As I have noted previously, the West and East coasts experience seasons differently. In the San Francisco Bay Area it is a once-in-twenty-year experience for snow to reach the ground, except on the tops of the highest peaks, where a bit of snowfall occurs most winters and lasts for at most a few hours before melting. Also, as is well-known, California has been experiencing a severe drought for the past four years. A significant component of the drought has been extremely minimal snow in the Sierras during the winter. Happily, with a good El Niño weather pattern this year, there is at least average, or close to average, snowfall widely over the Sierra. It is not enough to end the drought, or even make a significant dent in the water deficit, but it is providing a welcome winter wonderland experience for the first time in several years. This post focuses on winter colors in the Lake Tahoe area, mostly around Tahoe Donner, and includes a few comparisons with recent drier years.
One of the most prominent sights in snowy weather is roof-tops. The amount of snow present depends on several factors: amount of snow that has fallen, temperatures, sun (including direction of exposure, tree cover, etc), and whether the building is occupied and/or heated and/or well- insulated. The houses in Tahoe Donner include many vacation homes, which are typically only sporadically occupied during any given season. Just prior to a recent visit there had been at least a foot of new snow, and many roofs were still covered with snow. In this view, I liked the pile on the small roof over the bay window. There, as well as on the main roof surfaces, parallel lines indicate that some compaction has occurred: this sometimes happens when snowfall alternates with rain.
In other cases some of the snow on the main roof has begun to shed. The especially deep areas on the smaller roof areas at the right are likely due to shedding from the main roof above. It is evident that the occupants have not cleared the deck: the depth pattern shows the prevailing local wind direction.
Many mountain communities, including Tahoe Donner, require the use of so-called bear boxes for placement of trash between pickup days. Some residents place signs indicating whether there is anything to pick up, as a convenience to the drivers. This example illustrates a phenomenon that occurs when sunny and/or warm weather follows a relatively light snowfall. As the dark-colored metal enclosure absorbs sunlight the snow melts from below and the snow layer gradually – or sometimes more quickly – slides off. It is somewhat unusual for the entire snow sheet to remain essentially intact as it slides down the roof line and then forms a pretty curl.
When warm weather follows a significant snowfall it can take several days for the snow to melt from a roof. The alternating cycle of above- and below-freezing temperatures results in icicles.
Sometimes people leave cars in the driveway – in this case right outside a garage – during snowy weather. Although the driveway has been plowed, this car has not been moved – or the engine started – for, probably, several weeks. When I see vehicles like this one I think about certain friends who have vacation homes in the Lake Tahoe area without garages – and I’m grateful that I have a garage. I would hate to arrive for a visit and need to dig this car out!
A topic of high importance in snow country is snow removal from streets and parking areas. In the Sierras the snowfall is greatly dependent on elevation: higher elevation means more snow. Truckee is close to lake level, the elevation of Lake Tahoe (6200 feet), and receives an average of 200 inches of snow per year. Once a significant snow base is established, as long as the weather stays cold there can be snow on the ground until April or May. Between November 1 and May 1 there is no parking permitted on town streets, giving maximum free access to snow removal equipment.
Immediately after a significant snowfall only part of the street surface is cleared initially: one lane, then two, with a sequencing of streets from primary to tertiary. If a several-day break between snow storms is forecast, streets are more fully cleared, and special plows create a nice, clean edge. While out for a walk I encountered such an edge plow, moving about 1 mph and clearing the edge of the pavement out to the snow poles (note the black pole with reflective tape near the center of the picture). The plows are able to throw the snow to quite a distance from the edge of the street, keeping the actual pavement-side piles to a reasonable height. Fortunately, this plow was also doing a nice job of NOT creating a berm at the end of each driveway it passed.
This is how a street can look after the edge plow has cleaned up both sides of the street. The main plowing had gotten the snow layer pretty thin, and a lovely sunny day in the 20’s was all it took to melt the thin remaining layer from the pavement.
Around intersections there is often a higher snow pile, since there is a bigger area to clear and, often, not much space to put the removed snow. This intersection frequently accumulates an impressive pile of plowed snow as the winter snow season goes on. I think the green street signs are 8-10 feet above the level of the pavement.
An activity enjoyed by children of all ages is building snowmen. I had out-of-town visitors for a couple of days at Christmas time, and they had great fun building snowmen at the edge of the driveway, using bits of trees and a traditional carrot to make arms, buttons, hair, eyes, and noses. By the time they left there were four snowmen!
While out on a walk I was a bit startled to come across a fancy cairn-like structure built from chunks of snow and ice.
On a different walk, near the golf course at the heart of Tahoe Donner, the path I was following crossed a small bridge over Trout Creek. Rocks in the creek were covered in snow, and a few small evergreen trees practically bowed over from the weight of the fresh snow.
A local landmark, visible from the higher locations in Tahoe Donner – and from many other North Tahoe locations, as well as from Reno – is Mt Rose, the highest peak in the North Tahoe area and the third highest in the Lake Tahoe region. Although I have read that it is named after a person, I have also read that the name refers to the warm color that sometimes develops in the setting sun. This picture was taken in January 2013 during what turned out to be a low-snow season.
By contrast, here is another picture taken from essentially the same location, which is along one of my favorite walking routes, in December 2015.
Surprisingly, this third picture was taken in January 2016, just a month later, and Mt Rose appears to have less snow coverage. Even though sometimes very warm storms come through the region, the peak elevation is about 10,780 feet, nearly always above the snow level even for a warm storm. Earlier in the morning there was quite a bit of fog in the nearby Martis Valley, a low-lying pocket below Truckee, and at mid-day the mist made pretty wisps as it gradually dissipated.
I am fortunate to have a pretty view out my back windows. This picture was taken during snowfall onto a relatively thin layer of snow on both the ground and the chaparral. It was taken in February 2015, one of the lowest Sierra snowfall seasons in history.
A second view shows the same area with a more typical snow layer on the ground. The chaparral is almost completely covered, and recent windy weather had resulted in a very smooth surface that sparkled in the sun.
After a recent stay in the Truckee area, on my way back to the Bay Area I made a couple of stops at specific locations, to see how visible the snowy Sierras were from a distance. A couple of years ago I had discovered that it is possible to see the higher peaks in South Tahoe – including Freel Peak, Jobs Peak, and Jobs Sister, where I have hiked – if the air is clear. My first stop was just east of Auburn, and the snow-white peaks were easy to see from 65 miles away!
The second viewing spot was just off I-80 west of Sacramento, near the west end of the long straight causeway that crosses the Vic Fazio Yolo Wildlife Area. I had discovered that, if you look directly along that straight section of I-80, you are looking directly at the Freel Peak cluster – which is nearly 100 miles away! From the greater distance (and looking across metropolitan Sacramento) the peaks were not quite as distinct, but the view was still a treat.
Of course, winter has a different look in the Bay Area. In a future post I will share some Bay Area winter views.