, I’m wondering if I should bag the trip rather than “give it a try” with two young boys. I don’t care about post-holing and chest deep crossings (been there many, many times), but I’m not going to do that with young kids. Unfortunately, I need to make a decision now. What would you do? Thanks in advance.
Besides Vogelsang, at what other camps are you staying?
Between Vogelsang and Tuolumne, you should not have any issues. There might be a little bit of snow lingering somewhere at the pass, but probably not much (a few minutes, not hours) and a trail will be very well established by then.
Because the camps need horse support, the most problematic river crossings are bridged, so that the horse teams don’t need to deal with that variable early in the season.
Thanks for the reply. First night is Glen Aulin, then May Lake, Sunrise, Merced, Vogelsang, then back to Tolumne.
I think you will be okay. You are going late enough and the route is low enough that you should see very little snow, if any. And all of the major creek crossings, as I suspected, are bridged. You might have a few fords, but by late-July you are probably a month after peak flows.
I’m planning a trip on the PCT starting May 23 which, at a pace of 15 miles daily, should put me at Kennedy Meadows around the second week of July. I will be bringing crampons and an ice axe. All i keep hearing from friends and family is how crazy the snow is and that i wont be able to do it. Do you think i should reschedule? Or should i continue with caution?
By the second week of July the conditions will be much more “normal” than they will be in June. You will still encounter a lot of snow, but the snow line will have moved up a thousand feet and there will be more bare spots even at the highest elevations that are especially vulnerable to wind and sun.
It’s smart to have crampons and an axe available, but I would try to get some last-minute conditions reports before strapping them to my pack.
Super helpful. Any chance you could post an updated graph of the snow water content? Also, what are the temperature ranges we should expect in late July on the HST? and what temp rating would you suggest for sleeping bags?
You can view the snowpack plots here, http://cdec.water.ca.gov/cdecapp/snowapp/swcchart.action. The melt has definitely started.
Unfortunately, the plots become increasingly less relevant as we go into summer. The plots capture cumulative snow, but right now the only snow that’s melting is at the lower elevations. In another month the plots might show that overall only “half” the snowpack is left. But at 11,000 feet, where it’s stayed below freezing, you might still have 90 percent of the snowpack up there. The high elevation snow will start melting this month, but the melt really cranks up in June.
Thank you for taking out the time to offer your expertise and advice to address our various insecurities about the upcoming hiking season. One more guidance request please. Two of us will be branching off the JMT mid Aug (Aug 21) and were planning to include the Ediza – Iceberg – Cecile – Minerate Loop in our hike. I am worried however this year snow is going to still be an issue for this section making the pass through Iceberg and Cecile too hazardous for us. We don’t have crampons or microspikes and have no experience using them. Greatly appreciate your thoughts on what this section might be like around that time this summer….
You probably will still hit some snow in spots, but only where it really loads up in the winter and then stays shaded in the summer. It should be consolidated and easy to walk on top of, but soft enough to edge on it where you need to, so long as you do not hit it early in the day after a cold night. Do not recall all of this passes exactly but do not recall taking out crampons in early July after a light winter in 2008.
doing a mid-July JMT sobo; been adjusting itinerary, gear, and attitude. Now taking more time, hitting creeks early, and even fishing. Regarding abusive postholing.
Is it generally true that once overnight temps hover 35-40 that AM snow quality will be relative rotten?
Not exactly. If the snow has not yet consolidated, then yes, the lack of freezing temps overnight will make or tough going the following day, even in the AM and especially in the PM. But if the snow is fully consolidated, which happens after a prolonged period of melt including multiple above-freezing nights, then you shouldn’t posthole in the afternoon either.
All that said, you want sub-freezing nights, consolidated snowpack or not. It will be much firmer, so less energy-sapping than soft and punchy snow.
Great post! I go to Tuolomne Meadows every summer, usually in August. However, this year July 4 is the plan. It sounds like Tioga Pass may or may not be open, but I’ll be coming from the west side so that shouldn’t be a problem. I’m more worried about the facilities at Tuolomne Meadows being open, like the campground and cabins. What do you think?
