The scene is familiar every Friday afternoon in winter in the San Francisco Bay Area and Sacramento Valley. Thousands of cars take to the roads with skis and snowboards up top, bound for the many mountain ski resorts of Lake Tahoe. Lake Tahoe is my family’s favorite ski destination, so we’ve made the drive along Interstate 80 and Highway 50 dozens of times. Sometimes we’ve lucked out with clear roads and short travel times. Other times, we’ve experienced some scary situations when weather conditions turned treacherous.
While the 2021-2022 ski season in Tahoe got off to a late state with a serious lack of precipitation, the first major snowstorm has finally arrived. And there is more to come! While Tahoe doesn’t always get massive amounts of snow each and every season, there have been several winters in recent memory for me that were amazing for skiing but ultimately nerve-racking for driving. Those experiences taught our family some important lessons.
So if you live the popular Northern California drive markets of San Francisco, Silicon Valley, Oakland and Sacramento (or are flying into one of those airports to drive to Tahoe), read on! Here are our family’s tried and true tips for a safe and speedy drive to Lake Tahoe in winter.
Tahoe Travel Basics
Before we get into the specific tips, let’s get the lay of the land if you are new to Lake Tahoe travel. Lake Tahoe itself is quite large so conditions can be very different at one area than they are at another.
Related: First Timer’s Guide to Lake Tahoe
There are two major roadways that travelers from the Sacramento and San Francisco areas might use. The first is Interstate 80 to North Lake Tahoe, which passes over Donner Summit. There are ski resorts at the Donner Summit area, like Sugar Bowl, Donner Ski Ranch, and Boreal. There are additional ski resorts further east along I-80 and its connecting roads. Near the town of Truckee, California are Northstar California and Palisades Tahoe (formerly known as Squaw Valley/Alpine Meadows). Near Incline Village, Nevada, skiers will find Diamond Peak and Mount Rose.
To reach South Lake Tahoe, drivers from San Francisco and Sacramento take U.S. Highway 50, which splits off of I-80 in Sacramento. Highway 50 passes over Echo Summit before descending to the towns of South Lake Tahoe, California and Stateline, NV. Heavenly Ski Resort is essentially in the center in both towns. The other South Lake Tahoe area ski resorts, Sierra-at-Tahoe and Kirkwood, are more off the beaten path and require detours further south after coming down over the pass.
Tips for Driving to Lake Tahoe in Winter
So now that you know the Tahoe basics, what are the best strategies for the drive itself?
1. Make Sure Your Car is Winter Travel Ready.
At least several days before heading to the mountains in the winter, make sure your car is ready for the trip. These kinds of tasks can take time to handle. I recommend new wiper blades to keep your windshield clear of snow and ice – old ones can get stuck on top of ice chunks and fail to clear them.
Definitely also top off your windshield wiper fluid and consider bringing more with you. You can go through a lot while keeping your windshield clean and unobstructed. Last, check the tread on your tires and make sure they are property inflated so you can be as safe as possible when driving on snow.
2. Drive an Four-Wheel Drive or All-Wheel Drive Vehicle if at all Possible.
Regular snow and ice on the drive to Tahoe makes for slick roads and potentially dangerous road conditions. The easiest way to improve your road safety in minor to moderate winter weather is to drive an all-wheel drive (AWD) or 4-wheel drive (4WD) vehicle. It will give you more traction and often save the hassle of installing chains.
Like many ski-loving families in Northern California, my family purchased cars with AWD with our ski trips in mind. If you don’t have a vehicle that has it, however, you might want to consider renting one just for your Tahoe trip. Remember – just because you rent an SUV doesn’t necessarily mean you will get one with AWD or 4WD. Always confirm with your rental company that you can get a model with the features you need.
3. Carry Chains & Know How to Use Them
If you aren’t going to be able to drive in a 4WD/AWD vehicle, you simply must carry chains for your car. As soon as those first flakes start to fall, anyone with a 2WD vehicle will be required to chain up. Even if the forecast calls for clear skies your entire vacation, don’t chance it. If the weather changes, there are few places to buy chains in certain locations once you get into the mountains.
If you do not have experience in putting chains on your car, practice at home first. Make sure you know if you have rear or front wheel drive. Why? Because the chains go on the back two wheels for rear wheel drive cars and on the front wheels for front wheel drive.
If this intimidates you, you can definitely outsource this! There are a number of people who will put chains on your cars on the major Tahoe highways that lead up to the chain checkpoints for a fee – especially approaching Donner Summit on I-80. It can definitely be money well spent for the less experienced. But be aware that the worse the weather, the more they charge! Always have cash just in case.
