By early March 2019, more than 15 metres of snow had fallen at the summit of Mammoth Mountain in the Eastern Sierra and at Lake Tahoe’s Squaw Valley (which received a record-breaking 8 metres in February alone). Even down in warmer and drier Southern California, barely two hours from Los Angeles, Big Bear Mountain Resort had been hit by 3.3 metres of snow.
Although big snowstorms are great for extending California’s ski season—all the way to July in some cases—they also create potential weather-related challenges for drivers heading to the mountains.
'If people are coming up from Sacramento or the Bay Area, it may be raining down there, but when you get up to the summit, it’s a completely different situation,' says Raquel Borrayo, a public information officer for Caltrans District 3, which encompasses 11 Northern California counties, including areas in the Sierra Nevada. 'The weather changes very quickly. It can be nice and barely snowing one minute, then in the next hour it's a whiteout. We like to make sure that people understand what conditions are like before they begin their journey and that they are prepared for it.'
Commonsense preparation and a healthy respect for the realities of winter mountain driving can make all the difference in the world. Both Caltrans and the California Highway Patrol have prepared lengthy lists of tips that you should check as you plan your trip into snow country. Here are a few highlights:
Before You Go
Monitor weather conditions. While you should still always expect the unexpected, we live in a golden age for weather forecasting. Websites for the National Weather Service, Weather Channel and Accuweather offer a variety of forecasts, from conditions by the hour to up to 10 days ahead. Visitor bureaux for major winter destinations such as Lake Tahoe, Mammoth Lakes, Big Bear Lake and Mt Shasta all include local weather information on their websites, as do most individual ski resorts.
Check the status of the roads. The road information page on the Caltrans website lists up-to-date road conditions and allows you to search for specific routes by road number. Current conditions are also available by calling 800 427 7623 (from within the US and Canada). A link to social media sites for Caltrans districts around the state is another excellent resource for local information. While on the roads, look for signs showing the frequency for Caltrans Highway Advisory Radio (HAR), which provides regular updates.
Prepare your car. Good tyres that are properly inflated and have adequate tread life will greatly enhance handling on slick roads. You may not need anti-freeze at sea level but in the mountains, temperatures can quickly plummet, so check levels before leaving your accommodation. Visibility is always challenging in the high country, but it is especially so if your windscreen wipers are worn or your car heater doesn’t work.
Chains, chains, chains. Depending on snow conditions and chain requirements, which change with the weather, you may not be able to proceed past checkpoints unless you have chains, even if you’re in a four-wheel-drive vehicle. 'If you come up unprepared and don’t have chains, you might get stuck overnight,' says Borrayo. 'We will not allow you back onto the highway where you might endanger yourself or other people.'
Chain installers are not allowed to sell chains, so don’t count on buying any traction devices on your way up into the mountains. But motor factors, including Pep Boys and Auto Zone, carry a selection of tyre chains, so make sure you purchase them before reaching the mountains.
Speaking of which, practice putting on your chains while still at home. The learning curve will be much pleasanter in the comfort of your driveway or garage than on a freezing, soggy highway in the middle of a winter storm.
If you’re hiring a car, keep in mind that major rental agencies, including Enterprise, Hertz and Avis, do not provide chains, nor do they allow customers to put chains on their vehicles. When hiring, enquire about the availability of all-wheel-drive vehicles and cars with snow tyres, which are available at some locations. But remember: under the strictest chain requirements, even an all-wheel-drive vehicle with snow tyres won’t get you through the checkpoints.
For more information about using snow chains, Yosemite National Park has a helpful guide.
Make sure you have the necessary equipment. Buy or bring an ice scraper to clear windows and a broom to sweep snow off your car. If you get stuck, a shovel will make it much easier to dig your vehicle out. And cat litter isn’t just for cats: it can help provide added traction if you get stuck.
Pack a few extras. Additional clothing, blankets, and extra food and water will provide a measure of comfort if you end up experiencing lengthy delays.
On the Road
Chill out in winter. You may be eager to get up to the slopes but speeding in snowy conditions can be deadly. Reduce stress levels by leaving early and giving yourself extra time to get up into the mountains.
Don’t play fuel roulette. Make sure you have a full tank of fuel before you start climbing. Traffic delays and closed roads might mean that you won’t be able to reach the next filling station when your fuel light comes on.
Stay in control. Turn off cruise control and always drive defensively, keeping an eye out for other drivers.
Don’t rely on navigational devices. Tempting as it may be to find shortcuts around slow traffic using Waze and Google Maps, these apps might direct you onto secondary roads that haven’t been ploughed, where you could easily get stranded.
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