Yosemite Valley, swamped by Merced River, to reopen Sunday if conditions allow

Flooded Merced River closes Yosemite Valley

Flooded Merced River closes Yosemite Valley
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Flooded Merced River closes Yosemite Valley

Yosemite Valley roads and campgrounds were flooded, with some tent cabins submerged, as torrential rainfall pushed the Merced River above its moderate flood stage. The valley was closed all day Saturday. Park officials announced Saturday night the valley would reopen at noon Sunday if conditions allow.

Portions of the main roads through Yosemite Valley — Northside, Southside and Sentinel drives — flooded with two to four feet of water Saturday. Housekeeping Camp, Cooks Meadow, Swinging Bridge, and some campsites in Lower and North Pines campgrounds also were flooded.

While Yosemite Valley is closed to the public due to the rising Merced River, road crews clear debris from Southside Drive

Hundreds of streams were pouring down granite walls in Yosemite Valley. Many of the small waterfalls don't have names.

“There’s just water pouring out of every little crevasse,” said Jamie Richards, a Yosemite National Park spokeswoman. “We are seeing hundreds of ephemeral falls … and we are only seeing water flowing through those areas because there’s such a great volume of water coming down from the high country and dropping into Yosemite Valley.”

Water gushing down Bridalveil Fall flooded onto Southside Drive near its junction with Wawona Road (Highway 41), keeping road crews busy Saturday morning clearing debris from the roadway.

As of 5 p.m. Saturday, the National Weather Service reported the Merced River had risen to 13.6 feet at Pohono Bridge, above the 10-foot flood level at which park roads and utilities are affected.

Video taken Saturday, April 7, 2018, shows some flooding along Southside Drive in Yosemite Valley, approaching Sentinel Bridge. You also get a look at a swollen Yosemite Falls.

All visitors were asked to leave by 5 p.m. Friday. Yosemite Valley campground and lodging reservations were canceled for Friday and Saturday nights. Richards said park officials would reassess road conditions and closures Sunday morning.

Around 1,000 park and concessionaire employees who live in Yosemite Valley were allowed to stay. They were asked to stay inside, off roads and away from the river. Power was not affected as of Saturday afternoon. Around 50 National Park Service employees continued to work in Yosemite Valley during the storm.

Dakota Snider, an interpretive naturalist with Yosemite Hospitality, a subsidiary of park concessionaire Aramark, was among a small group of people outside admiring Yosemite Falls during the storm.

"It's a super-super-powerful feeling being in Yosemite with this much water around you," Snider said. "You can hear the rumble of water on a usual day but really, this is just something else."

Snider and his friends were having trouble finding a path that wasn't flooded to the Yosemite Village store, which remained open.

"We need more beer!" joked one man in the group.

Several groups of backpackers came down from the high Sierra and were waiting to be escorted out of Yosemite Valley by rangers Saturday evening.

It was sunny in Yosemite Valley by late Saturday afternoon after more than two and a half inches of rain fell. The National Weather Service didn't expect rainfall to increase much, but the Merced River was expected to continue rising until 6 p.m., peaking at over 15 feet. The river's water levels were expected to drop by Sunday afternoon.

Other flood watches in the region in the Sierra Nevada and foothills expired Saturday afternoon, said Jim Dudley, a meteorologist in the weather service's Hanford office.

Dudley said there were a couple rock slides near Tamarack Sno-Park on the way to China Peak Mountain Resort but that overall, it was a "very beneficial rain for everybody — we got out of it without any major road issues."

Raging Bridalveil Fall plunges into Yosemite Valley, which is closed to the public due to flooding along the Merced River Saturday, April 7, 2018, in Yosemite National Park. ERIC PAUL ZAMORA ezamora@fresnobee.com

The rainfall is courtesy of a warm subtropical storm from the Pacific, unusual for this time of year. The same type of storm hit Yosemite Valley the last time it closed due to flooding, Richards said, in January of 2017. At that time, the Merced River peaked at 12.7 feet, swamping some meadows, Housekeeping Camp and Half Dome Village (formerly Curry Village).

Saturday's flood level was well below the crest of more than 23 feet that occurred in 1997.

Park officials said the river would need to reach about 20 feet to cause significant damages to roads and buildings.

Yosemite National Park spokesperson Jamie Richards stands looking out over the flooded area separating the Swinging Bridge as the Merced River floods Yosemite Valley Saturday, April 7, 2018, in Yosemite National Park. ERIC ZAMORA ezamora@fresnobee.com

Access to Yosemite Valley remains closed along the Big Oak Flat Road (Highway 120) at the Foresta Road Junction, along Wawona Road (Highway 41) at Chinquapin, and along Highway 140 at the park boundary in El Portal.

YARTS (Yosemite Area Regional Transportation System) suspended its bus service to Yosemite Valley over the weekend.

Visitor services and campgrounds remain open in Wawona, Hodgen Meadow, Crane Flat, and El Portal.

Much less rain fell in the central San Joaquin Valley. The weather service reported about three tenths of an inch in Fresno and around seven tenths in Merced.

Carmen George: 559-441-6386, @CarmenGeorge