If you’ve been out to the mountains this winter, especially those in the southwest, you have probably noticed a lot of powder. It has been a good year so far for our snowpack, with snow levels at 40% higher than the previous 30-year average – up from 35% on April 1st. The western river basins range from 24% above average to a whopping 96% increase, nearly double the average snow totals over the past three decades.
Here’s a quick Colorado Snow Report on where you will find Colorado’s above-average snowpack, and how it will impact ongoing droughts and affect the summer hiking, climbing, and backpacking season.
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Unveiling the Snowy Landscape
While snow totals are at or above average across most of Colorado, it is not equally distributed. The southeast part of the state and Arkansas River is actually 13% below average (though that may change yet during May). Similarly, the Front Range near Denver and Fort Collins is essentially right around normal, with the snowpack just 5% above average. This means ski areas like Eldora, Arapahoe Basin, Winter Park, and Loveland are having a good, but relatively typical year in terms of their snowpack. Don’t expect early ski closures – but don’t expect them to stay open until July either.
The rest of the mountains are absolutely buried in snow, especially those in the southwest:
- The San Miguel, Dolores, Animas, and San Juan Basin is 96% above average, which includes Telluride and Silvertone ski areas.
- The Gunnison River Basin is 80% above average, including Crested Butte and ending at Monarch Pass.
- The Upper Colorado River Basin, including Breckenridge, Aspen, and Vail are all 35% above the 30-year snowpack average.
- The Tama and White River area is not home to many ski areas but is 56% above average.
- Laramie and North Platte near Steamboat Springs in the north are 25% above snowpack average levels.
There is significant variation in snow levels within each specific river basin. For example, look at the map below of the western San Juans. Some areas are 30-50% above average, while a few isolated stations are showing anywhere from 3-9 times as much snow as is typically present right now.
How Does This Impact the Ongoing Drought and Colorado River?
After more than two decades of ongoing droughts, the Colorado River is severely underfed. This strong snow season will increase flow rates along the entire river. Current estimates are that this increased snowmelt will raise the water level in Lake Powell more than 50 feet, raising it back to 39% of its capacity, compared to 23% right now. That will buy officials precious time to make hard decisions about water use in the area for the future.
How to Help Protect our Water Supply
While this is great news for the Colorado River and communities affected by the ongoing drought, it is not a long-term solution. Heavy snow years like this are generally exceptions to the rule and can’t be relied on year after year. In order to address the root causes of this crisis, we must reduce our reliance on the Colorado River, generate new additional water sources, or some mix of the two. You can be a part of the solution by following these simple water conservation practices:
- Fix leaks and drips: Regularly check for leaks in faucets, toilets, and irrigation systems. Fixing even small leaks can save a significant amount of water over time.
- Install water-efficient fixtures: Replace old, inefficient toilets, showerheads, and faucets with WaterSense-labeled or low-flow alternatives. These fixtures can significantly reduce water usage without compromising functionality.
- Practice outdoor water conservation: Be mindful of outdoor water usage, especially during dry periods. Water lawns and landscapes efficiently by using drip irrigation or watering in the early morning or late evening to minimize evaporation. Consider xeriscaping or planting native, drought-resistant plants that require less water.
- Collect and reuse water: Use rain barrels or other collection systems to capture rainwater for outdoor irrigation. Reuse water from activities like dishwashing or rinsing fruits and vegetables to water indoor or outdoor plants.
- Practice smart indoor water usage: Adopt simple habits like turning off the tap while brushing your teeth, taking shorter showers, and running full loads of laundry and dishes. These small actions can add up to significant water savings over time.
How Does This Colorado Snow Report Impact Spring and Summer Recreation?
With more snow on the ground, it will take longer to melt out this spring. Whitewater outfitters are expecting a great season, especially after several lackluster years where low water levels kept them off the Blue River runs entirely. That said, other types of recreational enthusiasts may have more to worry about as the snowpack takes longer to melt, especially at higher elevations and in the southern and western mountains.
In 2019, another heavy snowpack year with historic avalanche activity, peaks that normally melted out in early June were buried yet in mid-to-late July. One factor that may speed up that timeline is dust: earlier this month, several wind events deposited a great deal of dust on the snow surface – which is now being re-exposed as the snow above it melts. Once exposed to the sun, the dark-colored dust will absorb more sunlight and heat the snow up faster, accelerating the snowmelt.
This is good news for hikers, bikers, and climbers who want trails and campsites to clear out as fast as possible. However, it is bad news for those looking to stretch out their ski season – and it is horrible for water managers and officials who want to stretch out the snowmelt as long as possible so we can use capture and use it for drinking water, irrigation, and other needs. Instead, it quickly flows into and fills reservoirs, with the excess released downstream to avoid flooding.
Tips for Getting Outside With a Significant Snowpack
If you are ready to get outside this spring and early summer regardless of the snow levels, I totally understand. After a long, cold, and snowy winter, I am always impatient to start hiking and climbing again in the spring season. Here are some tips to consider with our heavy snowpack to ensure you have safe and successful adventures this coming spring and early summer.
