Storm Watch 101

Text: Robert Smith • Photography: Robert Smith

Three of us rode out of Palm Springs on a coolish March morning - me, the Electra-Glide and Doris, my chatty Garmin GPS. Cool is 70 degrees in Palm Springs, so I'd dressed in Draggin' Jeans, an Olympia leather jacket and summer gloves. I was heading for Idyllwild, the hippie town in the San Jacinta mountains, and then on to the Anza-Borrego Desert. The Weather Channel, covering all the bases, predicted some cloud cover with sunny breaks and the chance of a shower. But snow was the last thing I expected.

As I passed the 3,000ft marker on California 243, the temperature was falling noticeably, and I had already hit the cloud base, riding through a steady drizzle. By 4,000 feet the air had chilled considerably, and by 5,000 the drizzle turned to sleet. The Electra-Glide is no Ski-doo, and my concern grew as the white stuff piled up by the roadside. However, the summit in Idyllwild was only wet not snowy, and the cruise down to Hemet on 74 was distinctly drier and warmer.

Not for the first time I'd almost been caught out by a combination of altitude and weather. The same thing has happened to me on 10,000ft Mesa Grande in Colorado and on Soldier Summit in Utah. Fortunately, modern technology can help me avoid getting caught the same way again.

NOAA on the 'net

First of all, I've vowed never to watch the Weather Channel for information. I realize now they're just in the entertainment business: If it blows, it shows. For local route planning, it's about as useful as an almanac and a rabbit's foot. The best weather forecasting tool available in the U.S. is the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's website, www.noaa.gov, where you can find accurate five-day forecasts. So, assuming you have an internet connection and a laptop, there shouldn't be too many surprises.

Weather Radio

Unfortunately, a general warning of "scattered thunderstorms" could mean you either get caught in one or you don't. In the Plain States, a few thunderheads can easily become a tornado. Again, the NOAA has the answer with its weather radio service. If your bike doesn't have weather radio, you can buy a GPS unit like the Garmin Zumo 550 with XM satellite reception, which can provide satellite-based weather overlays on the Zumo maps.

Of course, while the information is useful, there may not be much you can do about it. It's not much comfort riding across the open grasslands of southeastern Wyoming, as I remember doing once, with the weather radio telling me I was riding into a major storm. The wind blew ferociously, but fortunately I made it to Gillette before the storm arrived.

Altitude and Attitude

So you can be fairly sure of what weather you're riding into with modern internet, radio and satellite weather services; but if your route takes you through mountains, there may be more surprises in store. They say mountains make their own weather, and though that's not strictly true, peaks and valleys do generate a number of weather effects. First, as a general rule, temperature drops as you climb - approximately 3.5 degrees Fahrenheit for every 1,000 feet. So if the temperature is a balmy 70 degrees at sea level, a coastal mountain peak at 10,000 feet will be close to freezing. As I write this, the coastal temperature in the tropical Hawaiian Islands is over 80 degrees, yet there are road closures because of snow on Mauna Kea on the Big Island.

Second, desert-like dry conditions on the leeward side of a mountain range can turn into drenching rainforest on the windward side. Annual rainfall on the coast of British Columbia, for example, can exceed 50 inches, yet less than 100 miles away, east of the Coast Range, you'll find Ponderosa pines and rattlesnakes.

This gives rise to another phenomenon. I've ridden through the Cascade Mountains of Washington State and experienced the temperature rise as I climb, bucking the usual rules. The reason: searing easterly Sonoran Desert winds, analogous to California's Santa Anas, pouring over the mountains from the interior valley.

Few commercial road maps are any help with altitude. They show some of the major passes, but they skimp on details about minor roads and rarely show contour lines or spot heights. So you either need a topographic map, or a topographic overlay for your GPS map. If you're riding into unknown territory, you need to know how high you're going, especially in the "shoulder" seasons.

Arizona. A pretty hot place, eh? Not at altitude! I'm riding north on US 191, the Coronado Trail. Over the course of 60 miles, the road climbs from 3,550 feet at Clifton to 9,100 feet in Hannagan Meadows. In a car, you'd hardly notice the temperature change, but on a bike you certainly do! From the sweltering valley to the snow-lined alpine pass, the temperature dropped by 20 degrees, and I felt pretty much naked in my vented jacket. Brrr! If I had a topographic map, paper or electronic, I would have known that I was climbing toward the Colorado Plateau.

Modern technology can take much of the guesswork out of weather and temperature issues on the road in North America. Adventure travel purists might eschew such luxuries, but most of us recreational travelers would prefer to know what's ahead!