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Sierra Nevada's Lowest Snowpack in 500 Years Provides Range of Benefits, Hardships to Hikers

California's Sierra Nevada snowpack is at its lowest level in 500 years, allowing hikers to voyage through famous trails with more ease. However, the low snow and water levels have presented other challenges to adventurers out in the wilderness.

A study published last week examined tree ring data to determine the historic low levels of snowpack.

A countless number of trails weave their way through the Sierra, crossing through valleys, over mountains and through rivers. The John Muir Trail is one of the longer, more popular trails in the Sierra where hikers encounter these obstacles rather frequently.

"Every spring it's a question as to when the snow will melt on the north face of the [mountain] passes, and make them easier," Paul Wagner of BackpacktheSierra.com said.

With less snow over the Sierra, these mountain passes have been easier to navigate through earlier in the year compared to years with a normal or above-normal snowpack.

This can help the hiking season start a bit earlier than normal for those looking to spend some time hiking through the vast wilderness that the Sierra Nevada offers.

With a lower snowpack, there is less water runoff to feed the rivers, making crossing easier for hikers when they encounter a river that does not have a bridge.

Additionally, these lower water levels can make some trails more accessible earlier in the year.

"There are trails that skirt along rivers that are pretty darn wet in the spring," Wagner said.

This means that trails that track very close to the water are likely to be easier to hike earlier in the year during a drought when compared to years where rain and snowfall over the Sierra is near to above normal.

These positive impacts from the drought do not come without some negatives.

"The smaller creeks have pretty much dried up by now," Wagner said. "Most of the lakes still have water in them but are quite a few feet down from their normal levels."

"If you are counting on smaller springs or creeks at a crucial point in the hike, I'd suggest that you take along an extra water bottle just in case that source is dry--because it's likely to be so," he continued.

Having enough water with you when hiking is crucial since your body requires more water when you're exerting yourself hiking through a mountain pass or covering a long stretch of trail. Water is also necessary for cooking meals and washing clothes for those spending several weeks hiking in the mountains.

The changing of the seasons marks an end of the hiking season over the Sierra Nevada for many people due to the colder and harsher weather conditions.

Signs point toward this winter being wetter and snowier than the past several winters have been for California, largely in part due to the strong El Niño.

El Niño occurs when waters over the tropical Pacific Ocean are warmer than normal. The pattern influences the path and intensity of storm systems.

Despite the likelihood of a wetter winter in California than last year, it is not likely to end the ongoing drought.

"Even though a strong El Niño is in progress and likely to last for months, the prospect of drought-busting rainfall is not a guarantee for California this winter," AccuWeather Senior Meteorologist Alex Sosnowski said.

"What may happen in California this winter is that more modest storms could deliver episodes of soaking rain, rather than many storms with torrential rain, yards of snow in the mountains, damaging winds and major flooding," Sosnowski added.

The snow that falls over the Sierra Nevada in the winter is crucial during the spring and summer as the melting snow accounts for roughly 30 percent of California's water supply.

"This has been one of the worst droughts since the 1860s and 1870s," AccuWeather Western Weather Expert Ken Clark said.

The rain and snow anticipated this winter will help lessen the severity of the drought and help to build up the snowpack slowly in the Sierra, but it will take more than one wet winter to end the drought across the western United States completely.