With the holiday weekend just days away, Sierra ski resorts are getting what they've been waiting for: snow -- and not the kind they've been making all season. The real stuff!
A mild system that brought some 10 inches of snow from Yosemite to Tahoe also blanketed the South Bay's Mount Hamilton on Monday with its first measurable snowfall of the year: some 4½ inches, which was just enough to close the road and provide a wintry scene on rain-starved hills that remain more brown than green.
It also was enough for Connie Villicana to grab her long-dormant snow shovel.
"It's a lot of hard work, but it's beautiful," said Villicana, who lives near and works at the Lick Observatory. "And we need the water."
Small hail pelted parts of Silicon Valley on Monday afternoon and a mix of snow and rain slushed up Skyline Boulevard in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Temperatures dipped to freezing on Mount Diablo.
And in the Sierra, it's snowing just in time. Several more inches are expected once or twice before the weekend is through, perfect for "ski week," when many schools are off for the week that includes Presidents Day.
"I think the ski resorts would like to see snow measured in feet to make a big impact," said Zach Tolbey, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Reno. "But every little bit helps."
Except for a mid-January storm that brought snow to Tahoe and rain to the Bay Area, Northern California has been extremely dry this winter. So far this season, San Jose has received 2.64 inches of rainfall, 27 percent of normal. Oakland has received 5.56 inches, or 42 percent of normal, which is calculated on a 30-year average. At this time last year, the Bay Area in general had received twice as much rain, with much more coming in the spring.
Last year was extra special. Snowfall was epic at Tahoe, with resorts opening by Thanksgiving and some reopening for skiing on the Fourth of July. Rainfall filled reservoirs and aquifers throughout the Bay Area. And skiers and rain watchers got spoiled.
While both this year and last were considered La Niña years, a ridge of high pressure has been parked off the West Coast for months, keeping the big moisture in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska, said Jan Null, a Bay Area meteorologist with Golden Gate Weather Services.
At Heavenly Ski Resort at this time last year, skiers were enjoying 230 inches of snowfall, compared with 80 this season. Still, February and March tend to be the snowiest months, said Heavenly spokesman Russ Pecoraro. "So hopefully we'll make up on some lost time," he said, "and snow."
Squaw Valley received 6 inches of snow by Monday morning, and 10 inches landed on Alpine Meadows.
Total snowfall this year at Squaw Valley is 91 inches, compared with 301 inches by this time last year, said Amelia Richmond, spokeswoman for Squaw Valley.
"We know our conditions are great," she said, "but we're still fighting a perception issue that there's no snow in Tahoe."
That means enticing deals are easy to find, she said. At Squaw and Alpine Meadows, a two-day pass if purchased by Friday can be had for $98, a fraction of the one-day $92 lift price. Heavenly will send a limo -- and throw in an all-expenses paid trip -- to one lucky foursome who wears their ski gear to a San Francisco bar Friday and tweets the photo.
Mark DeVito and Duncan Ley, restaurant owners in San Francisco, are just the types they are looking for. Both are self-described "ski snobs." But with the first sign of snow Sunday, they packed up and headed to Tahoe.
"Last year, we came up all the time. We were up last November (2010) when there was 10 feet!" said DeVito, 31, while taking a break from skiing at Squaw Valley on Monday. "This is my first trip this year. I was waiting for the snow."
Last year, Tahoe saw the fifth-deepest snowpack since World War II and the ninth-deepest since the railroad started keeping records in 1878.
As Tahoe weather historian Mark McLaughlin puts it, "people have to get over the fact that it's not last year. They're going to eventually have to bite that bullet. People might not see a winter like last year's for another 20, 30 or 40 years."
Staff photographer Karen Borchers contributed to this report. Contact Julia Prodis Sulek at 408-278-3409.