Coming to Denver in January: Don't Fear the Weather

Adam Ginsburg 12/31/05 Panorama taken from Westlands Park in Greenwood Village, Colorado. CC BY 2.5,

Many people (who aren’t anticipating a ski vacation) are scared off by Colorado winter weather. They envision Rocky Mountain snowstorms, canceled flights, and icy roads, and they quickly make other travel plans. But Denver is not in the Rocky Mountains (though it will afford lovely views of them), and planning a January trip to this city should not give you pause. Indeed, those who have traveled to AHA meetings in Boston, New York, and Chicago have no reason to expect that the Denver weather will be worse; it will likely be more pleasant!

First, the bad news: January is usually Denver’s coldest month. Temperatures range between frigid and cool, with average lows in the mid-teens and average highs in the mid-40s. But those averages tell you little about what to expect on any given January weekend. With a record low of -21F (1984) and a record high of 78F (1982), just about anything can happen. Stretches of bitterly cold weather (which locals call “stock show weather,” because it coincides with the annual National Western Stock Show) are common. But so are days with highs in the mid-50s or 60s. Even cold temperatures are likely to feel warmer because most days are sunny. The oft-repeated statistic that Colorado gets 300 days of sunshine per year is a myth, but it is true that Denver is much sunnier than midwestern and northeastern cities. In January, about 70 percent of daylight hours are likely to be sunny or partly sunny, which makes it much easier to walk outside even when temperatures are chilly.

Denver might be cold in January, but it is rarely snowy. January usually falls in a dry spell between the early-winter storms and heavier spring snowfalls. On average, Denver gets 6.6 inches of snow in January. In the last decade, January snow totals have topped 10 inches only twice, and they have stopped short of five inches four times. The last time Denver witnessed a historic blizzard in January was in 1883. All of this means that chances are good that you will have a dry weekend during the AHA annual meeting. It also means that your flights will probably run on time. Denver International Airport (which is on the plains, not in the mountains) was designed with the weather in mind, so it rarely closes. In fact, you would be far more likely to experience delays and cancellations during the unpredictable spring storms than during the relatively mild January snowfalls.

What can you count on when you come to Denver? First, expect the unexpected. Tucked between the mountains and the plains, Denver’s weather patterns are notoriously unpredictable in any season, and storms can blow up seemingly out of nowhere. So while you should check the weather forecasts periodically, you should also anticipate that they might change. To hedge your bets, pack a coat, a hat, scarf, gloves, and clothing that will layer easily. A pair of boots will help you navigate icy sidewalks (which may well turn out to be perfectly clear).

In addition, be aware that Denver’s altitude really is mile-high, and its climate is very dry. You are unlikely to experience true altitude sickness (which is more common in mountain elevations), but if you are coming from much lower altitudes, you may still feel dehydrated and a little short of breath. Frequent drinks of water should resolve that problem easily and help you stay comfortable.

If you’ve traveled to AHA meetings in places like Chicago or New York, then Denver’s weather should pose no problems for you. Pack for a range of temperatures and conditions, and you will be able to enjoy all that the conference and city have to offer.

By Shelby M. Balik