Saturday, June 8 while multiple Valley locations were flirting with 100 degrees I was trudging across three to four feet of snow watching people ahead of me ski down a mountainside while the sound of snowmobiles could be heard in the distance.
Thanks to an above average winter coupled with a fairly heavy blanketing of snow for the first week in June combined with the fact the 209’s eastern edge is graced by the two loftiest stretches of pavement in California — Sonora Pass at 9,623 feet on Highway 108 and Tioga Pass at 9,943 feet on Highway 120 — you can hop in your car and in just a couple of hours you can be building a snowman while neighbors you left behind are sweltering in 100 degree heat.
Sonora Pass is now open; Tioga Pass is closed. The last time there was late snow although not quite this abundant in 2017 Tioga Pass didn’t open until June 29. That means you can probably make “snow trips” well into July.
Naturally the sooner you go, the better it is, as just like Frosty the Snowman the sun will melt the most accessible snow away in the coming weeks.
If you can get away for a day trip in the coming week head up to Sonora Pass. Just past the 8,000-foot level there was snow on the edge of the road. At the 9,000-foot level it was solid coverage for about two to three feet deep. The creek that runs through the meadow along the highway to the east as you approach the pass was completely covered with snow.
For the next week or so you’ll be able to frolic in snow within feet of the highway.
My destination on Saturday was a 6.6-mile round trip to Sonora Peak at 11,464 feet via St. Mary’s Pass that I’ve done five times before. I had to use crampons on my hiking boots all the way from where I parked to where I finally decided to turn back just shy of St. Mary’s Pass at 10,100 feet.
Virtually the entire trail — including five or so streams that run well into late July — were covered with at least several feet of snow. That meant a bit of trail blazing which is more difficult given the nuances of the mountain was buried under snow. A group ahead of me turned back once they got to the point they could use their snowboards and skis to glide back down.
The steepness wasn’t bothering me as much as the fact I knew when I split off the trail beyond St. Mary’s Pass snow would be even heavier making progress to Sonora Peak slow. When combined with a late start I’d be descending the summit that can be a little tricky without snow but downright treacherous when covered with snow that by mid-afternoon will have gotten a little sloshy.
I decided to return in two weeks.
It also didn’t help that the National Weather Service was correct on its call for temperatures to be in the low 50s with wind steady wind between 20 and 30 mph on the ridges. I was sweating and then minutes later I would be cold. Nothing serious but I found myself tempted to shuck my winter gloves as well as winter hiking pants and go with just my shorts after taking off a hiking jacket. I knew I’d probably end up doing that and then with my luck as I headed toward the peak I’d slip and plunge my arms, legs, and hands into the freezing snow after I had started to sweat heavily while I was bundled up. All it takes is the wind to hit just right and you can become quite miserable.
That said it was nice knowing that I was not sweltering in the Valley heat.
When I departed the Sonora Pass area at 2:25 p.m. it was 55 degrees and the snowmobilers were still going strong. When I reached Manteca just before 5 p.m. it was 89 degrees.
It’s not unusual this time of year to have 100 degrees in the valley with a low of around 70 while the weather forecasters call for 75 degrees at the pass with a low of 45.
Hitting Sonora Pass now for a very late spring or early summer day trip to the snow as opposed to waiting for Tioga Pass to open makes sense for a number of reasons. Thanks to geography and how the mountains protect the meadow and flat area along the highway easy-to-access snow literally feet from the pavement is much more robust on Sonora Pass plus you don’t have to pay a $35 entrance fee as you do to enter Yosemite National Park to reach Tioga Pass. Even though in the first week or so that Tioga Pass opens the crowds are thin, it is downright jam packed compared to Sonora Pass on a weekend. Even better yet is Sonora Pass on a weekday. The drive is even less congested plus you have the option of stopping in Sonora on the way back.
The closest service to Sonora Pass is a restaurant and general store at Kennedy Meadows. You can also stop in Strawberry or Cold Springs.
It’s your choice. If you have a day to kill you can complain in the 100-degree heat or you can take a nice drive east and take advantage of fact you live in the 209 where in the middle of a heat wave you can take a fairly short ride and have a snowball fight.
Tioga Pass tips
When Tioga Pass Road (Highway 120) in Yosemite National Park typically opens for the year most of the snow in the popular Tuolumne Meadows area will be gone.
To enjoy snow after Tioga Pass you’ll have to drive to the eastern entrance station at 9,943 feet. Back in the second week of July in 2017 when snowfall this time of year was more than 200 percent of normal as it now, I came across plenty of snow at the entrance station although it didn’t cover everything. Snowbanks from plowing were still fairly high. You could take a hike toward Mt. Dana or to the north and find plenty beneath trees.
The best bet though is to drive outside Yosemite. Here you’ll see Ellery Lake and Tioga Lake right along Highway 120 with a decent amount of snow around them and in the surrounding mountains as well as some ice on the lake.
Your best bet though is to take a short dirt road drive (it’s well maintained) to reach Saddlebag Lake. The alpine lake is well protected. There is a 4.2 mile loop trail. During a visit on July 10, 2017 when late spring conditions mirror what you will find in the high Sierra this month, the western trail was borderline impassible while the southern fifth of the lake by the parking lot was covered with ice. The people I came across there were young families playing in the snow that in spots was still almost two feet deep.
You will need a seven-day pass to enter Yosemite that costs $35 per vehicle at the entrance station.