Southern Oregon awakens to heavy rains and swelling river levels, but the wet will turn to white this afternoon in the mountains surrounding the Rogue Valley.

Southern Oregon awakens to heavy rains and swelling river levels, but the wet will turn to white this afternoon in the mountains surrounding the Rogue Valley.

After two days of warm rain, a cold front moving in at the tail end of the season's first real rainstorms will drop freezing levels from about the 7,000-foot elevation to as low as 3,000 feet above sea level this afternoon, dropping much-needed snow on Mount Ashland as well as area mountain passes.

"Finally, we're getting some cold air in here and it should make a few people who want to see snow on the ski hills happy," says Meteorologist Mike Stavish at the National Weather Service station in Medford.

But that also means motorists heading into or away from the Rogue Valley today for the New Year's weekend will be better off leaving earlier than later.

After a morning of steady rain, Interstate 5's Siskiyou Pass could get as much as two inches of snow, with the Highway 140 summit between Medford and Lake of the Woods likely getting twice that, Stavish says.

Highways 238 and 62 should also get snow and as much as 6 inches could fall in and around Crater Lake National Park, Stavish says.

And just as quickly as it comes, it will go.

Once rains taper off later today, no new precipitation is forecast through Jan. 6, Stavish says.

"Through the first week of January, this is it," Stavish says. "But I'm sure people will say we'll take what we can get."

That's certainly the case at Mount Ashland, where ski area has been mired in a nearly snowless month, with only three of its four lifts in operation.

The ski area continues to have a base of 20-30 inches, and all eyes are on today's skies.

"We're keeping our fingers crossed that the forecasts are right," ski area General Manager Kim Clark says. "(Today) could be the first really significant snowfall we've seen in a month.

"Six inches would do us a world of good, freshen things up," Clark says. "People would love it. Even 3 inches would make a huge difference."

The National Resource Conservation Service on Thursday listed the Rogue/Umpqua basin snowpack at 37 percent, while one year ago at this time it was 137 percent.

After a month of stagnant weather, the storm front moved east off the Pacific beginning Wednesday and triggered heavy rains on the Coast Range, with as much as 4 inches forecast to fall in the Kalmiopsis Wilderness Area of Curry County by this morning, according to the weather service.

That area feeds the headwaters of Southern Oregon's Chetco River, which was forecast to crest late tonight at nearly 30,000 cubic feet per second — or 30 times higher than low-flow periods of early this week.

By early this morning, solid rain showers were forecast for inland areas up to the Cascades.

"Even the inland valleys are going to see a pretty good clip of rain in the morning hours (today)," Stavish says.

The rain will taper off and the foggy valley days of December will return as quickly as tomorrow.

"If you go up in the mountains Saturday, you'll probably have a pretty nice day," Stavish says. "It'll be sun in the mountains and cloudy in the valley into next week."

Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or email at mfreeman@mailtribune.com.