Trying to plan a winter vacation is about as easy as picking the winning number on a roulette table—while the wheel is spinning and the ball is rolling, you just pick a number and hope.
The same with picking a calendar date a couple months ahead and hoping your winter vacation hits just after a huge snowstorm and during the next few days of blue sky.
Although there are long-term weather forecasts that can encourage you, there are also historical tendencies that may allow you to hedge your bet. Depending on where you go, you may find some areas tend to get their snow early while others tend to keep it late into the spring.
For some, vacations must be scheduled around various schedules and there’s little room for flexibility. Some leverage their vacation time with national holidays in order to get the most days off as possible. But there are many who believe that it only makes sense that the best snow conditions would be during the middle of the winter. And nothing is more middle winter than December/January.
Nothing could be more misleading.
If you are trying to schedule your winter vacation to coincide with the optimum snow conditions, here’s something you should know: Snowmobilers tend to get excited for winter in December, when the snow base is likely at its worst (read: replacing front-end parts). Yet in April, when the snow base is at its best and snow depths are the greatest, many snowmobilers have exchanged their sleds for lawn mowers and garden rakes (read: sore backs).
Since we often ride Mt. Jefferson along the Idaho/Montana border, and since it is in the heart of western riding, here are some historical data that reflects what we’re saying.
More snow accumulates between December and February than February and March. Since January and February are colder months, you can assume the snow will be lighter (read: more powder) than during other times of the year. However, since a lot of moisture falls between February and April, you can assume the snowpack is heavier (read: better base) than during the early season.
Looking at the historical data for the past decade at the White Elephant Snotel site just east of Jefferson at 7,500 feet in elevation, December snow depth averages about 36 inches (high—52 inches, low—20 inches); January averages about 60 inches (high—84 inches, low—42 inches); February averages about 66 inches (high—72 inches, low—44 inches); March averages about 80 inches (high—102 inches, low—44 inches); April averages about 76 inches (high—108 inches, low—52 inches); and May averages about 48 inches (high—74 inches, low—12 inches).
During the past 10 riding seasons, the deepest snow depths of the year were recorded six times in April. The highest depth was 117 inches on April 26, 2011. The earliest season high was Feb. 28, 2007 at 93 inches. March had the other two highs.
When you look at these numbers, you wonder why snowmobilers don’t look to ride more in April and early May when the days are longer, the weather is warmer and the snow is deeper.
The answer is that by April most people are tired of the cold and sloppy road conditions and are looking more to the summer. Although snowmobiling is at its prime, it is still associated as a winter activity. People are anxious to begin summer activities … like sit around the computer and visit snowmobile sites to post that summer sucks and they can’t wait for the first signs of snow in the fall.
So as you wander through these statistics and look at your calendar for next winter, you have to be asking when is the prime time to plan a vacation? The answer depends on what you look for most in your experience. If you are going to spend a lot of time on the trails, remember that most grooming programs shut down by the end of March. If you are traveling to lower elevation areas, the season runs considerably shorter. Even near Jefferson, where snow depths are over 70 inches above 7,500 feet elevation in the spring, down at the valley floor (6,500 feet) the snow can be melting fast.
And sometimes it takes a little work to get to the better snow.
So whether you choose to ride in December or May, you can seldom pick wrong. After all, even a bad day out on the snow beats a good day in the office.
And we should know … we’re always challenging this theory.