Will outdoor fun dry up in parched California?
The effects of low precipitation are likely to hit hikers, birders and other enthusiasts into summer and maybe fall. But it also could mean earlier access to higher-elevation sites.
The Tuolumne River winds through Tuolumne Meadows in Yosemite National Park in January, revealing a landscape usually covered in snow at this time of year. (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times / January 3, 2012)
For hikers, campers, birders and other outdoors enthusiasts, the effects of low rainfall, despite recent showers, and skimpy snowpacks may linger into summer and even autumn.
Looking ahead, here's what California's dry weather may mean for some popular pursuits:
Waterfall viewing: Last year, snowpacks that feed Yosemite waterfalls were running 200% of normal. This year, they're about 30% of normal, said Frank Gehrke, chief of the California Cooperative Snow Surveys Program at the California Department of Water Resources.
After a remarkable run, Yosemite Falls, which haven't stopped flowing since September 2010, could peter out by early July, said Kari Cobb, park public affairs officer. Usually, they last until August or September.
So-called ephemeral falls, which come and go with the seasons in Yosemite Valley, may be minimal, she said.
Whitewater rafting: River runs along stretches that depend on snowmelt, such as the Upper Kern River above Lake Isabella, are going to be "short and sweet," Gehrke said.
Although runs fed by dam releases from reservoirs, such as the South Fork of the American River, may be a bit more robust, California rivers overall are going to see less water this year than last, he said.
At Yosemite, the Merced River may open for rafting at the end of May and close earlier than the typical August time, said Lisa Cesaro, spokeswoman for Delaware North Cos. Parks & Resorts at Yosemite Inc., which operates park lodges, campsites and activities. Plan accordingly and check for updates.
Bird-watching: Droughts are tough on vegetation, the insects that eat them and the birds that devour both, said Dan Taylor, Sacramento-based executive director of Audubon California.
"Generally, where there is moisture on the land, there is a greater abundance of all wildlife, including birds," he said.
Taylor is especially worried about Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge, which straddles the California-Oregon line and serves as a way station on the Pacific Flyway migration route. If it gets less water from dam releases, as expected, "we may be looking at a fall period this year when that refuge is essentially dry," he said.
Some inland areas will fare better than others. But given California's scant moisture, birders in 2012 may want to flock to coastal wetlands that are fed year-round by the ocean.
Spring skiing: Officials at Mammoth Mountain Ski Area in the Sierra, which laid off 75 employees at the end of February, say the game isn't over yet,
"It's not uncommon for us to get snowfalls of 10 to 15 feet in March," said resort spokeswoman Joani Lynch. "We call it a Miracle March." The March 17-19 storms dropped nearly 4 feet of snow at the lodge level and about 6 feet on the mountain top.
The resort plans to remain in full operation at least through April 22, with some areas expected to be skiable through Memorial Day, Lynch said Thursday. Historically, the average closing date is mid-June; last year it was July 4.
While welcomed by resorts, late-season storms carry risks.
"It's really important that people don't let their guard down in regard to avalanches," said Gehrke, of the California Cooperative Snow Surveys Program. "The snowpack this year is unusual in its unpredictability."
Other outdoor activities: With less snow to clear, mountain passes may open early, offering spring access to higher-elevation campsites and trails.
Last year, Tioga Road, gateway to much of Yosemite, including the High Sierra Camps, didn't open until June 18. If the road dries out this year, nearby areas could be accessible in May, spokeswoman Cobb said.
Despite the lack of rain, the prospects aren't all gloom. Summer activities may get an early start all over the state.
At Yosemite National Park, when the temperature on a recent day hit about 60 in the valley, visitors brought bicycles.
"You can bike one day and go skiing in the same day," said Delaware North's Cesaro.