The state of the snowpack on PCT/JMT in the High Sierra

This is a guest post by John Dittli, a 34-year resident of the High Sierra who works part-time as a snow surveyor for the California Department of Water Resources. His day job is managing his photography business. His award winning book, Walk the Sky: Following the John Muir Trail is available through his website and at fine bookstores. To see more of John’s images and what he might be up to, follow him on Facebook.

As California perseveres through one of the driest winters on record, the same may not hold true for many of the highest elevations in the Sierra. From my home at 7,200 feet on the east slope of the Sierra, I waited for snow to coat 11,472-foot Red Mountain. Red’s north slope is usually coated and skiable to my front door. Not this year. Talus was visible through a thin layer of snow all winter and I didn’t have to plow my driveway once! Convenient yes, but not all that encouraging. However, on ski trips west of the crest, there has been light, but ample snow coverage at higher elevations. This is also shown by data I and other snow surveyors gathered through the California Cooperative Snow Survey program.

Skiing near Piute Pass during a recent snow survey.

Skiing near Piute Pass during a recent snow survey.

Around April 1, I sampled sites at Bullfrog Lake, Charlotte Lake, Piute Pass, Virginia Lakes (Northern Yosemite area) and Devil’s Postpile. Other surveyors measured sites throughout the Sierra. These measurements indicate considerably more snow water equivalent (SWE) at the upper elevations then might be expected given the dismal ~25 percent–of-normal snowpack statewide. SWE is the amount of water held in the snow and is the most important factor in determining snow density and predicting runoff forecasts.

Bullfrog Lake, near the PCT and Kearsarge Pass.

Bullfrog Lake, near the PCT and Kearsarge Pass.

Below are SWE averages for sites above 10,000 feet in major watersheds between Mount Whitney and Yosemite (Tuolumne sites are above 9,000 feet). I give a comparison between this April and those of 2013 and 2012. It should be noted that the April 1 measurements are considered peak accumulation.


Percent of average SWE for the general area of the John Muir Trail.

Lower elevations in these drainages (below 8,000 feet in the north and 9,000 feet in the south) are much drier and averaging in the low to mid 20 percent. Also, because of prolonged hot dry spells, south facing slopes are free of snow.

When this winter’s snow will leave the high country is a guessing game at best and fully dependent on the whims of Spring. That brings up another note: the long-range forecasts are trending toward wet and cool into May.

(Important disclaimer: the above synopsis is solely the opinion of the author and in no way reflects the opinion, or water forecast, of the California Department of Water Resources.)

At the time of writing, it's prime ski season in the High Sierra.

At the time of writing, it’s prime ski season in the High Sierra.


Author: Jack "Found" Haskel

As the Trail Information Manager, Jack works to connect people to the PCT. He's involved with a wide variety of projects that help the trail, the trail's users and the community that surrounds the experience. He has thru-hiked (Pacific Crest Trail in 2006; Colorado Trail in 2008; Continental Divide Trail in 2010) and is an obsessed weekend warrior.