May 11, 2024 Hail in Pagosa Springs
and Wolf Creek Thundersnow Chase

by John Farley

This storm day began early. I was still on my third cup of morning coffee (yes, I need that many to get going in the morning) at my computer after breakfast when a rumble of thunder occurred with rain and a little graupel coming down. So I grabbed my video camera and headed to the garage, and began to get video around 10:15 a.m. with rain intermittently mixed with graupel or sleet and occasional rumbles of thunder. Didn't take long for my video to get photobombed by these two deer:

The deer around our house are very used to being around people, and as you will see when you watch the video below, they actually reacted more to the thunder than they did to me. Not long after the deer left, the frozen precipitation became bigger and harder, and bending over to pick up a piece, I confirmed that it was now hail. It fell rather heavily for 5 minutes or so, remaining small, around 1/4" or pea-sized. When it let up, I went in to send a report to the Grand Junction NWS, then decided that with storms all over and lightning on the tracker all around Pagosa, this would likely be a decent opportunity to catch thundersnow in the mountains. As I got ready to go, hail began to come down again, a little bigger now, around 1/3" in diameter. To save time, rather than digging out my camera, I pulled out my phone and got a little video of this. But just a short clip, because I wanted to get going. Before leaving for the mountains to try for thundersnow, I made a second hail report to the NWS, noting the increase in size. Here is my edited video of the two periods of hail at my house, including, of course, the deer that insisted on being in the video:

As I headed through town to go to Wolf Creek Pass, the hail continued to fall until I was nearing the west edge of downtown Pagosa Springs, there I ran out of it. It was quite heavy in places in the Putt Hill area, and seemed perhaps a little bigger, too, though hard to tell driving. There were, however, reports of dime-sized (.7") hail in that area, about twice the size of what I had observed at home, so I am guessing it was. After driving through town, I encountered more hail a few miles up route 160, though not as heavy as what I had been in earlier. Eventually I ran out of that, and could see that snow was falling in the mountains from another convective band east of the first one. Looking to the southwest, it looked like the two bands were kind of connected somewhere to the south, perhaps near the NM state line. The one now behind me, over Pagosa, had a very pronounced and somewhat menacing looking updraft base just ahead (east) of the precipitation, and seemed largely to be training to the NE. This kind of setup can produce pretty big hail accumulations and, as I found out later, this one did.

Meanwhile, by the time I got near Treasure Falls, I was back in precipitation, now from the band over the mountains. This was a mixture of rain and wet snow amd/or graupel (snow pellets). The precipitation continued to be mixed well past the hairpin quite a ways up toward the pass, before becoming all frozen precipitation. I stopped in the parking area on the north side of Wolf Creek Pass and began taking video, with small graupel mixed with snow coming down. Soon there was a rumble of thunder, but I messed up part of my video and did not get that. Fortunately, there would be plenty more. I did not stay there long due to traffic noise, deciding to move to the Wolf Creek Ski area, where if you go to the far end of the lower parking lot, it is a lot farther from the highway. When I got there, I noticed that an inch or two of snow and graupel had accumulated at the far end of the paved part of the parking lot, more than there had been when I was there the previous day. The graupel/snow pellets became quite a bit larger, close to 1/4" at times, and thunder continued at regular intervals. Not sure of the exact time, but this was likely around 11:15 a.m. After a few minutes there I discovered and fixed the video problem, and got good thundersnow video from there on. The large graupel went back and forth with ordinary snow for five or ten minutes, with a mix of the two at times. After that, it was entirely ordinary snow. I had thought there might even be some hail mixed in given what was going on at lower altitudes, but there was not - just big snow pellets, much softer than hail, before it changed entirely to ordinary snow. The temperature was around 32 degrees, according to my car thermometer. There were three flashes of lighting that, although not bright, I was able to see, commenting on two of them in the video. The thunder followed soon, after about five seconds with two of the flashes, indicating the lightning was about a mile away. The other one was a bit closer, somewhere between a half mile and a mile away. There were several other rumbles of thunder associated with lightning that I did not see. All in all, a very successful thundersnow chase. Here is video of the thundersnow:

A short-version video with just one rumble of thunder, which I earlier shared on FB, can be seen here:

By around noon or so, the thunder had greatly decreased in frequency and the sky was getting brighter, so I started back down into town. When I got out of the parking lot and on to 160, I was startled at how snow-covered it had become. Although it was just wet all the way to the top when I drove up, it was now snow-covered and quite slippery, with snow still coming down pretty hard. From the ski area down to just above the first of the runaway truck ramps, the road conditions were worse than anything I had encountered during the past ski season. The road had been plowed earlier due to snow the previous two days, but it did not appear that it had been treated at all with this storm. And because the temperature ranged from just below or at freezing at the summit to a little above down lower, it was very slippery. (Wet snow is much more slippery than dry snow.) It continued to snow down to about the scenic overlook/hairpin, but by that elevation, the road was just wet and the snow was mixing with rain. Then I ran out of it and into clearing skies as I headed down toward Pagosa.

I knew that hail accumulations were possible in the Pagosa area, but when I got to the Putt Hill area west of downtown, I was startled by how much there was. At least two inches of hail was still on the ground near the top of Putt Hill (160 and Piedra Road). Lots of slushy piles of it even on the road, though tire tracks had cleared it so it was not slippery as long as you stayed in those. I later heard reports of hail accumulations of up to 3 inches in some areas around Putt Hill. Due to heavy traffic I did not stop to take pictures there, but did a little farther west near the golf course and the Wyndham Welcome Center. Here are a couple from near the golf course.

Big pile of hail that came off a roof:

There were "rivers" of hail accumulation on the golf course, as water washed down and left deeper accumulations of hail. This is one of several that there were:

Here are a couple pictures from near the Wyndham Welcome Center.

No beach volleyball today:

No minature golf, either. And notice the accumulation on the roof in the background:

It did not storm again in Pagosa, and even dried out enough for me to cut grass at home. However, when I went to City Market to get groceries between 5:30 and 6:00 p.m., a very impressive new storm had gone up southeast of Pagosa Springs, on the western slope of the South San Juans. This one had structure that would rival a lot of what you see on the great plains:

This storm in all likelihood produced both hail and thundersnow, as radar suggested a p-type of mostly snow, but also an intense core near the updraft, which would likely have included hail. However, most of this was in the roadless South San Juan Wilderness. Still impressive to view from a distance, though. This storm may also have later caused additional accumulating snow in the Wolf Creek area.

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