California is a land of radically diverse microclimates: searing hot deserts, Mediterranean-like coasts and soaring, alpine peaks that support year-round snow fields and glaciers. Mostly protected from continental cold waves by the towering Sierra Nevada, the Golden State’s mild climate supports a nation-leading $54 billion agricultural industry of fruit, nuts, citrus, vegetables, grapes and wine.
On Jan. 4, 1982, at Echo Summit on Highway 50 near South Lake Tahoe, 67 inches fell in just 24 hours. It is officially the second greatest, 24-hour snowfall in the United States.
In the 1870s, the Los Angeles City Chamber of Commerce began a climate promotion campaign to draw immigrants to the region. Health and longevity were trumpeted to Easterners and Europeans. One advertisement boasted: “We sell the climate at so much per acre and throw in the land; it’s $10 for an acre of land and $490 for the climate.”
In the same decade, Southern Pacific Railroad (SPRR) started taking rain (in 1871) and snowfall (in 1879) measurements at its train stations across the Central Sierra. A primary reason for the data collection was to help convince American farmers to buy acreage in the Central Valley that SPRR had acquired in land grants and was now selling. Farmers from the Midwest and East Coast were attracted by California’s long growing season, but skeptical that the 20 inches or less of annual precipitation in the valley was sufficient to nourish crops. The railroad used its weather data to illustrate that portions of the west slopes of the Sierra Range receive up to 80 inches of precipitation, with much of it falling as snow above 6,000 feet in elevation. The prodigious spring and summer snowmelt fed streams and rivers flowing into the valley, thus providing abundant irrigation water for crops and ranching.
Prior to the late 1920s, California’s Chamber of Commerce routinely advertised the state’s balmy climate with magazine photographs of sunny beaches and swaying palm trees. But when state officials bid to host the 1932 Winter Olympics at Yosemite National Park, international delegates scoffed at the notion that California had snow at all. It was a stinging blow. Lake Tahoe’s pitch for the games was also denied due to a lack of infrastructure and no history of organized ski clubs. The Olympics were instead awarded to Lake Placid, N.Y., in the Adirondack Mountains.
Following that debacle, Tahoe City and Truckee formed its first skiing organizations and the State Chamber of Commerce began dedicating one issue of their official quarterly publication to promoting its alpine terrain and winter sports. Ski resorts began popping up throughout the Sierra, but it took another 30 years to land the Winter Olympics at Squaw Valley in 1960.
Donner Summit is well-known for massive dumps of snow, graphically described in scores of books written about the tragic Donner Party event in the winter of 1846-47 — including mine, “The Donner Party: Weathering the Storm.” The nearby community of Soda Springs averages 39 feet of snow each winter, where overwhelming snowfall intensities near 12 inches per hour have been observed at times. In April 1880, Southern Pacific employees there measured 298 inches (24.8 feet) of snow, the all-time U.S. record for that month. More recently, in February 1999 at Sugar Bowl Resort near Donner Pass, a dynamic winter storm blasted the slopes with 168 inches (14 feet) in less than four days. There was plenty of snow to go around that year. The nation’s seasonal snowfall record is currently held by Oregon’s Mount Baker ski area where 1,140 inches (95 feet) were measured during the 1998-99 winter.
Truckee and Tahoe City are somewhat shadowed out by mountains to the west, but they still rank among the top 10 snowiest cities and towns in the United States, with about 16 to 17 feet on average. Although the Town of Truckee is 400 feet lower in elevation than Lake Tahoe, due to its colder climate and proximity to Donner Pass spillover, it receives about 10 percent more snow than Tahoe City.
Sometimes the snow comes so fast it overwhelms all efforts to keep roads open and trains running. On Jan. 4, 1982, at Echo Summit on Highway 50 near South Lake Tahoe, 67 inches fell in just 24 hours. It is officially the second greatest, 24-hour snowfall in the United States, behind 76 inches that fell in Colorado in 1921. Unofficially, in January 1952 the California Highway Department measured 84 inches in 24 hours at its Crestview Maintenance Station near Mammoth Lakes.
These are all impressive numbers, but California’s official maximum snowfall records are really incredible. In the early 1900s, an observation station was established at Tamarack, above 7,000 feet on the west slope of the Sierra Nevada in Alpine County near today’s Bear Valley Ski Resort. Its placement came just in time to document some extraordinary snowfall. During 1906-07, Tamarack set the Sierra Nevada snowfall record for one season with 884 inches (73.7 feet). Five years later, in January 1911, 390 inches (32.5 feet) set a new U.S. snowfall record for one month. Later that March, the snowpack reached 454 inches (37.8 feet), the all-time U.S. seasonal snow depth record. These extremes have no doubt been exceeded at points from where no data are available or from ski areas that aren’t usually included in official tallies.
The top dog in annual snowfall in California is at Lassen Volcanic National Park, at the Lake Helen snow survey site. Located at an elevation of 8,200 feet, 660 inches (55 feet) of snow buries the area in an average winter. Some years more than 1,000 inches (83 feet) of snowfall has been measured there. Despite Mount Lassen’s relatively modest elevation at 10,457 feet, the heavy snowfall sustains 14 permanent patches of snow in the park.