Friday, May 27, 2011
Ski resorts are bustling with activity. A key highway into Yellowstone is closed because parts of the road have seen more than 25 feet of snow. And campgrounds are feverishly removing snow from campsites to clear the way for visitors.
Welcome to Memorial Day weekend in much of the West.
The traditional kickoff of the summer season will have a decidedly wintry feel in the Rocky Mountains, as well as California's Sierra Nevada, because of a lingering record snowfall.
Epic snowpack in parts of Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, Oregon and California is forcing many tourists to abandon the annual rites of launching their summer holidays with a camping trip. Others plan to take advantage of prolonged skiing and showshoeing this strange spring.
In Denver, Brooke Schmidgall had her sights set on high-country camping this weekend as she shopped for gear at a sporting goods store.
"I'll bring my snowshoes," she said. "We have a big family tent. It will be nice and warm."
Rocky Mountain National Park's popular Trail Ridge Road is closed because of 17-foot snow drifts. Normally, holiday motorists can cruise at altitudes surpassing 11,000 feet but not this year.
Janelle Smith, spokeswoman for the U.S. Forest Service's Rocky Mountain region, recommended that campers consider heading to lower elevations - like Arizona or New Mexico. Campers in Idaho were being warned to check first before heading to camping areas - or risk being turned back by lingering drifts or muddy, impassable roads.
In Oregon, some resorts were still trying to dig out cabins - let alone campgrounds - from snowpack.
Yellowstone National Park has just one campground open. "We're telling people to be prepared for snow," said park spokesman Al Nash
In other parts of Wyoming, officials have extended winter closures of wildlife management areas to campers. The reason: To protect wildlife from humans because animals are still searching for food at lower elevations.
The Bridger-Teton National Forest Avalanche Center is fully staffed to warn outdoors enthusiasts.
"May snow depths are deeper than anything we have seen in the last 45 years," said avalanche center spokesman Bob Comey.
In California, a historic Sierra Nevada snowpack is making Yosemite National Park's springtime cascading waterfalls especially beautiful - and dangerous, with several accidental drownings already of people who failed to keep away from thundering waterfalls and swollen creeks and rivers.
But snow has kept rangers from installing a cable railing that helps hikers maintain their footing at Yosemite's iconic Half Dome. Anyone holding one of the allocated permits to climb will be out of luck this weekend.
"That was the caveat when people signed up - you may be out of luck depending on the snowmelt," park spokesman Scott Gediman said.
Park officials instituted the permit system last year to limit traffic to 400 people a day. Best guess is that the Half Dome route could be open by June 5, Gediman said.
Farther north, some popular campgrounds in Tahoe National Forest aren't expected to open for several weeks.
"We're still selling backpacks, because people are still geared up for the season," said Jeff Dostie, a clerk at Alpenglow Sports in Tahoe City, Calif. "But they're buying for the future, they're not buying for today."
While the snow is bad for some campers, it's great for skiers in Colorado and elsewhere. Aspen is reopening 136 acres of trails for skiing this weekend, and Arapahoe Basin has extended its closing dates beyond June 5.
"We're getting amazing ski traffic for this time of year because of this snowpack," Dostie said of the conditions in the Lake Tahoe region along the California-Nevada border.
But for Idaho's Lookout Ski and Recreation Area, the recent flurries must seem like a lost opportunity. The resort near the Montana line has been closed since April.
"Insane weather! Snowing like crazy here," Lookout's Twitter feed said Thursday afternoon.