By early March 2019, more than 50 feet 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-setting 26 feet 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 11 feet 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 whiteout conditions. We like to make sure that people understand what conditions are like before they begin their travels 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 to the 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 of weather forecasting. Websites for the National Weather Service, Weather Channel, and Accuweather offer a variety of forecasts, from conditions by the hour to as far as 10 days out. Visitor bureaus for such major winter destinations 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 on road status. The road information page on the Caltrans website lists updated road conditions and allows you to search specific routes by highway number. Current conditions are also available by calling 800/427-7623. A link to social media sites for Caltrans districts around the state is another excellent resource for localized information. While on the highway, look for signs showing the frequency for Caltrans Highway Advisory Radio (HAR), which provides regular updates.
Prepare your car. Good tires that are properly inflated and have adequate tread life will greatly enhance handling on slick roads. You may not need antifreeze at sea level but in the mountains, temperatures can quickly plunge, so check levels before leaving home. Visibility is always challenging in the high country, but it is especially so if your windshield wipers are worn or your defroster 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 to get back on the highway and 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 to the mountains. But auto parts stores, including Pep Boys and Auto Zone, carry a selection of tire chains, so purchase chains before reaching the mountains.
Speaking of which, practice putting on your chains while still at home. Your learning curve will be much more pleasant in the comfort of your driveway or garage than along a freezing, soggy highway in the middle of a winter storm.
If you’re renting 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 renting, inquire about the availability of all-wheel-drive vehicles and autos with snow tires, which are available at some locations. But remember: Under the strictest chain requirements, even all-wheel-drive and snow tires won’t get you through checkpoints.
For more information about using tire chains, Yosemite National Park has a helpful guide.
Gear up. 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 kitty 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. Sure, you’re eager to get up to the slopes but speeding in snowy conditions can be deadly. Reduce your stress by leaving early and giving yourself extra time to get up to the mountains.
Don’t play gas roulette. Make sure you have a full tank of gas before you start climbing. Traffic delays and closed highways might mean that you won’t be able to reach the next gas 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 by using Waze and Google Maps, these apps might direct you onto secondary roads that aren’t plowed and where you could easily get stranded.