Hike the High California Mountains Early –Before the Summer Wildfires

Making your summer plans for backpacking and day hiking in California? I urge you to go earlier rather than later.

Why? Two main reasons…

Backpacking at Upper Canyon Creek Lake in the Trinity Alps, mid-June 2014, before summmer. No snow and no wildfire smoke.
Backpacking at Upper Canyon Creek Lake in the Trinity Alps, mid-June 2014. No snow, no wildfire smoke.

#1: Climate Change Means Less Snowpack That Melts Quicker

The 2020-2021 winter season has overall brought relatively meager snowfall to the Sierra Nevada, Cascades, Klamaths, and other mountain ranges in the state. This is a continuation of an overall long-term drought situation in California and much of the West, a pattern that is likely to continue.

The combination of less snow and historically warmer temperatures from climate change means that most of the high country that typically wasn’t snow-free in past decades until July will likely be snow-free in early to mid-June, or even sooner.

#2: Thick Wildfire Smoke in California from Mid-Summer into Early Fall

We are all way too familiar with the “smoke season” that we endure in summer and well into fall. 2020 was an historically bad year for wildfires and wildfire smoke in California, which had a huge impact on backpackers and day hikers throughout the state.

Of course, when and where wildfires start in and adjacent to California, how large they grow, and how much smoke they produce and where is a major unknown.

When I’d Plan My California Backpacking and Day Hiking Trips

I think the sweet spot is about late June to mid-July. Although there are no guarantees, this time window provides the highest probability of:

  • Little or no snow
  • Relatively warm air temperatures
  • Mountain lakes warming up enough for a swim
  • Little or no wildfire smoke

There will be many places you can easily backpack and day hike even in late May. And you may still be able to hit the trails in late summer and autumn with little or no smoke, depending on where you go and what the specific smoke conditions are.

And if you’re planning for 2022 and beyond, I’d keep this same advice in mind.

My Posts About Wildfire Smoke Conditions and How to Survive a Wildfire

Wildfire and Smoke Conditions for California Hikers: Best Resources 2021

Surviving a Wildfire While Hiking: What to Do

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