Colorado’s crazy climate and wild weather

Pam North
Peak to Peak

The coming of winter to our mountains has the effect of turning its residents’ thoughts to the weather. No state boasts a greater variety of weather and climate than the one in which we live. From snow to water to dust to drought, all have been part of Colorado’s unique history, and contributed to the living experience of its citizens.
In 1899, the greatest recorded snow depth in a single storm was 254 inches (wind must have helped on that one), occurring in Ruby, a few miles above Crested Butte, near the top of Kebler Pass. Many of the cabins were covered so deeply that only their stovepipes were visible.
A narrow-gauge train, en route between Leadville and Fremont Pass, was also buried, its crew and passengers subsequently rescued by Leadville skiers. The most snowfall ever recorded in a 24-hour period in the western United States was the 76 inches that fell at Silver Lake in San Juan County on April 14 to 15, 1921.
Colorado’s record blizzard occurred in December 1913 when 30 to 50 inches blanketed the Front Range from Trinidad to Fort Collins; Georgetown reported 86 inches accumulation, and Denver recorded 46 inches, still its heaviest snowfall to date.
Some of the first skiing took place within Denver’s city limits as experienced instructors gave free lessons on the Capitol grounds. Another record one-day snowfall hit Denver on Dec. 24, 1982, with 36 inches, isolating the city in frozen silence for 48 hours, and stranding countless people. The 60-degree temperatures preceding the dump had made it difficult to anticipate even having a white Christmas, much less the extent of the whiteness.
Wolf Creek Pass, on the southern edge of the state, routinely accumulates an average of 500 to 600 inches of snow depth per winter, and it is there that the Colorado record of 838 inches was set in the winter of 1978 to 1979.
The other side of the spectrum is represented in Delta, where its average 7.7 inches of snow and rain moisture content is beaten soundly by the 10.6 inches of sunny Tucson, Arizona. The dubious distinction of having the lowest average temperature of any city in the contiguous 48 states supposedly belongs to Gunnison, although the infrequency of its winds and abundance of sun helps to lessen the effect of the 30 to 40 degrees below zero Fahrenheit temperatures encountered by skiers skimming the slopes at nearby Crested Butte.
A 60-year standing offer by the well-known La Veta Hotel offered a free meal on any day that the sun didn’t manifest itself, and on only 16 days during that long period did the hotel ever have to ante up.
All the accumulated mountain snowpack translates into melt and run-off with the coming of spring, and high floods have often resulted. One of these had a curious twist in 1906. It occurred in Paonia during the floodstage of the North Fork of the Gunnison River. The route of a
herd of cattle being driven required crossing of the river, but the herd’s accompanying cowboys voted to postpone the crossing until the next day, in hope that the river level would lower during the night. The following dawn brought a surprise to the men. They found the cattle grazing on the other side; the river had changed course and cut behind the herd.
During the 1930s (the days of the Dustbowl), huge dust storms blew across Colorado’s eastern plains. So dense that they blocked out the sunshine, they panicked the animals and discouraged the ranchers and farmers as well.
On April 14, 1935, a wall of dust more than 200 miles in width and a thousand feet high, traveling at a speed of 60 miles per hour swept through the plains from the north headed toward Kansas. It supposedly suffocated flocks of duck and geese in its path. The dust storms led to the planting by plains inhabitants of thousands of fast-growing Chinese elm and Russian olive trees along the edges of fields as barriers to cut the impact of gritty winds.
Droughts have also been a cyclical part of Colorado’s climate, with severe and sustained droughts ocurrring approximately every 35 to 40 years. Warned by native Indians during the 1858 to 1859 gold rush days (a drought period) not to build close to the banks of Cherry Creek and the South Platte River in the present-day Denver area, arrogant settlers defying that advice were wiped out when the first severe floods inundated the region.
The 1890s and 1930s brought other major drought periods, and by the time another occurred in the late 1970s, it surprised no one but the ski industry, which apparently had paid little attention to the cycle. Skiers flying in on Christmas found grass instead of powder, and the industry quickly learned the necessity of learning to make its own snow.
A record drought of approximately 24 years in the latter part of the 13th Century is recorded in the rings within ancient trees of southwestern Colorado, providing the probable explanation of why the Anasazi culture disappeared from places such as Mesa Verde. As history often repeats itself, it is disturbing to contemplate the effect that a drought of that duration would have on the economy of the entire southwest; it would surely bring devastation when water is depended upon so greatly from Colorado to California.
The highest temperature ever recorded in Colorado was 118 degrees F. at Bennett, in Adams County, on July 11, 1888, and the lowest temperature was -61 degrees F. at Maybell, in Moffat County, on February 2, 1985.
Colorado, our beloved state, is a study in extremes.


Pam is a staff reporter for The Mountain-Ear. She covers historical topics and news of the Peak to Peak region.

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