Driving through Sierra Nevada in December
Replies: 32 - Last Post: Sep 9, 2012 9:06 AM Last Post By: johnsang
Sep 5, 2012 4:41 AM
Driving through Sierra Nevada in DecemberThis December I will be hiring a car out of San Francisco. I want to drive out to Lake Tahoe via highway 50, then down Highway 395 to Mammoth Lakes and on to Death Valley before returning the car to LA Airport.
2 questions please?
1. Are those roads in to and out of Lake Tahoe usually kept clear of snow in December? Will I need chains?
2. Am I right to just completely miss Yosemite, Kings Canyon & Sequola Parks? I would like to have included them but I'm thinking it won't be worth me going there in December.
Thanks in advance!
Sep 5, 2012 6:12 AM
1You don't say which part of December you're visiting- snow can occur anytime after mid-November
but definitely in December in the Sierras. Highways 50 and 80 to Lake Tahoe are plowed regularly
following snowfalls and re-open within 24 hours. Chains may be required if snow is imminent. None of
this is a problem if you give your itinerary some extra days for flexibility should it snow.
Sep 5, 2012 7:46 AM
Yes, the highways on that route are plowed. But a snowstorm can begin at any time, and in heavy snowfall the California Highway Patrol will set up roadblocks and not let you through unless you have chains. Any motorist traveling to the Sierras in the winter should carry chains, as you never know when they'll be required. The weather can change very rapidly.
Yosemite is lovely in the winter. I'd much rather go to Yosemite Valley in the winter when there aren't many tourists than in the summer when it's packed. However, the major road through the park, Tioga Pass, is usually closed October - May (exact dates vary from year to year, according to the snowpack) so a trip to Yosemite would be a huge detour for you if you're planning on visiting Mammoth Lakes. You'd have to backtrack a couple hundred miles to CA 88, the nearest road through the mountains that's kept open in the winter.
The major road through King's Canyon / Sequoia will also be closed due to snow, although small parts of the parks are still accessible.
Sep 5, 2012 7:52 AM
3Kenko is right, snow storms (or rain) can occur anytime but are usually not as big or long lasting until later in December. Major highways are almost always kept open even if chains or 4 wheel drive with snow tires are required. Massive snowfall with heavy traffic can jam up these highways and they are rarely closed more than a few hours. During winter months or snowy weather, drivers are required to carry chains, cables or other traction devices, even 4 wheel drive vehicles. They are seldom needed but when they are you must have them or you will be turned back. If you are found driving in areas that require chains, without them, you can be ticketed, arrested and or your vehicle can be impounded. If you can afford it renting a 4 wheel drive vehicle with snow tires or tires rated M/S (mud & snow) will get you through almost anything you can get traction on and you will never be required to put chains (which you must carry) on. The only thing better is to have studded snow tires which are excellent on ice or very hard packed snow. The highways into and around Lake Tahoe have very heavy traffic and get a lot of professional attention by CalTrans the excellent California dept of Transportation. Highway 395 from Reno south to around Bishop is subject to heavy snow at times and icy conditions at times due to it's altitude, being on the dry side of the Sierra it usually doesn't get nearly as much snow as the mountains. It is also very well tended and is almost never closed. The handicap of snowy weather is that it can slow you down (you should slow down because even with studs or snowtires you don't have the traction you would have in dry weather), and snow plowing can back traffic up quite a bit.
If you have time I think that seeing Lake Tahoe and the High Sierra, highway 395 and Yosemite, even in winter, is well worth the effort. For my money, Highway 80 over Donner Summit is far more scenic than Highway 50. You will have to come around the southern end of the Sierra Nevada and up to Fresno to get into Yosemite Valley but it is not a bad trip if the scenery is interesting to you. I think a week minimum would be ideal for doing the drive and having time to look around at all the places to see, Lake Tahoe, Reno, Carson City, Virginia City, Mono Lake, June Lake, Mammouth, Hot Creek, Death Valley, Yosemite. GIve yourself 2 nights in Yosemite. It is about 5 or 6 hours to LA from Yosemite. Actually going to Yosemite first from San Francisco might be better, then go to Tahoe. If you have an extra day or two take Highway 49 through the Gold Country from Mariposa up to Auburn or even Nevada City before getting onto I-80.
Sep 5, 2012 12:17 PM
This made me chuckle. In my 40-odd years this is the first time I've seen "CalTrans" and "excellent" used in the same sentence. Many of us Californians are very decidedly less fond of them. For me, they're the nincompoops who take 3 years to build a flyover that would have been built in most parts of the world in 3 months.
You're right, though, that if the OP is to do Yosemite at all, it would make far more sense to go there first, then swing up to Tahoe, and then down the eastern side of the Sierra to Mammoth and Death Valley.
