In early March 2019, 15.2 meters of snow fell on the summit of Mammoth Mountain in the Eastern Sierra and in Squaw Valley at Lake Tahoe (which already set a new record in February with 7.9 meters). Even down in warmer, drier Southern California, barely two hours from Los Angeles, there was 3.4 meters of snow at Big Bear Mountain Resort.
While big snowstorms are great in that they extend the ski season for California – sometimes even into July – they bring potentially weather-related dangers for drivers heading to the mountains.
"If people are coming from Sacramento or the Bay Area, it may be raining there, but up here at the summit, it's a completely different situation," says Raquel Borrayo, public information officer for Caltrans District 3, which includes 11 counties in Northern California, including areas of Sierra Nevada. "The weather changes very quickly. It can be beautiful and barely snowing one minute, but whiteout conditions prevail within the next hour. We want to make sure people understand what weather conditions can be like before they set out on a trip and are prepared accordingly."
Common sense and an equally common sense respect for the reality of winter in the mountains and the riding conditions it brings can mean a huge difference. Both Caltrans and the California Highway Patrol have created comprehensive lists of tips to look into if you're planning a trip to a snowy area. Here are a few highlights:
Before you go
Observe the weather conditions. While you should always expect the unexpected, fortunately we also live in a golden age of weather forecasting. Websites such as National Weather Service, Weather Channel and Accuweather offer weather reports of all kinds, from weather conditions by time of day to 10-day forecasts. Even the tourist offices of major winter vacation destinations such as Lake Tahoe, Mammoth Lakes, Big Bear Lake and Mt. Shasta offers local weather reports on their websites, as do most ski resorts.
Check traffic conditions. Check the road information page on the Caltrans website for constantly updated info on road conditions. Can search for specific routes by highway number. You can also call 800/427-7623 for the current traffic conditions. A link to the social media sites of Caltrans districts across the state is another great source of local info. On the highway, look for traffic signs with the frequency of Caltrans Highway Advisory Radio (HAR), which will also provide you with regular updates.
Prepare your car. Good tires with proper air pressure and well-maintained tread greatly improve handling on slippery roads. At sea level you may not need antifreeze, but in the mountains the temperature can drop quickly, so check the level before you leave. Clear visibility is always a challenge in the high country, but even more so if your windshield wipers are worn out or the defroster isn't working.
Chains, chains, chains. Depending on snow conditions and a possible snow chain requirement that comes and goes with the weather, you may not be allowed to proceed at certain checkpoints if you don't have chains, even with a four-wheel drive vehicle. "If you arrive unprepared and don't have snow chains, you may get stuck overnight," Borrayo says. "We can't let you back on the highway then, as that would be a danger to yourself and others."
Snow chain installers are not allowed to sell them either, so don't plan on purchasing chains on your way to the mountains. But auto parts stores like Pep Boys and Auto Zone carry a selection of snow chains, so buy some before you hit the mountains.
And while we're on the subject: Practice putting the chains on at home already. Your learning experience will be a much more pleasant one in the shelter of your driveway or garage than on an icy, wet highway in the middle of a snowstorm.
If you're renting a car, be aware that the major rental car companies like Enterprise, Hertz and Avis do not provide snow chains and do not allow their customers to put them on their vehicles. When renting, inquire about the availability of vehicles with all-wheel drive and winter tires, which are available at various locations. Keep in mind, however, that if snow chains are strictly required, even with four-wheel drive and winter tires, you may not pass certain checkpoints.
Yosemite National Park has a helpful guide with more information about using snow chains.
Gear up. Buy an ice scraper or plug it in from home to clear the car windows of ice, and a hand broom to sweep snow off the car. If you get stuck in the snow, a shovel is helpful to get your car out again. And kitty litter isn't just for kitties: it can help them regain grip if you get stuck.
Pack a little extra. If you pack a little more clothing, blankets, provisions and water, you'll have less to worry about if you get stuck in one place a little longer than planned.
On the road
In the winter, just take it easy. Sure, you want to get on the slopes as quickly as possible, but speeding can be deadly on snowy roads. Reduce your stress level by leaving early and allowing some buffer time for the drive into the mountains.
Don't play gasoline roulette. Make sure your gas tank is full before you start your climb into the mountains. Due to traffic delays and highway closures, you may not be able to make it to the next gas station when your fuel light comes on.
Keep the control. Switch off cruise control, drive carefully and also pay attention to other road users.
Do not rely on navigation devices. Although the shortcuts that apps like Waze or Google Maps suggest to you when traffic is backed up may seem tempting, they may put you on roads that have not been cleared, where you can quickly get stuck.