Tioga might be open by Independence Day, at least up to Tuolumne, but it usually takes a little bit longer to get the services up and running. I remember in 2006, which was a very heavy snow year but by some accounts not as heavy as this year, the store and PO opened one day after Independence Day.
Hey great article. I’m planning to get on trail early June and wondering where to start with all this going on. Is Campo totally crazy this late in the game? Working on a flip flop plan but everywhere north of KM is pretty covered in snow. If you were in my shoes with a flexible schedule, minimal snow experience but in solid shape and with backpacking experience.. where would you start?
Watching the news this morning I saw there was just more snow that fell in the Sierras. Late August I have a trip planned from Cottonwood Lakes to Mt. Whitney. I was planning on doing the trek wearing some LaSportiva Wildcat shoes. With all the snow this year, would those still be a good choice or would a better choice be the Moab Rover Mid Waterproof that I also have? Asking so I do my training hikes in the same shoes.
I don’t put much stock in snow in May. It melts off really fast, and the snow/rain line is much higher than in the winter.
For footwear questions, read this, https://andrewskurka.com/2017/backpacking-footwear-early-season-conditions/. By late-August conditions should be more like late-July in a normal summer. Snow still lingering in places and plenty of water around, but nothing like the amount of snow and run-off as in June and July.
Just came across this great site. Do you think there is any hope of Red’s Meadow road opening by July 4th? I have permit reservations for July 5-8 starting from Agnew meadows, taking the High Trail to Thousand Island, then the JMT back around with a side night at Ediza Lake. Even if the road is open, are there any narrow/steep sections of trail that might be icy and require more than poles and sturdy shoes? Thanks for any advice you may have!!
I don’t know about Red’s or the road. Its website and FB page say nothing. Try giving them a call — maybe they have something on their voicemail.
Are there specific segments of your route that cause you to be concerned? i.e. Have you studied the topo maps and seen worrisome spots?
We obtained the permit for the JMT, start July 4th SoBo. From Europe, we can’t change our plans, and it seems there is a lot of snow out there, even if spring snowmelt is going fast. What kind of special equipment do you suggest, and any other comments will also be welcomed.
Read this, https://andrewskurka.com/2017/tutorial-backpacking-early-season-conditions-gear-supplies-skills/
Thank you so much for all the time and thought you have put into your site and responses to everyone!
NOBO – July 20th – Cottonwood Pass – solo -21 days – not much snow experience at all.
1. Snow. Should I prepare to be trekking through endless miles of it by then? And what about camping – do you think by then I’ll still be sleeping on snow each night?
2. The river crossings … any updates on the big ones would be helpful.. this makes me the most nervous.
Thank you for your advice and time!
1. The snowpack will have melted a lot by late-July. But you will still encounter snowfields around the passes, especially on the north sides where it is shadier.
2. Field reports posted on blogs, JMT Facebook group, etc. will be the most useful information here. I would expect all the major crossings to still be pretty major when you are there, although down from their earlier peaks.
We are in our seventies and hiking the JMT with our 35 yr. old daughter, Southbond, leaving Yosemite Valley July 19. This “200%” snow year thing has us pretty intimidated. We have never done a thru-hike and the fording fat rivers sounds pretty scary. Any advice or direction deeply appreciated. We have invested mucho time and $$ in this adventure and we are not wealthy folk. Sigh. We did choose a whopper of a year!
For “advice and direction,” refer to the early-season tutorial that has been linked multiple times on this page.
I read your book and blogs in preparation for my first JMT thru hike last year – thanks for the awesome perspective!! My daughter and I started June 28 and exited Whitney portal on July 14 and conditions were manageable for us newbie hikers. Talking with the PCT hikers as they came through yosemite at the start of our hike, I thought we were going to die given the conditions that they were describing, but we got to evolution creek crossing 4 weeks after them and it was no big deal. So timing seems to be everything.