Sep 5, 2012 12:40 PM
5As is often pointed out here, car rental companies may prohibit the use of chains (to prevent damage from misuse). Check on that beforehand. In case of bad weather, Interstate 80 is usually kept clear even if Hwy. 50 is not, but you'd need to drive on smaller highways to get to Tahoe (North Shore; the rim road may be closed at least on one side). Highway 395 may also have chain controls, or even closure, if a big storm hits. Best idea is to stay very flexible on timing, though I realize that's not always easy when making hotel reservations. If 80 and 50 are closed, you can't get to Tahoe (you could get to DV via Hwy. 99 or I-5 and then Hwy. 58, etc., though it'd be boring), but if 395 is hampered, you can possibly avoid it by taking Highway 95 down the Nevada desert (certainly less scenic than 395 but could be open if 395 is not). Even highways over the mountains going from DV to L.A. can be closed by snow, or have chain controls, though usually not for a prolonged period of time. If Cajon Pass (I-15) is closed, try Hwy. 395 and Hwy. 14 (I prefer that route, anyway).
(btw, "rent" not "hire" a car in the U.S.).
Sep 5, 2012 2:06 PM
Sep 5, 2012 5:27 PM
7Thank you very much everyone for the big response!
My plan is:
December 8 – Fly HK-SFO.
December 11 – Collect hire car, drive SFO to Lake Tahoe.
December 13 – Drive Lake Tahoe – Bishop,
December 14 – Drive Bishop – Death Valley.
December 16 – Drive Death Valley – Baker/Barstow area.
December 17 – Drive Baker/Barstow – Palm Springs.
December 19 – Drice Palm Springs – LA.
December 23 – Return car to LAX, fly to London.
I know that car hire companies don’t like chains on their cars, and being not from North America I have never used them myself and would prefer not to. I have hired a small Chevrolet Aveo, which is definitely not the car many of you are thinking I should use!
It was the answers I feared, that Highway 395 could itself be closed or have a chain requirement. And I was surprised, but if roads can be closed even as far south as Death Valley I may have to re-think this whole plan. I enjoy mountain & desert scenery, that’s why I wanted to do SF-LA this way.
I know only a small part of Yosemite is open at this time, and I guess that what is accessible can only be reached with chains on the car. But perhaps I could still try it instead of Lake Tahoe and then get to Death Valley via Bakersfield.
I have already paid for our flight & car hire, I have reserved the motels at each stop through booking.com but can cancel free of charge.
Sep 5, 2012 5:40 PM
8If you were planning to get to Yosemite from Hwy 395 over the Tioga Pass ( Hwy 120) - the Tioga Pass
will most likely be closed for the winter. The altitude is such that they just can't plow it in the winter so
they close it.
Sep 5, 2012 5:45 PM
Sep 5, 2012 5:52 PM
11Is there a reason you're going with this itinerary? Lake Tahoe is nothing special beyond a large lake and gambling on the Reno side unless you're planning on skiing. Seeing real nature there will involve dealing with serious snow. Death Valley is obviously unique but far from everything. Palm Springs is basically a resort.
If you want nature, I would go with day trips around SF and then a drive down the coast to LA. And then an overnight trip to Palm Springs/Joshua Tree if you want to see the desert.
If Yosemite is a must, go there, see what you can see an then drive along the coast.
Sep 5, 2012 5:56 PM
12It means I think it has to be either Yosemite or Lake Tahoe. But if the weather is going to be a big problem it could mean neither! I already know that many of the passes over the mountains are closed during winter, and to get from Yosemite to 395 I think I will have to go either all the way south via Bakersfield or all the way north via Roads 50 or 80. But I'm still considering and open to suggestions!
Sep 5, 2012 6:11 PM
13Well, you'll be able to get to Lake Tahoe as long as you have an extra day in your plans in case you have
to wait out a snowfall. Yosemite is out from Hwy 395. If you opt for Yosemite- you will have to drop Tahoe.
Yosemite is 4 hours or so from San Francisco. Then. you'd have to drive south to Bakersfield on to Mojave
and north up 395 to get up to the Death Valley highways. The only snow possibility in a "normal" year with this route will be
into Yosemite. It is a lot of driving, though, to see Death Valley. It is your trip, though. Just make sure
you know how many hours driving you have cut out for you.
Sep 5, 2012 10:13 PM
14Frankly, I think the best option might be to fly from San Francisco to Vegas, then pick up a car there for the drive to Death Valley, Joshua Tree, Palm Springs, and on to LA (assuming you can get a one way rental - otherwise, just round trip from LA or Vegas). That's a good amount of stuff to see in a week (say, 5 days for Death Valley and 2 days for Joshua Tree and Palm Springs / surroundings), and it's unlikely you'd have to deal with serious winter weather issues on that route. Yosemite and Tahoe in the winter are nice and all, but you're asking for trouble with a tiny rental car, no chains, and a tight itinerary.
It looks like you have about 11 days for the trip, so assuming you spend a week at Death Valley and Palm Springs combined, you'd have 4 days to play with. If the weather is good you could still drive up 395 from Death Valley to take in the scenery (though not much to do in the winter except ski), or take a side trip from Vegas to Zion, Grand Canyon, or Bryce Canyon.
The recommendation in #11 to drive down the coast with a side trip inland to Death Valley and Palm Springs is also a good one. Could be wet along the coast, though - but still beautiful.
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