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Friends in High Places – Forecasts for Mountain Visits

When planning mountain visits or traveling through higher terrain a good weather forecast is very helpful. The ideal forecast will account for the various effects of changing elevation on area weather.  The most dramatic difference is related to the cooling that occurs with increased elevation.  If no other changes occur to a dry air mass, it will cool at a rate of one degree Fahrenheit for every 185 feet of added elevation (adding up to 5.4 degrees per 1000 feet!).  Put in a more practical example, a drive from Yoder, CO (east of Colorado Springs) to Pike’s Peak (60 miles by road) can result in as much as 47 degrees of cooling.  If you click on these location names above, you’ll open a window to their local National Weather Service (NWS) forecasts.  Be sure to take a jacket, and maybe a stocking cap, even if making such a trip during July!

Snow-capped mountains remind us that temperatures will vary widely with elevation, even during the summer months. Use this to your advantage to take a refreshing break from the heat! (Photo credit – Lesly Derksen via unsplash.com)

A second significant difference created by elevation will be potential for rainfall.  The cooling of air with height will more easily allow any moisture in that air to condense and fall as rain, especially near the warmest part of the day.  That’s why residents of many western cities so often observe thunderstorms over the mountains during summer afternoons. 

Across the Border – Canadian Weather

For those living or traveling in Canada, the Environment Canada website is a valuable source of weather information.  I recently took some time to explore this site and was pleased with its layout and wide range of current weather and forecast details. Good news for those on the road is that the new WeatherCAN app will provide this information to your mobile device!

The top three features of the Environment Canada site that I recommend are

Hourly temperature and wind conditions and future satellite imagery are also available in the Astronomy section.

Tips for the Journey

Are you planning longer mountain visits or day trips to the high places?  Consider these steps to planning a successful excursion.

  • Conclude your hiking by early afternoon, before the highest rain chances begin.  Most of the rain on such days will fall on the windward side of the mountain ridge.  Because warm air is lighter than cool air, that will often be on the side of the mountain will the greatest elevation drop to the nearby valley.  For example, in Colorado, this makes the area from Castle Rock to Colorado Springs particularly susceptible to summertime afternoon storms as the hot air from the Plains is lifted along the slope of the Front Range. 
Rain chances are often higher over the mountains during summer afternoons as compared to nearby lower elevations. (Photo credit – Sean Pierce via unsplash.com)
  • When deciding where to camp, talk with someone familiar with the area weather pattern who can steer you to the “other side of the mountain” from where the rains are most prolific. 
  • When finding a source of forecasts for your location, make sure it also allows easy COMPARISON with forecasts for nearby locations.  Did you know that you can request your NWS forecast for any specific latitude / longitude coordinates or by any location name in the USA?  This is important when there is a range of elevations with which to work!  Bookmarking that specific location forecast will make for an easy return to that location forecast later.  The forecast may not get the details exactly right, but you’re going to have the best idea of what’s possible allowing you to take the appropriate clothing and other gear.

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