Forecasters have increased their estimate of the strength of a storm expected to extend over Southwest Colorado from Wednesday evening through early Saturday, predicting the heaviest snowfall for Friday.
The first wave of the storm dodged Cortez, but east of the city, snowfall started late Wednesday night and was expected to continue until early Saturday.
As of Thursday morning, none of the mountain passes around Southwest Colorado are closed or have chain laws in effect. But, cameras on COTrip.org show a heavy snowfall and roads are icy on Coal Bank, Molas and Wolf Creek passes.
“We’ll take the water and the weather, but please drive safely as you enjoy the holiday with your loved ones!” Colorado State Patrol’s Durango office posted to social media.
Not much changed overnight in the forecast, with Friday expected to be the heaviest day for snowfall.
“There will be times Friday when you’ll see 2 inches of snow an hour in parts of the San Juans. That’s pretty hard for road crews to deal with. I definitely would not be traveling Friday,” said Scott Stearns, meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Grand Junction.
Favored peaks in the San Juans could receive up to 60 inches of snow in three days, Stearns said.
The National Weather Service has issued a winter storm warning for 5 p.m. Wednesday to 5 p.m. Saturday for the San Juan Mountains, including the towns of Silverton, Hesperus, Rico, Telluride and Ouray.
The winter storm warning means travel will be difficult or impossible during the storm. Visibility will be significantly reduced, and strong winds could cause tree damage, especially to dead trees.
Wind chill temperatures as low as minus 25 degrees are forecast in higher elevations of the San Juans, causing frostbite to exposed skin in 30 minutes, according to the winter storm warning.
“There’s a lot of moisture moving in with this, and it will favor southern aspects for a good part of the storm,” Stearns said.
Stearns expected the storm will have two strong waves:
The first wave is expected to hit Southwest Colorado Wednesday night and extend through most of Thanksgiving Day.A lull in the intensity of the storm is expected Thanksgiving night into early hours of Friday.
The second wave, likely the strongest, will hit Friday and bring the heaviest snowfall in the afternoon and evening.Stearns expects the storm to move out of Southwest Colorado by late morning Saturday.
In lower elevations, Cortez can expect to see about 3 inches of snow during the three-day storm, and Durango can anticipate about 7 inches, Stearn said.
A winter storm watch has been issued from 5 p.m. Wednesday night to late Friday night for the San Juan and Animas River basins including Durango, Pagosa Springs, Bayfield and Ignacio.
Travel conditions will be hazardous in the morning and evening.
Snowfall could begin as soon as Wednesday evening in Durango, Stearns said. Cortez could see a dusting Wednesday night and Thanksgiving morning, and a rain-snow mix on Thanksgiving Day. Cortez will gets most of its snowfall Friday, he said.
The Colorado Department of Transportation suggests avoiding travel until after Saturday.
“The best strategy during adverse weather is for travelers to be patient, find a safe haven and await better travel conditions,” CDOT said in a news release.
CDOT said the strong Pacific storm will bring widespread snowfall to the high country of Southwest Colorado with a rain-snow mix possible in the lower valleys.
“The southern mountains of Colorado will feel the brunt of this storm, while moderate impacts are expected for the northern and central mountains,” according to CDOT’s news release.
Until recently, Stearns said a high-pressure system over the West had diverted storms to a northern path, missing the Four Corners.
That high-pressure system has moved south, allowing storms forming in the Pacific Northwest to move south-southeast into the Four Corners.
As of Wednesday evening, Telluride ski resort reported a 28-inch base with 15 inches of snow in the past 48 hours. Purgatory Resort reported a 22-inch base with 4 inches of snow in the past 24 hours.