YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK (KPIX 5) — Lightning flash across the sky and thunder rumbled through Yosemite National Park’s famed valleys Sunday morning as a potent winter storm battered the popular tourist destination.

Meanwhile, park officials kept a wary eye on the rising waters of the Merced River as a steady rain fell within the park since 3 a.m. Sunday. The National Weather Service predicted the river would crest at the Pohono Bridge inside the park at least 15.6 feet by Sunday night — well over the flood stage of 10 feet.

Anticipating the flooding, rangers have shut down access to the iconic tourist spot.

It’s a rare sight. Twenty years ago, in January of 1997 the park shut down when severe storms turned Yosemite Valley into a lake and the Merced burst its banks.

Hydrologists have been releasing water from reservoirs to make room for what could be massive runoff from the mountains. While the flooding isn’t expected to be as bad this time around, park officials were not taking any chances.

By 5 p.m. Saturday, no one was getting in, and no one was getting out.


“We are projecting some flooding. We don’t know how high the river is going to come,” said park official Jamie Richards.

Well ahead of the brunt of the storm, water was raging into the valley. Not only were waterways starting to swell, hillsides along roadways were showing signs of trouble.

Taking no chances, the park launched an evacuation plan and bused just about everyone out of the valley.

“Doing this for health and human safety, not only for park visitors, but for staff and other individuals who work here,” said Richards.

The only people left in the park were essential staff needed to manage whatever problems emerged over the next 48 hours. Officials were still uncertain how hard the storm would hit.

“It’s unclear how soon we’re going to know. It’s going to peak tonight, into tomorrow, and we’ll get a better idea of what course of action needs to be taken at that time,” said Richards.