Containing peaks topping out at 14,000 feet. Valleys down to nearly sea level. Covering over 400 miles of length, weather in the Sierra Nevada can be drastically different across its topography. With that being said, the weather overall is magnificent. Each season provides plenty of sunshine. More than 300 days of it or even more so in places like the town of Bishop. While you can’t forecast what the days will be like in the long range, here’s a run-down of the weather in the Sierra Nevada… the ‘typically like’ in each season.
As the dog days of summer arrive, residents and visitors ascend into the upper reaches of the Sierra. Snow has melted away to reveal hundreds perhaps thousands of miles of trails as well as many countless alpine lakes. The probability of a sunny day exceeds ninety percent. And the days are long which means plenty of time to do your favorite summer activities. Like other seasons, if you don’t like the temperatures, go higher for cooler or lower for warmer.
Hiking Fanatics, Beach Goers, & Swingers Unite
This is also when beach goers descend on Lake Tahoe’s beaches. Golfers take a big swing at a host of award-winning golf courses that dot the region like the Incline Village Championship Course. Mountain bikers test their mettle on legendary trails like the Flume. Road cyclists sign up for the “Death Ride” which features 15,000 vertical FEET of climbing over its 129 miles. Families can spend quality time together venturing out on a road-trip via a Scenic Byway to see the oldest trees in the world. And last but in no way the least, the winter’s snow has finally disappeared giving everyone a chance to hike into places like Mist Falls.
Long before European settlers even arrived, the California High Sierra has had a fire season. California gets most of its moisture in the winter and spring which then transitions to a very dry summer creating the perfect recipe for outdoor fun as well as fires. All you need is a spark and things can get out of control. To recreate responsibly, California requires you to obtain a FREE permit for any open flames outside of a campground. With five of the last six worst fires in California history happening in just the last few years, it’s up to all of us to take fire safety seriously and tame the flame. And when there are wildfires burning, there a few things you can do to help ensure you still have a great and safe time. First check the AQI (Air Quality Index) by visiting a website such as Airnow.gov. Based on the upcoming forecast, you can plan when to go outside to reduce your exposure to the contaminants. If it just doesn’t look that healthy, consider a day indoors visiting one of the many museums in the High Sierra.
Second Summer Is Real
As summer’s heat fades in most mountains to a blistering cold, the High Sierra is gifted with what locals like to call the “second summer.” But this isn’t unseasonably warm, but rather the typical weather in the Sierra Nevada for fall. At night there is a crispness in the air, but during the day, it warms quickly still allowing you to enjoy the great outdoors with a light jacket.
Fall’s Foliage & Festivities
It might be why it has so many festivals for everyone to enjoy like the 49er Festival & Chili Cook-Off and a host of Oktoberfests. It’s also a perfect time to explore one of the many wine regions like the Madera Wine Trail. And the dry, warm, and sunny weather in the Sierra Nevada creates some of the greatest natural autumn fireworks on the West Coast. The fall colors are unreal. From the Calaveras Big Trees State Park on the western slopes to the jaw-dropping leaf peeping on Tioga Pass in Mono County, there are countless places to take it all in.
Old Man Winter
The transition from autumn to winter isn’t typically like a dimmer but instead a light switch. While every season is different, the one guarantee is that once the storm track points at the Sierra Nevada, it will be BIG. Instead of inches, they come in FEET. Statistically though it comes on just 50 days. This means on average for every day of fresh powder, you’ll find three days of fair weather. Even if you aren’t a powder hound, you can still find bastions of warm weather fun throughout the High Sierra.
When we say “winter wonderland”, we don’t mean just snowy fun either for things to do in the High Sierra in winter. Powder hounds can of course devour the hundreds and hundreds of inches of snow at world-class resorts like Heavenly Mountain to hidden gems like Dodge Ridge. Snowshoe amongst the Giant Sequoias or peer over the legendary granite walls of Yosemite Valley. Or shove off on a pair of cross-country skis into 3,000 acres of wilderness at the Bear Valley Adventure Company.
