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Driving to Tahoe in Winter Conditions Can Be Daunting. Here’s What You Need To Know

Written by Sophie BearmanPublished Jan. 17, 2023 • 3:15pm
A snowy Interstate 80, approaching Donner Summit, was closed for most of the day on Saturday, Jan. 14, 2023, due to weather-related accidents as the Tahoe area was pummeled with more than 3 feet of snow over MLK weekend. | Sophie Bearman/The Standard

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In just 72 hours over the recent holiday weekend, ski resorts in the Tahoe area got dumped with more than 3 feet of snow. All that fresh powder makes for great skiing—but it can also generate some gnarly driving conditions.

If you want to “shred some pow” in Tahoe this winter, make sure you first know how to get there—and back—safely. 

Drive the Right Vehicle

To get to Tahoe from the Bay Area, you either need to take Interstate 80 or Interstate 50. Both roads peak at over 7,200 feet, meaning in winter months they can become snowy, icy, windy and, in some cases, downright treacherous. Having the right car for these highways is essential, as is knowing your vehicle’s limitations and when to not make the trip.

First up, you need to be prepared for traction chain controls. Essentially, this means that after a certain point you may not be allowed to continue toward Tahoe unless you’ve installed chains on your tires or are operating a four-wheel/all-wheel drive vehicle with snow-tread tires. Depending on conditions, California Highway Patrol enacts checkpoints and will turn vehicles around that don’t meet requirements. And no, they won’t care if you’ve already driven six hours and are desperate to meet up with your buddies.

The snowy road on the side of Interstate 80, approaching Donner Summit, on Saturday, Jan. 14, 2023 | Sophie Bearman/The Standard

So what can you do? In winter months, you should always carry chains in your car and know how to install them. If you bought chains recently, practice putting them on at least once or twice before making the big drive. Trust us: Chains are a lot harder to install when you’re on the side of a highway braving heavy winds and snow. However, if you do run into issues, there are often chain installers along the road to help with installations for $20 or $30.

When chain controls are in effect, keep your speed to 25 mph or below.

All that being said, even the sturdiest vehicles are susceptible to intense winter weather. Follow guidelines from the National Weather Service and never attempt to drive to Tahoe when conditions are dangerous. 

Carry the Right Equipment

Chains are a must, but you should also make sure your car has an ice scraper and small shovel so you can dig yourself out of most dicey situations. Also make sure to fill your windshield washer reservoir with a cleaning solution that has antifreeze components for cold-weather use—it will come in handy for melting ice off your windshield and improving visibility. And keep your gas tank full. You never know when you might get stuck and will want to keep your car running to stay warm.

A car is buried in snow on Jan. 15, 2023, at Palisades Tahoe. | Courtesy Blake Kessler/Palisades Tahoe

Anticipate a Long Journey

When it comes to winter mountain travel, a general rule of thumb is that it always takes longer than you think it will. Before you head out, take your Google Maps time estimate and add at least another two or three hours to it.

Trips to Tahoe from the Bay Area can take upwards of six, eight or even 10 hours depending on conditions. If you’re especially unlucky and hit road closures, you may need to stay overnight in a hotel (towns like Auburn and Colfax have a number of options) until roads reopen or, in a worst-case scenario, turn back to the Bay Area.

Crews at the ski resort Palisades Tahoe worked around the clock over Martin Luther King Jr. weekend in 2023 to maintain operations. | Courtesy Blake Kessler/Palisades Tahoe

With a long journey in mind, stock your car with lots of snacks and audio books. Always have a winter kit in your vehicle containing food, water, clothing, blankets and a flashlight in case of emergency.

Monitor Road Conditions—and Beware the Map Apps

Stay on top of road conditions, and we guarantee you’ll have a better trip to Tahoe than most others. Knowing about delays and closures is truly half the battle, and there are a handful of Twitter accounts and websites that you can follow for the latest updates and information.

Twitter:

  • @NWSSacramento — The official Twitter account for the National Weather Service Sacramento is a great place to get updates on winter weather conditions.
  • @CaltransDist3 — The official Twitter account for Caltrans District 3, which maintains the state highway system around Tahoe, keeps you updated on road conditions along I-80 and I-50, including chain controls and closures.

Websites:

  • https://roads.dot.ca.gov/ — CalTrans’ up-to-date road information. Enter the highway number you care about and get the latest information on road conditions.

Speaking of roads, Google Maps will sometimes try to reroute you to avoid traffic. Don’t trust it. It’s highly likely these side roads will be unplowed or closed. I-80 and I-50 are the only ways in and out in inclement winter weather—so stick to them.

Finally, you can check out 24/7 live webcams of I-80 and I-50 to get a sense of conditions on the road.

Interstate 80 was closed for most of Jan. 14, 2023, due to weather-related accidents as the Tahoe area was pummeled with more than 3 feet of snow. | Sophie Bearman/The Standard

If You Get Stuck…

Start your car and run the heat and defroster before attempting to dig out. You can always stick your car’s floor mats behind each wheel to get some traction. Don’t forget to clear your car’s hood off entirely of snow or risk hundreds of pounds of weight to crash down on your windshield when you brake, creating a hazard for you and cars behind you.

Make Good Decisions

It’s called winter mountain travel for a reason, and ultimately, you need to make sure you’re attempting your drive to Tahoe in a manner that is safe for yourself and others.

Always drive slowly when snow, ice or whiteout conditions are present. Give snow plows a wide berth and keep your headlights on.

Crews at the ski resort Palisades Tahoe worked around the clock over Martin Luther King Jr. weekend in 2023 to maintain operations. | Courtesy Blake Kessler/Palisades Tahoe

The National Weather Service Sacramento monitors storms and inclement weather in the area, and makes recommendations about whether it’s safe to attempt the mountain commute or not. Heed the NWS’s warnings and do not attempt to travel to Tahoe when conditions are dangerous.

Always wait until it’s safe to travel.

Don’t Want To Drive? Take a Bus

If after reading this you decide you don’t want to drive to Tahoe—and no judgment here!—don’t despair; there are other ways to get there. You can leave the driving to Sports Basement so you can sleep (or socialize) on the road. For $95, you get a round trip fully stocked with breakfast, coffee and apres-ski beer. Tahoe Ski Trips and SnowPals are two other Bay Area communities offering rides and shared housing at group rates.

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Sophie Bearman can be reached at [email protected]


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