Winter driving in the Sierra can be treacherous, testing the skills of the most experienced drivers when notoriously unpredictable storms move in. Advance planning can go a long way toward smoothing winter travel woes, and knowing whether the weather will be balmy and spring-like, or snowy and windy will help you pack before you hit the slopes.
Storms have already slammed the Sierra this year, and after a banner snow year last season, a La Nina effect could possibly bring another big winter. Snow is welcomed by skiers and other snow country enthusiasts, but for travelers, storms at the wrong time, namely on a Friday night when thousands of other Bay Area revelers hit the roads, can snarl up a weekend.
Avoid Friday travel: One tip is to splurge on vacation days and take an extra one to avoid Friday evening travel. Don’t bother trying to beat the traffic by taking a half day off—the rest of the Bay Area has thought of that too. If you can’t leave on Thursday consider a late departure—traffic often slows by 7 pm on Friday night and you won’t hit Sacramento rush hour traffic at all. The same delaying tactic works well on Sunday also, with a later departure often working better than an early departure. Check Bay Area traffic conditions at 511.org.
Check the weather forecast. Sierra-specific forecasts from the Tahoe Weather Geek and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)-Reno can take the guesswork out of the fickle art and science of weather forecasting. The Tahoe Weather Geek sends out a summary forecast every Thursday, just in time for weekend planning, with frequent updates during storm cycles. NOAA provides more detail in their Forecast Discussion than sites like Weather.com. Check both Reno and Sacramento on the NOAA site to get the most comprehensive information.
Monitor road conditions: The California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) provides information on chain control, road closures due to storm conditions, and road work. Store this number in your phone for easy access, 800-427-7623, and bookmark their site (www.dot.ca.gov/cgi-bin/roads.cgi).
Stock the car: Basic winter supplies, such as an inexpensive ice scraper and topped-up windshield wiper fluid is critical in a snowstorm. Chains, a blanket, gloves, warm clothes, water and snacks to last several hours will come in handy if you’re stranded in a snow closure on Highway 80. A disaster kit stocked with a shovel, flashlight, emergency flares and other items is a good idea to prepare for a variety of disasters, including weather. A well-stocked service station or automotive parts store, such as O’Reilly Auto Parts can provide many of these items.
Check the snow phone. Snow phones for the major ski areas provide resort-specific weather, temperature and snow condition information that can help you prepare for being outdoors in the winter. GoTahoeNorth.com offers a consolidated view of Tahoe area snow conditions, with links to the individual areas.
Travel to the Sierra in winter can be less stressful with a little advance planning and information, leaving more time and energy to enjoy the natural playground of the Lake Tahoe region.
See information on winter driving tips from Caltrans (and download the “Weathering the Storm-Winter Driving Tips” brochure) and lodeplus.com.
Get road information on highway conditions from Caltrans.
Get up to date weather information from NOAA.
Get information on preparing for winter storms and how to build a disaster kit from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
Check the Sierra Sun for local information on weather and news, and to access road cameras in the region.