Yosemite Valley’s cleanup got underway Monday after the storm-swollen Merced River reached its flood peak early in the morning and began receding. Visitors can begin returning Tuesday, although for a while services will be limited, Yosemite National Park officials said.
Park officials had closed the valley to visitors Friday night and braced for the possibility of a 17-foot flood stage Sunday that could put many areas of the valley under water. Most employees were evacuated.
But the Merced River flood peaked at 12.7 feet – well below the anticipated peak – at 4 a.m. Monday, then began pulling back, according to the National Weather Service. Still, there remained plenty of water swamping meadows, lapping against bridges and rippling through Housekeeping Camp and Half Dome (formerly Curry) Village.
It sprinkled on and off throughout Monday but it was clear the worst was over.
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“The storm has passed us,” Yosemite spokeswoman Jamie Richards said.
Roads were largely clear save for pine needles and some small rocks and fallen branches. A drive through the valley saw submerged trail signs and bear-proof food canisters, streams of runoff and workers beginning to clean up debris.
Yosemite Valley will reopen to visitors on Tuesday, with limited services available.
Along Northside Drive, just the top of a trail sign a few feet from the road stuck out from the water. The entire area behind the sign, advertising Yosemite Falls 3.1 miles away and the stables 5.4 miles away, was flooded. Downed tree trunks floated in the still water.
At Swinging Bridge, flooding melted the previous day’s snow and ice. Around noon, water touched the bottom of the bridge. A growing pileup of logs, branches, dirt and garbage collected on one side, blocked by the water level from continuing downstream.
Some debris was on the bridge itself, evidence that the water had flowed over it hours before. Across the bridge, the paved path continued downhill for a few steps before becoming fully submerged in flood water.
Catherine DeCecco and Patsy Fulhorst, who teach at Yosemite Valley School, walked their dogs past Sentinel Bridge on Monday afternoon. They said they had to clean out water-logged gutters at the school Sunday after it flooded but that the only real damage might be a wet indoor carpet.
Fulhorst said she and DeCecco stayed as liaisons for the school. She praised the Park Service for making sure the storm was handled smoothly, though she said it was a hardship for many families to evacuate.
“I feel fortunate to be able to witness this amazing natural phenomenon,” she said.
Richards, the parks spokeswoman, said employees were being allowed back into the valley Monday afternoon. She said more than 800 people work in the entire park but she wasn’t sure how many would return to work in the valley. About 80 essential personnel stayed during the storm.
Richards said large boulders came down on Highway 140 close to the park gate near Dog Rock, closing both lanes of traffic. Highway 120 also was closed Monday morning because of a rockslide but it was reopened after work crews removed the blockage.
I feel fortunate to be able to witness this amazing natural phenomenon.
Patsy Fulhorst, who teach at Yosemite Valley School
She said some sewer systems were water-logged and some power utilities were affected, but that the storm caused minimal damage.
At Sentinel Bridge, the current moved faster Monday morning than it had on Saturday, carrying large tree branches and smaller debris. The arched opening under the bridge was reduced to a sliver of space between the river and the rock overpass. About 10 a.m., a marker on the side of the bridge showed the river was at nearly 10 feet.
The paved walkway leading to views of Yosemite Falls from Cook’s Meadow was flooded. The river lapped against a low pedestrian bridge. A plastic water bottle and bits of garbage floated in the water, presumably carried by the current.
Clouds hung just above Lower Yosemite Falls, dividing the landscape’s color scheme: gray granite and condensation; red and green fall trees; and yellow river-flattened grasses.
The river surpassed its bank, coming right up to the wooden fence that prevents visitors from damaging native plants.
The cresting river still was deep enough to flood some campsites at Lower Pines and North Pines campgrounds, and a sewage pumping station, but well below the 1997 flood crest of 23 feet. The river was expected to recede to near 7 feet by late Monday.
Housekeeping Camp, which is used only in the summer, had snow, slippery ice and a new stream flowing through it. Some parts were flooded, with water coming right up to the housing structures.
Many of the cabins sit slightly elevated but some were flooded with several inches of water. A large dumpster sat at the center of one particularly large pool.
Half Dome Village looked largely unscathed by mid-morning. Some tent cabin areas were flooded but the cabins themselves are elevated. Drainage flowed down the face of Glacier Point in the background.
Two Aramark employees cleared mud, logs and sticks off the roads leading into and around the village.
Park officials said they believed improvements made in the wake of the 1997 flood – roads were raised, culverts cleaned and key buildings raised and relocated – would spare Yosemite Valley from some of the worst of the damage from 1997.
Had the river crested at 20 feet, Richards said, there would have been significant damage to roads and buildings. At that level, the parking lot near Sentinel Bridge would have been under water, the park chapel would have been inaccessible and the Upper and Lower Pines campgrounds would have been inundated.
On a drive through the empty valley on Sunday, a meadow along Southside Drive looked more like a marsh, with just the tips of the tall grasses sticking out. Richards said it’s likely all meadows were flooded because they are close to the riverbed. A sandbar next to the other side of the road diverted the flow of water.
Down the road, the rising river had nearly swallowed up a picnic table and benches. Just the tabletop remained above the water line.
A sign several feet from the river near Valley View illustrated where the water reached at 11 p.m. Jan. 2, 1997.
That’s the last time the valley was evacuated to this extent, Richards said, though there are periodic closures throughout the year depending on road conditions, fires and rock falls.
By late Sunday afternoon, near the start of the Lower Yosemite Falls trail and a short walk from Yosemite Valley Lodge, a cascade of water from higher elevation flowed over the side of a hill. The water made its way down the paved path and over another small hill, making an improvised waterfall before continuing along the roadside.
On Southside Drive, muddy water formed a deep pool extending all the way across the road. Water rolled off the boulders above, making a whooshing sound as it cascaded down to the roadside and added to the flooded meadow below.
Suddenly, a few cracks rang out from above.
“OK, we need to get out of here,” Richards said. “That’s the sound of boulders coming down the hill. Let’s go!”
Back at the Swinging Bridge around 4:45 p.m. Sunday, the water had risen to about 9.5 feet and was nearly touching the bottom of the bridge. The river extended past its bank onto what had earlier in the day been ice-covered grass.
Toward dusk, a gray fog settled over the deserted valley floor, creating an eerie landscape.
“It’s a special thing,” Richards said. “Not many people will be able to see this in their lives.”