4. Know and Follow the Road Rules
Speaking of chain checkpoints, you can expect to find them on the drive to Tahoe as you approach major summits whenever there is snow or ice on the roadway. Make sure you know the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) rules that will apply to your vehicle so you can comply. Often local weather stations or roadside signs will simply refer to R1, R2, and R3 conditions.
- R1: Chains or snow tires are required on all vehicles except 4WD/AWD vehicles. (This is the most common condition for more minor storms.)
- R2: Chains or snow tires are required on all vehicles except 4WD/AWD vehicles that also have snow tires on all four wheels. (Practically speaking, I’ve never seen CalTrans checking for snow tires vs. all weather tires on 4WD/AWD vehicles at this level, but this is when road conditions get quite treacherous so don’t cheat.)
- R3: All vehicles are required to use chains. (Caltrans nearly always closes Donner Pass on I-80 and Echo Summit on Highway 50 when conditions reach this level. Bottom line – I wouldn’t drive in R3 conditions even if I were allowed to.)
5. Pack for Emergencies
Both Interstate 80 and Highway 50 are well traveled, so truly getting lost or stranded is unlikely. However, the winter storms can be no joke. It never hurts to be prepared with survival equipment in your car. What should you include in your roadside emergency kit? A flashlight with batteries, jumper cables, and flares are a good start. Also make sure you have extra blankets, plenty of water, and food. I’d also recommend bringing an external battery charger for your cell phone, since poor signals in the mountains can drain batteries fast.
Last but certainly not least, fill up your gas tank regularly. Don’t attempt to approach the summits in storms with anything less than a mostly full tank. Often, CalTrans can stop traffic for hours and you may need to be able to run your car with no gas station in sight.
6. Know Where to Get Reliable Weather and Road Info
Forget Google Maps. Toss Weather.com. These general sites are NOT very good about giving you real time, accurate, and on the ground information about local road and weather conditions in the Tahoe area. I remember once planning to go to Tahoe one evening when I knew Interstate 80 had been closed overnight until sunrise, yet Google Maps kept trying to send me in the direction of the closure, simply showing the closure as a delay.
Where can you go for more reliable information? Luckily, social media has really improved the drive experience in recent years. First and foremost, I go to the CalTrans District 3 pages on both Twitter and Facebook. They are amazing about posting in real time in winter storms, even including video so you can see just what the wind and whiteout conditions at the summit look like.
The California Highway Patrol in Truckee is also a must-follow account for real time updates for North Lake Tahoe, both on Twitter and Facebook. The Placer County Sheriff has also been more active the last few years with road and weather updates on Twitter as well. The bottom line is that there are increasingly and thankfully more places to get real time updates!
7. Beat the Traffic
Even when there are no storms and roads are clear, there is one other major variable that drivers to Tahoe need to plan around carefully — traffic. Bay Area residents love to ski and traffic heading to Tahoe at the same time as everyone else can be brutal.
Obviously, the best solution is to take midweek trips if you have flexibility. But if you are like me and are taking trips around around school and work, then you need to work a little bit harder.
Both I-80 and Highway 50 are busiest in the afternoon and early evening on Friday heading east from the coast to the mountains. It’s vital to try to go earlier or later than the peak times. In my experience, if you can leave the Bay Area before noon on a Friday (and have passed Sacramento before schools let out), you are usually in the clear.
Or, go later. We have friends who consistently leave the East Bay around 7:00 pm on Friday evenings, and usually find that rush hour traffic has cleared by then.
The reverse route is, of course, busiest on Sunday afternoon. For the return from Tahoe to the Bay Area, leaving before noon or after 6:00 p.m. on Sundays seems to work well most regular ski weekends.
If traffic gets really bad, be prepared to stop. Waiting it out somewhere fun is highly preferable to driving in stop-and-go traffic for 5, 6, or more hours. If you drive the route often enough, you’ll find your favorite roadside stops. My family always enjoys Ikeda’s in Auburn for burgers and shakes. And Nut Tree in Vacaville has a train and carousel that can be fun for little ones.
8. Pack your Patience & Slow Down
Last but certainly not least, pack your patience and be prepared to go slow. Mother Nature is powerful and there is nowhere you will see this more clearly than in a Sierra blizzard. Getting to Tahoe 10 minutes faster is not worth risking your own life and the lives of others in the process. We’ve witnessed a lot of insane drivers doing scary things on the roads. Whatever you do, don’t be one of those people!
For more information about skiing and winter travel in Tahoe, be sure to check out these related articles: