Driving through Sierra Nevada in December
Replies: 32 - Last Post: Sep 9, 2012 9:06 AM Last Post By: johnsang
Sep 5, 2012 10:26 PM
Good question. I suppose I'd assumed the OP was a skier, since that's the reason almost everybody goes to Tahoe and / or Mammoth in the winter. However, if his interest is merely "scenery" then it's a somewhat eccentric itinerary, especially if he's never been to Yosemite.
Again, whether or not you need chains to reach Yosemite in the winter depends entirely on if it's snowed recently or snow is in the forecast. And the "small part" of the park that is open is Yosemite Valley, the part most people are most keen to see.
If you don't opt for Yosemite, though, and if the weather is OK, I wouldn't take either US 50 or I 80 to Tahoe. I'd take Carson Pass (CA 88) which is by far the most scenic of the northern California passes that stay open in the winter. If the weather's bad, then 80 is the easiest route to drive.
Sep 5, 2012 11:42 PM
16Do you have the opportunity to amend your flight, and fly from Las Vegas to New York / London? It would make the trip much more efficient (unless you really wish to visit LA of course). We found there was no drop-off fee between San Francisco and Las Vegas.
But assuming you do have to (or wish to) end your trip in LA, then here is a suggested route (and these places are where you spend each night):
08 Dec - San Francisco
09 Dec - San Francisco
10 Dec - San Francisco
11 Dec - Monterey (Pacific Coast)
12 Dec - Monterey (Pacific Coast)
13 Dec - Yosemite NP
14 Dec - Yosemite NP
15 Dec - South Lake Tahoe (via Hwy 49 and Hwy 50 or Hwy 88)
16 Dec - South Lake Tahoe
17 Dec - Bishop or Lone Pine (via Hwy 395 if clear)
18 Dec - Death Valley NP
19 Dec - Death Valley NP
20 Dec - Los Angeles
21 Dec - Los Angeles
22 Dec - Los Angeles
You could easily vary it, depending on your interests, but keeping the basic thrust in shape. You see cities, coasts, mountains, national parks, and deserts - without outrageous daily driving. And you can book budget accommodation where very late cancellations or amendments are allowed, with no charge, in case you get waylaid somewhere.
Sep 6, 2012 9:48 AM
17I like ianw6705's itinerary - but on your tightish schedule you would need at least a "plan B", considering that you are not experienced in USA winter driving conditions. The Californians on the TT can doubtless do the details better than I can (and will hopefully correct me as appropriate), but, in my more limited experience:
- your odds on getting into Yosemite on CA140 on a given day without snow complications are pretty good, especially in earlier December (maybe 4 out of 5?); somewhat less good in later December, with some risk of multi-day complications then
- Tahoe is your major snow risk. Even when you get there, if a significant storm follows you in, you may find yourself waiting to get out (the roads eastward out of Tahoe can also have snow complications, though not quite so often as the roads in from the west). If you were to follow ianw6705's itinerary, check forecasts (and not just current road conditions) before heading there, and reconsider if a significant snowstorm is forecast on Dec 16-17
- US395, on the dry side of the Sierra, has far fewer bad snow days than the highways into Tahoe from the west, but can sometimes have a multi-day problem around Bridgeport / Lee Vining / Mammoth; as noted above, US95 (traversing an even drier area) is a much better bet, but not a sure thing if a major storm hits (a low but increasing risk as December passes); you will very probably be OK on 395 (and almost certainly on 95) if you can get out of Tahoe without complications, unless you depart with a major storm right on your tail
- snow complications getting into/ out of Death Valley are rare and are most likely to involve Towne Pass (CA 190 on west side); I suspect that snow complications on CA190 on the east side of Death Valley (a possible way out) might occur, at most, once every couple of years and that only for part of a morning (and that most likely in January); note that, using either 395 or 95, the passes into Death Valley for those routes are much less at risk of complication than summits farther north
- if plan B involves taking the relatively-unexciting-to-deadly-dull route around the south end of the Sierra, note that Tehachapi Pass on CA58 can have snow complications perhaps a couple of days per winter (though mostly in January); it's worth checking with CalTrans if there is a cold storm ... if Tehachapi Pass is OK, Towne Pass should be also (unless a really strong, cold storm is right on your tail) ... incidentally, I once encountered a partial-day closure on CA58 due to a dust storm (which reduced visibility to near zero)
Sep 6, 2012 11:52 AM
18Mountains are snow are pretty, for about 5 minutes. Then you're looking for a place to have a hot chocolate by the fire. And enjoying cold weather involves a substantial investment in winter clothing. Yes, you can find something at a thrift store, but it's still something you will need to buy and then wear. Oh and then there is figuring out how to get the heat in your car to just the right temperature. I'm not going to get into possible driving issues and the fact that there is not much light during the winter, so sightseeing hours are limited. And depending on your driving skills, you might want to avoid driving at night in conditions you're not familiar with.
So in a nutshell, go to Yosemite. Spend the night if you want to - get accomodations now. And then try the coast or Palm Springs.
The Lake Tahoe/US395 option is a big loop that once you start on, you're sort of committed to.
Sep 6, 2012 1:12 PM
19Snowy mountains are wonderful things ... I can gaze upon them (and drive through them) more or less forever. A fleece and a wind jacket cost almost nothing in a thrift store - and quite often it's the most interesting section in the place. There are good wintry thrifts in Estes Park, Flagstaff, and Ketchum, Idaho. Getting a car to a snug comfortable temperature and having no window fogging - takes some intelligence, but it's not rocket science.
I think mountains and deserts are the BEST places to go to in winter, and often, are best visited in winter, with crisp blue skies and fresh snow - nothing better. Beaches and sidewalks are ideal for summer - however there is nothing more dreary and spirit-sapping than the coast or a city in cool damp weather! If it's breezy also, the miserableness doubles ...
So OP - I think the rewards are great (especially in Option 5), and the risks are acceptably low - and you do have adequate work-arounds if ever required.
Sep 6, 2012 4:33 PM
20Thank you all! I’m very grateful for your helpful replies!
It was mentioned we should go to South Utah/North Arizona. That was what we did 2 years ago and it was fantastic, my best ever driving holiday. I think that no matter what we do this time in California, it won’t be as good as that!
We are a husband & wife. We are not skiers. We just want to make the best of our time touring California by car. I enjoy driving along scenic routes, especially through mountain ranges & deserts. Perhaps Highway 395 is nothing special?
I had originally included Palm Springs because it would be a base for a trip into Joshua Tree National Park. But that is not essential.
I’m now firmly persuaded that I should at least give Yosemite a try, I also like ianw6705s
route. Perhaps we’ll adopt that. Yes I must be flexible, I’ll need to find the relevant websites to get updates on the road conditions before I start my drive.
We end the trip at LA because we got a good deal flight with air New Zealand from there on to London. Plus my wife is demanding I take her to Disneyland!
Sep 6, 2012 6:28 PM
Sep 6, 2012 10:59 PM
On the contrary, 395 through the Owens Valley is a spectacular drive, one of the best in California, a "must" during summer road trips. In the summer, there's a ridiculous amount to see and do: Bodie State Park (a famous ghost town); Mono Lake; the White Mountains (especially for the Bristlecone pine forests--oldest living trees on Earth); gateway to the wilderness areas of the Eastern Sierra (Ansel Adams Wilderness, John Muir Wilderness, Devil's Postpile National Monument); etc.
Unfortunately, in the winter all the attractions (except Mono) are inaccessible and you'll mostly be confined to just admiring the abrupt wall of the Sierra rising thousands of feet on your right as you drive south. If the weather isn't cloudy, it can still be a beautiful drive with stunning long-distance views, but the weather is often cloudy in the winter.
Sep 7, 2012 4:54 AM
23Is there a traffic/weather/road closure website for the Sierra Nevada that I can check each morning before I start my days drive?
Sep 7, 2012 5:19 AM
Yes, on the CalTrans website here you can enter a road number and it will show you all weather-related or roadwork-related delays.
While you're there, it probably wouldn't hurt to read their winter driving tips.
Sep 7, 2012 5:22 AM
25Try http://www.dot.ca.gov/cgi-bin/roads.cgi but note the site disclaimers.
Sep 7, 2012 5:57 AM
26We did a deep-winter road-trip through the four-corner states ... the rental company provided "winter tyres" and we were fine - we stuck primarily to the roads that were ploughed and cleared, and my goodness they (the various state DOTs) did a great job. By about 7:00am everything was kosher, despite the overnight snow storms.
Sep 7, 2012 8:27 AM
27As zashibis indicates, US395 (especially from about 30km north of Bridgeport to Lone Pine) is a most scenic drive - if the weather allows you to see it, which it frequently does in the winter. Apart from the Owens Valley (fairly broad, but with mountain ranges reaching 14,000 feet / 4200m on each side) and the increasingly high, snowy wall of the Sierra to the west as you drive south, there is the spectacular panorama of Mono Lake just south of Conway Summit.
Snowstorms on the west slopes (and, to a lesser degree, the east slopes) of the Sierra Nevada are considerably more frequent and more severe than in the four corners area.
If checking conditions for multiple highways in CA,
is another option that might be faster, especially if your connection is slow.
All California text weather forecasts (as well as some areas of adjoining states) can be found at
among other places.
Yosemite text forecast:
Text forecast for "West Slope Northern Sierra Nevada" (includes I-80 west of summit) is embedded in
Text forecasts for Greater Lake Tahoe Area and "Mono" (US395) are embedded in:
Text forecast for Death Valley National Park is embedded in:
Edited by: fdbaz link fixed
Edited by: fdbaz
Sep 7, 2012 2:06 PM
28My goodness ... give the guy a break ... he's doing a pleasant little drive along all-weather highways up to Tahoe and down to Death Valley ... not planning a polar expedition. So I think people are going a little overboard with both the risks involved and the information sources required.
Turn on the TV news at breakfast and you will get all the weather and traffic updates you need ... probably more.
Sep 7, 2012 4:38 PM
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