Diverse climatic conditions occur across Routt County due to the varied terrain, bringing us abundant snowfall in the winter and a vibrant forest, agricultural and river valley environment in the summer. Surface elevation ranges from 6400 feet at the western border along the Yampa River valley to over 12,100 feet for Mt. Zirkel and other peaks along the Continental Divide at the eastern border.
The location of northwestern Colorado in the middle of the North American continent allows air masses from many different regions to influence our weather conditions. Air arriving along a direct northerly trajectory from northern Canada or southerly airflow from central Mexico can reach our locale without being significantly moderated along the way, sometimes causing short periods of surprisingly cold or mild temperatures. On the whole, the climate of Routt County is very pleasant, with typically cool dry summer evenings and sun-warmed winter days.
Winter: For those who enjoy a change of seasons and snow during the winter months, our climate can be considered ideal. There is a very low probability of occurrence for severe weather risks (large hail, tornado destruction, hurricane-produced heavy precipitation, lightning strikes to humans). Winter storms often lead to large accumulations of snowfall over 1- to 3-day periods, but severe blizzard conditions such as found on the Great Plains are very rare.
The snowfall which is produced so abundantly along the Park Range and nearby mountains of Routt County is extremely important to water supply for a large region of the southwestern U.S. The Yampa River originates in south Routt County from streams flowing out of the Flat Tops and Gore ranges, and is joined by the Elk River from the Park Range in north Routt County. This hydrologic resource provides our county with recreation, fishing, riparian habitat and beauty in our valley also carries essential water to the Colorado River through Utah and beyond.
Summer: The north-south orientation of the mountain ranges in Routt County contribute to what is termed “orographic enhancement” of precipitation as the prevailing westerly airflow is lifted up and over the ridges. Mountain terrain also plays a role in summer precipitation. Solar heating and evapotranspiration from forested slopes facing the sun hasten the development of cumulus clouds and rainshowers. Summer months are characterized by these afternoon showers, some of which produce thunder and lightning but rarely cause damaging hail.
Downslope or “chinook” winds typically occur once or twice per year along the western slope of the Park Range due to strong easterly winds. One such event on 25 October 1997 termed the “Blowdown” caused significant forest destruction due to uprooting and breaking of trees in the Routt National Forest. Limited-area flooding has occurred in some Spring months, as warm air and solar radiation lead to rapid snowmelt, particularly in events where rainfall contributes to snowpack melting.
All of Routt County is at a relatively high elevation. Having less of an atmospheric column between the surface and the top of the atmosphere leads to more intense sunshine at ground level, which is a benefit when it contributes to our thermal comfort while outside, but also increases our exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation. The incidence of sunburn, skin cancer and cataracts are known to increase in high altitude environments, and the presence of snow cover and scattered clouds increases UV exposure through multiple reflection of the UV rays between these surfaces and ourselves.
Weather Conditions: Variations in surface elevation also cause significant differences in temperatures and precipitation. Using an average decrease in atmospheric temperature with height, the air temperature you experience near the ground can be expected to decrease by approximately 20 degrees Fahrenheit as you move from the lowest elevation to the highest elevations in the County. However, the typical decrease of temperature with height can be modified and even reversed by weather conditions. A temperature inversion often forms during clear winter nights, with cold air draining along stream and river valleys, producing temperatures that are coldest in the valleys and increasing with height. These inversions may last just a few hours after sunrise, or may continue for several days if clear sky and high pressure weather patterns persist.
There are many sources of information on climatic and meteorological conditions in the area. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) administers the Cooperative Weather Observers program which has three locations of continuous records in Routt County, in Steamboat Springs, Yampa and Hayden. Since these sites are volunteer positions and the observers may move from the location, the site and observer change from time to time. Small changes in location like this can have an impact on the climate statistics obtained, but the impact is generally small unless the site landscape changes from rural to highly urbanized, or the elevation of the chosen site is significantly different than at a previous site. Steamboat Springs has the longest climate record, beginning in 1908, while both Hayden and Yampa have climate records beginning in 1948,
The warmest month is typically July, with an average maximum temperature of 84.9 deg Fahrenheit in Hayden, 82.2 deg F in Steamboat Springs, and 76.7 deg F in Yampa. The coldest month is January, with average minimum temperatures of 5.4 deg F for Hayden, 0.9 deg F for Steamboat Springs, and 6.8 deg F for Yampa. Routt County’s lowest recorded temperature of –54 deg F occurred in Steamboat on 7 January 1913, and the warmest temperature has been 100 deg F on 14 June 1956 in Hayden.
Precipitation amount, expressed as depth of rain and the equivalent-melted amount of snow water, is well distributed throughout the year. Hayden and Yampa accumulate 17 inches annually, while Steamboat Springs precipitation averages 24 inches per year. Winter precipitation is primarily in the form of snow and the snow is often of low density, so snowfall amounts are substantial. Steamboat Springs receives an average 167 inches of snowfall, compared with 120 inches in Yampa and 114 inches in Hayden. Snow depth usually reaches a maximum in February, with an average of 16 inches on the ground for Hayden and Yampa, and 28 inches in Steamboat. However, these values can be higher in certain years. For example, up to 5 feet of snow on the ground is has been recorded in Steamboat Springs during a past January.
Additional snowfall is received at higher elevations than in the towns where the climate observing stations are located. The water-equivalent annual precipitation amount along the Continental Divide is approximately 60 inches, with winter snow depth reaching well over 10 feet. Precipitation amounts increase with height both on the climatological average and for individual storms. High-elevation sites used for measurement of precipitation and temperature are valuable in monitoring hydrologic and climatic conditions in the County.
Climate and weather data are collected for a wide range of sites operated by the Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, Natural Resources Conservation Service, and State Department of Transportation. In addition, meteorological monitoring is carried out for special purposes by the Steamboat Springs school district, the Steamboat Ski and Resort, the Desert Research Institute's Storm Peak Laboratory, and other groups or individuals.
Weather and climate each play distinct roles in the economic and environmental vitality of Routt County. Day-to-day weather events can impact our recreational opportunities, road safety, livestock health, crop management, water treatment, fish habitat, and construction scheduling. Seasonal and longer-term climate parameters control the success of our ski resort business, the ability to sustain non-irrigated and irrigated crops from one year to the next, the evolution of our river channels, the vulnerability of the forest to ecological stresses such as the Blowdown, the management of wildfire danger, and many other aspects of our livelihood.
Gathering information on the meteorological conditions that influence our activities is an important aspect of awareness and planning for safety, community development, and natural resource management.