Not Just For Snow Bunnies
If snow isn’t your thing, don’t you worry. The weather in the Sierra Nevada allows for you to skip the wintry mix by heading down in elevation. In fact, this is the PERFECT time to do winter hikes that are normally too warm in the summer. Explore Marble Falls in Sequoia National Park or visit the hidden part of Yosemite – Hetch Hetchy. This is also when rock climbers descend on the town of Bishop for some of the best bouldering in the world that they can do in a t-shirt.
Spring Is King
Spring in the Sierra Nevada is the epitome of having your cake and eating it too. You literally can do every sport all in one day. March is on average the snowiest month, but storms depart faster leaving blue skies and powder in their wake. By April, the storms have now reduced to a trickle and the warmth of the sun begins to win.
The Mountains Are Alive
The combination of cold nights and warm days creates some of the best spring skiing in the world. Get a few morning laps at kings of spring Mammoth Mountain or Palisades Tahoe and finish it off with a round of disc golf or a bike ride. Alongside these dual day adventures, it’s also time for one of the BIGGEST days of the year – opening day for fishing in the alpine lakes. It’s so big that it’s called “Fishmas.”
Mother Nature’s Fireworks
All that winter snowfall translates to a bounty of another kind in the spring – wildflowers! Like nature’s symphony, it starts quietly in the lower elevations sometimes as early as February in places like Hite Cove. As time passes, the bloom begins to move up in elevation to Yosemite Valley and Fish Slough in the Eastern Sierra. And by early summer, it climaxes in the upper reaches of the mountains such as Winnemucca Lake over Carson Pass and Tuolumne Meadows in the High Sierra.
These Are The Sierra
Even with overall fantastic weather the Sierra Nevada has to offer, it is still the first barrier for storms coming off the Pacific. Like all major mountain ranges, the Sierra has received snow in every month of the year. Does it mean it will in August? Probably not, but like any alpine environment, come prepared. Each season provides its own unique local phenomena you should be aware of. Pack a sweatshirt in the summer or a light jacket in the winter because you never know what it will be like. A good place to start is to check out the local weather forecast, webcams, and road conditions via one of the many California High Sierra partners such as Visit Truckee-Tahoe.
The weather in the Sierra Nevada can be volatile but most of the time it’s true weather perfection for outdoor lovers. Although we can’t predict the Sierra Nevada weather forecast, there are some unique phenomena we would like to call out:
In Lake Tahoe during the warmest summer afternoons, expect the winds to pick up, gusting up to 30 mph. They happen so often, similar to the Tradewinds in the Caribbean, they’ve been nicknamed the Washoe Zephyr. They gained their notoriety by the words penned by Mark Twain.
While winter does provide heavy snowfall, as we said above, it statistically falls on average 50 days per season. Every year, Old Man Winter takes a brief pause from storminess. This provides the Eastern Sierra, particularly Bishop, with a few weeks of tranquil weather. This phenomenon has been locally nicknamed “Juneuary.” This allows for you to go rock climbing, cycling, or just catch a few laps on the mountain in gorgeous sunny weather.
On the flip side of Juneuary, nearly every March is stormy. Like Ullr is giving one last hurrah before heading home. Even in the driest winters, March provides snowfall and why it’s fondly referred to as “Miracle March.” While there’s a higher likelihood of storms, they typically pass quicker meaning a better chance for one of those legendary bluebird powder days.
Don’t say “no” to the seasons. Instead, embrace them in the Sierra. Each time of year provides unique things to see and do that are only available then. Fall’s colors, winter’s snowfall, summer’s shenanigans, and spring’s roaring falls. The question shouldn’t be when’s the best time to visit. Rather, how can you plan a trip for EVERY season?
Author: Alex Silgalis
Alex founded Local Freshies® in 2014 to be the #1 website providing the “local scoop” on where to eat, drink & play in mountain towns throughout North America. When he’s not writing and executing marketing strategies for small businesses & agencies, he’s in search of the deepest snow in the winter and tackiest dirt in the summer.