- Research trail conditions: Before heading out, research the current trail conditions and access information for your intended destination. Check local park or forest service websites, trail reports, and forums for up-to-date information on trail accessibility and snow levels. Snow levels vary a lot, both between and within specific ranges. Don’t assume a trail will be snow-free by mid-June. When in doubt, visit the SNOTEL website for more information.
- Plan for snow travel: Be prepared for snowy conditions by bringing appropriate gear such as traction devices (microspikes), snowshoes, and trekking poles. These tools will provide stability and improve traction when walking on snowy or icy terrain. Note: You do not need an ice axe or mountaineering crampons unless you will be snow climbing in technical terrain – without the right training, these tools can be dangerous.
- Dress in layers: Dress appropriately for changing weather conditions in the mountains. Layer your clothing to regulate body temperature, and wear moisture-wicking and insulating materials to stay warm and dry. Carry extra clothing in case of unexpected weather changes – I always appreciate a warm pair of socks for when my first pair inevitably gets wet from melting snow.
- Check weather forecasts: Stay updated on weather forecasts for the area you plan to visit. Keep in mind that spring weather can be unpredictable, with rapid changes in temperature, snowstorms, or sudden snowmelt leading to muddy and slippery conditions. In the morning, expect icy conditions and supportive snow. These will quickly give way to soft, wet, and unsupportive snow where snowshoes are mandatory to avoid waist-deep postholing. Start early and finish early to stay dry.
- Consider avalanche risks: Understand that a heavy snowpack can increase the risk of avalanches, especially on steep slopes and in backcountry areas. During spring, wet avalanches can occur as water seeps through a snowpack and destabilizes its internal bonds. Check the Colorado Avalanche Information Center forecast and obtain proper avalanche safety training and equipment if venturing into avalanche-prone terrain.
- Be Aware of Swollen Rivers: Streams, creeks, and rivers will rise as the snow begins to melt more rapidly – especially as more dust layers are exposed. Each day, water levels rise throughout the day as the sun accelerates melting, with peak runoff in the late afternoon (there is a time delay as water that melted earlier takes time to reach the stream). Do not be surprised if rivers become significantly more challenging to cross only a few hours after you initially saw them. Runoff generally peaks in late May or early June, but that might be pushed back due to the large snowpack.
Take this into account when picking a route, and do not attempt to cross swollen rivers if you do not feel comfortable (wait until early morning in a worst-case situation – this is the best time to cross).
Colorado Snow Report: Good News for the Colorado River
Overall, the May Colorado snow report this year is the best we could hope for. A heavy snowpack will help recharge our western water supply and provide more time to find innovative solutions to these complex and challenging problems. However, hikers, climbers, and other outdoor enthusiasts need to take precautions this spring to deal with these above-average snow levels.
By following the best practices shared above, like checking the weather and snow conditions, bringing traction and snowshoes, wearing layers, and thinking about avalanche risks and swollen rivers, you can reduce your risk of an accident and have a great time outdoors this spring and summer. I hope you enjoyed my May Colorado Snow Report; safe travels on the trails!
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
A: The strong snow season will increase flow rates along the entire river and raise the water level in Lake Powell by more than 50 feet. This provides some relief to the ongoing drought and more time to act, but it is not a long-term solution. Heavy snowpack years like this are still an exception to the rule and are not a reliable solution. They are good to hope for as a gift, but not to rely on entirely.
A: The heavy snowpack will result in a longer snowmelt process, especially at higher elevations and in the southern and western mountains. Hikers, bikers, and climbers may have to wait longer for trails to clear, but whitewater outfitters anticipate a great season due to increased water levels.
A: It is important to research trail conditions, plan for snow travel by bringing appropriate gear, dress in layers, check weather and snow forecasts, and consider avalanche risks. Additionally, be aware of swollen rivers and their changing conditions throughout the day and season.
A: Above average snowpack levels in Colorado can be attributed to factors such as frequent winter storms, favorable atmospheric conditions, climate patterns like El Niño, mountainous topography, and long-term climate variability. These factors contribute to increased snowfall accumulation and the subsequent buildup of snowpack. The high elevation and steep slopes of Colorado’s mountains further enhance snow capture and retention. However, snowpack levels can vary from year to year, and it’s important to monitor and manage the impacts associated with prolonged snowmelt, such as flood risks and water resource management.
A: Start with proper footwear and traction: Good winter hiking boots, preferably waterproof with good traction. Bring Kahtoola microspikes to grip the snow and ice, which will probably be icy in the morning. Bring mountaineering snowshoes to move through soft, unsupportive snow common in the afternoon. Wear layers, including a merino wool base layer, fleece mid-layer, and puffy jacket top-layer to stay warm, and remember sunglasses or snow goggles and sunscreen to deal with the powerful sunlight reflected back at you by the snow.
Always remember the ten essentials when heading into the mountains, especially in a heavy snow year. Lastly, a pair of trek poles can provide helpful balance and durability on slippery surfaces or when crossing a roaring river.
Looking for more sources like our May Colorado Snow Report? Here are some more websites and resources for researching current snowpack levels and conditions in Colorado.