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Wet winter makes big impact on Sierra recreation

Skiing blissfully down backcountry slopes, warming by a hot stove and enjoying the world-class company at Ostrander Ski Hut are usually pleasures available only in winter. But the tremendous snowfall of the 2018-19 winter made an extended season possible, and a few fortunate skiers got to enjoy Yosemite’s historic cabin into early spring. 

My two cousins and I were among the lucky ones, although it didn’t feel that way at first. Though we knew better, we made a number of mistakes on the ten-mile trek to the cabin, such as starting late and losing our route. After darkness fell, we finally called it quits and dug in for a brisk night of camping on the snow. At least we were equipped to do that, more or less comfortably, and we regrouped the next morning and completed the journey. 

As usual, Ostrander made the effort worthwhile. The rustic shelter built in 1941 provides warmth and comfort in a winter wonderland of spectacular scenery. Nearby Horse Ridge offers miles of pristine skiing for those who would rather climb up slopes themselves than take a chair-lift; the descents are more fulfilling that way. During the evenings, visitors from around the world cook sumptuous meals and trade tales of outdoor adventure.

Skiing (or snow-shoeing) to Ostrander challenges even fit and experienced visitors; beginners should not attempt it. But for those who enjoy a good workout on skis, the peace and beauty of the mountains, and the simple comforts of a beautiful wood and granite shelter, Ostrander Hut is worth visiting time after time. 

This winter’s heavy snowfall (162 percent of normal) opened other doors for recreation even as it will apparently close others. Ski resorts enjoyed a banner season, many staying open months later than they did in the recent drought years. A wildflower superbloom erupted across the foothills that will climb up the mountains all summer. Lakes are filling and rivers are raging; rafters expect epic flows on the Tuolumne, Merced and American rivers. 

But the large snowpack has drawbacks too. High roads like Ebbetts, Sonora and Tioga passes appear headed for June or even July openings, several weeks later than their average dates. Yosemite closed its popular High Sierra camps for the year. Hundreds of permit holders for popular hikes like the John Muir Trail will miss their early summer dates because access roads will not open in time, snow-covered trails will be impassable or both. Many Pacific Crest Trail hikers will skip the whole Sierra Nevada for those reasons. And all that snowmelt will eventually fuel a mosquito-breeding boom like few have ever seen. 

To cope with these issues, your correspondent offers the following suggestions. Consider later mountain visits this year: September and October should be terrific for camping. Backpackers can avoid High Sierra complications by taking lower-elevation and more southern treks. Those who do brave snow-covered passes should bring crampons and ice axes to protect steep, icy crossings. 

Trail Snacks

Camp 4 — Yosemite’s historic home of rock climbers and other travelers, will adopt a lottery reservation system for the first-time starting May 21. Camp 4 has always operated as a walk-in campground, but because of its popularity, would-be campers had to arrive hours before its kiosk opens (often well before dawn) to secure a site. The new system will require campers to visit the day before they wish to arrive and enter a lottery. My take: this pilot program has a chance to relieve the aggravation of those enduring long waits only to be denied sites. But Yosemite Valley camping in summer will never be easy, especially on weekends, and those who can are better off visiting during the shoulder seasons, or at least midweek . . . 

Kudos to Lake Tahoe Wildlife Care which took in three parentless bear cubs in March. Arriving at about a month old and weighing only four pounds each, the cubs had reached 17-19 pounds by late April, the facility reported. Caregivers are calling the cubs Blaze, Yreka and Paradise. “They’re still loving their bottle feedings but are starting to eat berries and other fruit. They have bear tempers but thankfully most of the time take it out on each other, just like kids!” a caregiver wrote. Lake Tahoe Wildlife Care is raising money for the animals’ care and to expand its facility. Find out more and consider contributing at

Sierra Nevada Brewing Company has launched a Pale Ale for Trails campaign to raise money for trail and river care and protection. The brewery has partnered with American Hiking Society to promote National Trails Day on June 21. “Spending time in the wilds is good for the body, soul and mind, and that’s something we try to live by as we operate our business,” said founder Ken Grossman. I’ll drink to that!  

— Matt Johanson authored the new guidebook, “Sierra Summits: A Guide to 50 Peak Experiences in California’s Range of Light.”