The Snowiest Winters in Tahoe History: The Great April Storm of 1880 Pushed Donner to the Brink

In 1879, a severe storm originating from the Gulf of Alaska hit the Northern Sierra just before Christmas Day. The storm brought heavy snow and left five feet of snow at Blue Canyon, and almost 10 feet at Donner Pass. The skies cleared up towards the end of January, but the air remained bitter cold, with temperatures dropping to minus-20 degrees at Truckee, and 35 degrees below zero at Boca.

By late March, the snow had almost disappeared, and Truckee residents were optimistic that the harsh winter was finally over. They began to discuss boats and fishing as signs of spring started to emerge. However, on April 1, an unseasonably strong storm hit the mountains, marking the beginning of several such storms.

During the third week of April, an intense low pressure system created an unforgettable grand finale super storm. The storm was so extreme that it shut down the railroad for five days. The snowfall continued unabated, reaching incredible depths. More than 20 feet of snow covered the ground on Lake Tahoe’s west shore.

Between April 20-23, the Norden train station near Donner Pass received an unofficial world-record 194 inches (over 16 feet) of snow in just four days. The following winter of 1881 only received 153 inches of snow, which ranked as the least snowy of record until the disappointing winter of 2015.

In 1880, Donner Summit was pounded with 783 inches (65.25 feet) of snow, including an astounding 25 feet that fell in April. That winter was ranked as the third snowiest on record, and with 80 inches of precipitation, it was the 17th wettest.

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