Doing it again this year with my daughter and wife (even less adventurous), leaving yosemite a month later to the day (july 28) and hoping we have no worse conditions than last year – lots of snow on the north side of the passes, wet feet and clouds of mosquitos, but nothing too scary. Would like your opinion on my expectations.
I would say that your experience last year will be about the same as this year, even though you are starting a month later. The rivers may be slightly higher still, hard to know.
Thank you so much for putting up this and all of your content. I’m a huge fan and have based a lot of my hiking principles and planning around yours. With that in mind, I’m doing a NOBO hike of the JMT this year starting in September (labour day weekend) and with all of the snow still reported I’m wondering, should I be looking at taking snow spikes and also mozzi repellent? I’m from Australia so with an international flight to take, I’m trying to make sure my gear is close to perfect / light as possible for this trip.
Thank you again!
I definitely would have bug spray with you. They’ll be around this year until the first hard frost later in Sept.
I’d be surprised if you still found spikes to be useful.
Hi, we are a family of four who will be hiking from Edison Lake to Whitney portal starting August 19th. Wondering about the necessity of crampons for the regular trail at that time?
I just did YNP to Whitney 7/16-7/31 and never wished I had traction aids or axe/whippet. Left em in car.
I’m fairly comfortable with consolidated trenched snow and gravity. There was never ice.
We are doing the SHR from Road’s end to Dusy Basin next week. One of us did the route last year, but we’re not sure what the snowpack looks like this year. Do you have any info on whether we will need microspikes for Frozen Lake Pass?
I don’t. Maybe someone else will. At this point of the year, I would doubt it. There might be snow lingering on the east side, but it should soften up early in the morning once the sun hits it.
I was planning a trip from Sequoia or Kings to Mt. Whitney in late June 2018. The biggest obstacle seems to be transportation. How practical is it to do an out and back in 10 days.
“From Sequoia or Kings” — I’m unsure what you mean by that. There are dozens of trailheads in the park, and the most direct to Whitney do not start at the park HQ’s.
If you are starting on the west side, the quickest route to Whitney is from Road’s End and over Forrester Pass.
Not sure why Whitney is your end goal. There are a gazillion other places in the High Sierra that are just as magnificent but that don’t attract hordes of people and have a pile of human shit under every rock. Personally, I stay away from Whitney on all of my personal and guided trips. I find it gross.
Andrew, thanks for the great article. My honey and I are doing the SHR NOBO starting July 21, 2018. We have a 20 day itinerary, finishing on August 10. It looks like a relatively low snow year. Any thoughts on whether spikes/crampons/ice axe would be advisable? We are reasonably comfortable on snow.
This year I can’t imagine that you will need any traction or an ice axe.
I’m still thankful for Andrew’s advice last year.
I’m fairly comfortable with snow and ice.
Last year, SOBO JMT 7/15-8/01, left the ice axe and trekking crampons in the car and had not regrets. Well-consolidated snow at every pass. Suncups on north side of Muir Pass were the least loved.
There were usually established tracks.
Northside of Mather Pass did take more thought and I’m glad it was an ascent. My southside descents were easier than other’s northside descents.
Guess, I’m re-remembering that direction matters on the passes with snow.
I plan to hike the Rae Lakes Loop from Kearsarge pass (clockwise) starting on May 24. I have over ten years of backpacking experience throughout the Sierra, and I’m fit and young. I plan to bring microspikes and an ice axe. It will be a solo trip. I have never done a trip in May in the Sierra before though, and this year’s snow pack (2022) is off to a heavy start. I have a PLB, and great navigation skills. Do you have any recommendations or concerns?
There’s still a lot of winter left, so I’d hold off on making any firm decisions until the final snowpack numbers are more certain.
My biggest concern with Rae Lakes in late-May would be crossing the South Fork of the Kings, which you’d do early in your trip if your permit is for Woods or near the end of your trip if your permit is for Bubbs. There used to be a bridge here, but it got destroyed years ago and it’s not been replaced.
If you time it correctly (first thing in the morning), you might be okay — overnight temps in late-May are usually below freezing, which will cause water levels to drop considerably versus their late-afternoon highs.