When moist wind hits a mountain, it is forced to rise. Rising air expands due to lower pressure, and this expanding air cools, allowing the moisture to condense into snow. This process is called orographic lift and is responsible for creating more than half of the snow that falls for the resorts on larger mountains. Let’s take a look at the mountain ranges in California, how these ranges create their own weather, and where you can find the highest snow totals.
The climate of California is maritime, meaning that it is close to an ocean moisture source. This often means higher snowfall compared to states that are further from the coast, but it also means that the snow is generally heavier and thicker with the added moisture.
Forecasting snow in California is somewhat less complex than other states since there is only one major mountain range. The Sierra Nevada mountains extend nearly 400 miles from northern California to the lower elevation desert area in the south. Mt. Whitney is the highest peak in this range, and also the highest peak in California and the lower 48 states. It tops out at 14,505, just 65 feet higher than the next tallest peak in the lower 48 states, which is Mt. Elbert in Colorado.
The largest snowstorms for the Sierra Nevada mountains have their origin in the Pacific Ocean. As these storms move into California from the west, the wind direction makes a direct strike on the Sierras leading to sharply ascending air and high snowfall rates. If the Pacific storms move in from a more southerly direction, the snowfall can be deeper due to added moisture, but the snow itself will be heavier due to warmer temperatures. Storms that move in from the northern Pacific bring somewhat less moisture but make up for this with colder temperatures and lighter, fluffier powder.
The Lake Tahoe resorts are located in the northern section of the Sierras, where the otherwise straight California/Nevada border makes a sharp turn. Even though the ski resorts in this region are in the same mountain range, slight differences in elevation and location lead to very different snow amounts. Resorts that are closer to the Sierra Crest—the highest point of the range located just west of Lake Tahoe—see the most snow with resorts further east seeing less. This is because the higher mountains to the west block some of the snow from moving further east across the lake.
Further south, Mammoth Mountain is in the central Sierras near Mono Lake. The high elevation of Mammoth ensures cold temperatures and high snowfall amounts at the upper reaches of the mountain. In southern California, two smaller yet formidable mountain ranges border Los Angeles to the north. The San Gabriel and San Bernardino mountains extend to over 10,000 feet and the ski areas in these mountains, such as Big Bear and Mountain High, can see good snowfall from storms that impact the southern part of the state.
Enjoy your trip to California, and if you see storms coming from the west, get ready for a big powder day.
Meteorologist Joel Gratz is the creator of opensnow.com and is based in Boulder, Colo.