PSA | Hazardous High Sierra creeks: List, map & alternates

Every spring, creeks in the High Sierra rage with snowmelt. For one to two months, they are a grave danger, especially after wet winters like 2018-19. Backpackers can still hike, camp, and explore safely, but they should be aware of and respect this hazard.

Swift and deep creek crossings will be found throughout the range, including but not limited to (the):

  • Yosemite National Park,
  • Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Park,
  • John Muir Trail,
  • Pacific Crest Trail,
  • High Sierra Trail,
  • Rae Lakes Loop,
  • Yosemite High Route, and,
  • Kings Canyon High Basin Route.

On this page you will find a list and map of known creek hazards. It’s designed to keep backcountry users safer, by highlighting problem spots and identifying wiser alternates.

A swollen Tuolumne River as it plummets from Tuolumne Meadows into the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne

Please contribute

This resource needs your help. While I have hiked extensively in the High Sierra, I cannot speak confidently about every creek crossing.

Please share your experience(s) to help make this a more accurate and thorough resource, ultimately helping to keep hikers safer. For instructions, refer to the end of this post.

About peak run-off

Before we get to the list and map of creek hazards, I’d like to share some context and complementary information.

Contributing factors

Creek crossings in the High Sierra warrant your attention. The hazard is caused by a unique set of circumstances:

  • Significant wintertime snowfall,
  • Arrival of hot and sunny weather in late-spring,
  • Steep gradients,
  • Few bridges,
  • Recreational use miles downstream of headwaters, and,
  • Non-porous granite substrate.

Timing

Water levels normally peak in late-May and June. But after wet winters and cool springs, they can be delayed until or remain elevated into July.

On a typical warm and sunny day, the creeks rise and fall considerably. They are highest in the early-evening, swollen with an entire day of melt; and lowest in the morning, after a night of near-freezing temperatures.

Gear & skills

Already I have written an in-depth tutorial about gear and skills for creek crossings. In short:

It’s helpful to use trekking poles and to cross in your hiking shoes. But it’s even more important to:

  • Plan crossings in the morning, when flows are relatively low;
  • Identify and use safer crossing points;
  • Cross larger creeks where they are braided, or take on their tributaries independently further upstream;
  • Find snow bridges, and log bridges and jams; and,
  • Cross with other hikers, as matter of safety and sometimes stability.

Data: Current levels

For current stream flows, refer to the gauges linked below. Even if they are not on your route, they will give you a sense for real-time conditions.

  • Kern River (at Kernville), which drains the southernmost High Sierra;
  • Kaweah River (at Three Rivers), which originates upstream of Lodgepole Campground and Kaweah Pass (on the High Sierra Trail);
  • Kings River (at Road’s End), which is downstream of Forester Pass, Rae Lakes, and Muir Pass;
  • Merced River (at Happy Isles), which captures melt in the southern half of Yosemite;
  • Tuolumne River (at Tuolumne Meadows), downstream of Lyell Canyon and Donohue Pass;

Warning

The list and map of creek hazards are increasingly comprehensive and accurate. But they are not perfect: some hazardous creeks are NOT included, and some information may be incorrect or out of date.

I am providing these sources as a matter of public safety, but ultimately you are responsible for your decisions and safety.

List of creek hazards

To make this list most useful to the most number of backpackers — who overwhelming start and finish at the same trail head, who stay within one land management jurisdiction, and who follow unbranded routes — I have decided to organize this list by agency and then by alphabetical order.

But in recognition of the popularity of trade routes like the Pacific Crest and John Muir Trails, and as an additional resource for my Yosemite High Route Guide and Kings Canyon High Basin Route Guide, I have included dedicated columns for these trails and routes to allow for quick filtering of applicable crossings.


Map of creek hazards

To open this map in a new window, click here.

The default layer is the USGS 7.5-minute map series. But I recommend using the more updated FSTopo 2016 layer for trips in or through National Forests.


How to use these resources in the field

The list and map will be regularly improved, specifically:

  • June 10-15, and
  • July 2-10.

List

For a PDF of the list that you can print or download to your smartphone, click here.

To create your own copy of the spreadsheet that you can tailor to your itinerary and then either print or download, either:

  • Sign into your Google account, click here, and then select File > Make a copy; or,
  • Download it as an Excel file.

Note: After creating your own copy of this file, additional updates to my master spreadsheet will not automatically download to yours.

Map

To bring this map (or its data) into the field:

  • To start, click here, which will open the map in a new window;
  • Under Export, select Download GPX file.

This downloaded GPX file can be:

  • Opened on your smartphone, with an app like GaiaGPS;
  • Loaded onto a handheld GPS unit;
  • Uploaded to an online mapping platform (I highly recommend Caltopo), where you can edit and print it.

As with the list, your GPX copy will not update with changes that are made to my master map.

Contribute to this resource

If you would like to share information about specific creek crossings, leave a comment below. Please include:

  • Creek name;
  • Jurisdiction (e.g. Yosemite NP, Sequoia-Kings Canyon NP, Inyo NF);
  • A description of the crossing, including its watershed size, swiftness, and underlying bed surface; and,
  • Potential safe alternates, including GPS points if they’re available.

If you are a High Sierra expert and would like to make significant contributions to this project, contact me with your credentials (and your proficiency with Google Sheets and CalTopo) and I will give you edit permissions to the source files. I could use some help with this, thanks.

Is the information accurate? Have an experience to share? Curious about an unlisted creek? Leave a comment.

The post PSA | Hazardous High Sierra creeks: List, map & alternates appeared first on Andrew Skurka.

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