The million dollar question – When is the snow going to melt?

Everyone’s favorite question – answered(ish) and other important considerations for trails this summer

It’s May and we hit 70 degrees here in South Lake Tahoe. The windows are open and it is sunny and hot (for me at least). All clear signs that summer is fast approaching! I’ve seen my first snow plant of the season popping out of the ground behind my house and at lake level May looks pretty normal. But, as we all know, we’ve had anything but a normal winter and the million dollar question we have heard for the past two months is when will the trail be clear of snow. NEVER! Just kidding, but I got your attention right? In all seriousness, it is a possibility that on a few very high north facing aspects of the trail, we may have snow that lingers until the next water year’s snowfall if we have a mild spring and summer.

While we have no definitive answers on when the trail will be clear of snow, I put together some interesting factoids and data from our favorite weather guru who spoke recently at our TRTA Guide training, Chris Smallcomb, Warning Coordination Meteorologist with the Reno National Weather Service. Hopefully these tidbits of great information will give you a clearer picture of what to expect throughout the summer to help with planning your trail adventures.

 

First – there was a lot of snow! Back in early February the Mercury News ran a story on winter conditions in the Sierra and included this great graphic showing how well the snowpack was doing as of February 1st. By that point in the winter we were at 177% of the historic average.

Not one to rest on her laurels, Mother Nature decided she was not even close to done yet. The rest of the winter did not disappoint and we continued to pile on the snow. When the snowpack was measured in April we were up to 200-250% of snowpack!

Enjoying 200% of Average Snowpack

While we desperately needed a large snow year to fill our reservoirs and provide a drink to our parched forests, the massive snowpack will have significant consequences for us throughout the summer to consider. Prepare for some serious stream crossings, especially at places like the Fontanillis Lake outlet where water will be running high for months. Along with stream crossings, there will be bugs! Most annoyingly, dizzying amounts of mosquitos. On trails, anticipate flooding, washouts, mud, and down trees throughout the summer.

As far as when the snow will melt out, it’s just a best guess based on previous year’s data. It will also depend a lot on what temperatures do for the remainder of the spring and early summer. The Tahoe Rim Trail Association has already pushed our Segment Hiking Program’s start date back by one week. Additionally, our July Thru Hike scheduled to depart on July 22nd has been rescheduled to September. 

Trails under 8,000ft will be slow to melt out this year but will be significantly faster than trails above 8,000ft. The majority of the storms we experienced prior to January came in warmer than usual meaning we saw more rain than snow at lower elevations. Below is a cool graph from Mike Dettinger USGS/DRI showing the drastic change starting in January. We also received several storms in April that were rain at lake level but snow above 8,000ft. 

 

Snowpack observations near lake level, 7,500ft, and 8,500ft

On 5/10 you could make it just past the waterfall bridge at 6,800ft on the Van Sickle Connector Trail without encountering any major snow fields on the trail. This is a significant change from just a week prior when a trip up to the waterfall required crossing a 100 foot long, three foot deep snowfield on the trail.

At higher elevations there is still just a ton of snow. Below, Cheryl, one of our awesome crew leaders provides the scale for the snow at Echo Lakes Road around 7,400ft elevation at the end of April.

Then there is the snowpack above 8,000ft where things are still buried! Above is an incredible picture from this past weekend from The Carson Pass Information Station’s Facebook page showing their snow levels near 8,500ft. 

Historic Melt Out Dates and Best Guesses For 2017

To help with planning, here are historic melt out dates that will probably be fairly representative of this coming year for high elevations in the Sierra.

Leavitt Lake near Sonora Pass – 9604ft

            Average melt out: July 1st
            2011: August 3rd
            1995: August 17th

Mt. Rose – 8,800ft

            Average melt out: June 11th
            2011: July 11th
            1995: July 22nd
            1983: July 17th

For the TRT this generally equates to a late July, early August melt out for most of the trail.

Expect the east side of the Trail to generally melt out faster. The Carson Range receives significantly less snow than the crest of the Sierra Nevada on the west side. Spooner to Kingsbury North tends to be the Tahoe Rim Trail’s first full segment to melt out. Additionally sections of the trail near Tahoe City are also some of the first areas of the trail to melt. We did recently receive pictures from May 2nd of Page Meadows with full snow coverage and reports of up to seven feet of snow still on the ground. On the west side, especially in shady northeast facing aspects snow will hold on much longer. Here is a shot of Big Meadow from May 5th!

Whatever time frame to choose to embark on your Tahoe Rim Trail adventures, please be prepared to run into snow and mud on our trails throughout the summer season and try your best to stay on the trail. The picture to the right shows where a snowfield previously covered the trail and where trail users cut around it to try to avoid the snow and in doing so impacted the landscape and created social trails that the trail crew has to fix.

The Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit sees over 5.7 million visitors each year and the Tahoe Rim Trail has over 400,000 annual trail users. If even a small percentage of those users are stepping off trail to avoid mud, water, or snow it will significantly impact the trail leading to wide braided trails, unhappy vegetation, and excess erosion.

Whatever you get up to on the Trail this summer have fun, stay safe, and say hi to your fellow trail users! Additionally, check out our Trail Conditions webpage for updates from the Tahoe Rim Trail Association on trail conditions. If you head out on the trail and have an update or photos of trail conditions we’d love to get them. You can email us at info@tahoerimtrail.org, submit them through our Trail Conditions webpage, or send them to us via our Facebook page. 

Thanks again to Chris Smallcomb from the National Weather Service Reno for all the factual data. For the rest you’re all stuck with my best guesses!

Happy Trails,
Morgan

 

May 13th Tahoe Mountain