Always wait until it's safe to travel, and remember that just because a storm has passed, travel will not necessarily have returned to normal immediately.
The Lake Tahoe region is one of the most beautiful places on earth, especially in winter. And it's no wonder that so many of us in the Bay Area want to drive up there at this time of year.
But traveling in the mountains of Tahoe in winter is a serious business — especially if you've never lived somewhere with frequent snowfall, and don't have a ton of experience with winter driving just yet. And nobody wants their trip marked by delays, car trouble, road closures or even a serious accident on these winter roads.
If you're hoping to visit the Lake Tahoe region this winter and want to make sure you're as prepared as possible for a safe journey, keep reading for our guide on what to know about traveling to Tahoe.
Why it's so important to know how to drive safely to Tahoe
Caltrans' own winter driving guidance articulates just how variable winter mountain driving can be, noting that it can be "a pleasant adventure or it can be frustrating, tiring and sometimes even hazardous." This is not an exaggeration, and driving to and around Tahoe during the winter should always be something you truly come prepared for, rather than hoping for the best.
Most folks in the Tahoe region completely understand why people from out of town want to visit this beautiful part of California in winter, says Steve Nelson, public information officer for Caltrans District 3, which covers the region. But "the No. 1 problem by far," he says, "is that motorists head out the door without being prepared for the conditions."
And a storm in the Tahoe area is no joke, especially on roads at such high elevation — well over 7,000 feet on both the Donner Pass on Interstate 80 and Echo Summit on Highway 50. "And when you're talking about 4 to 6 feet of snow, and people that have never driven in it before, it can get pretty, pretty gnarly," says Nelson, who notes that "it has already this season."
How to check the weather and road conditions
Weather predictions can evolve and change on a dime, and a storm can suddenly switch gears and arrive sooner (or later) than first forecast.
This is why it's important not just to keep checking the weather forecast for the area of Tahoe you're visiting, but to make sure you're getting information that's as reliable as possible. During periods of extreme weather, officials will urge you not to travel for any nonessential reasons, and stay off the roads whenever possible. You should always heed these advisories.
Trust the experts (not a quick Google search)
The National Weather Service's Reno office offers an online Lake Tahoe weather report you can consult. The National Weather Service's presences on Twitter are also frequently updated sources of information about Tahoe weather, and you don't have to have a Twitter account to see their tweets. Check:
Nelson says that while these Twitter accounts are very frequently updated and get a lot of inquiries from the public, drivers need to remember that they're "not a 24/7 resource" and should be realistic about using these accounts as a source of real-time help. ("A lot of times we'll get messages in the middle of the night saying, 'Hey, can I get up to Tahoe?,' and we're not monitoring Twitter at three in the morning," says Nelson.)
You can find subscription-only weather forecasting services as well, like Open Snow (which offers a free seven-day trial). These paid services often promise to give a greater degree of granularity around forecasts and longer-range predictions.
If you're heading up to Tahoe for winter sports, consider also checking the website and social media of any resort you're hoping to visit, as they will almost certainly be featuring weather reports and predictions. For example, Heavenly in South Lake Tahoe has a Twitter account (@HVconditions), which gives status reports on mountain operations and weather forecasts — with a focus on when there's a risk of wind holds for chairlifts and terrain closures.
Remember: A resort warning you that weather might affect their operations is a good sign it's the kind of weather you should take seriously when it comes to travel.
This map uses Caltrans' own data to show you the latest road conditions and travel information, so you can be prepared ahead of time.
When first using QuickMap, be sure to hit "Options" on either the website or the app, and select all the options you want to see on the map, including:
Once you've done this, you'll be able to either select the location "Tahoe" under "Locations," or swipe and zoom over to your desired area on the map, just as you would using Google Maps. You can then tap on the icons you see on the map, to learn more about what they mean. This is especially important when it comes to chain controls, which often apply to different kinds of vehicles.
Use QuickMap before setting off on your travels and — if it's safe to do so — during your journey, as conditions and chain requirements can develop fast in the Tahoe area. Don't let warm, sunny and dry conditions in the Bay Area lull you into a false sense of security about the weather you'll encounter up in the mountains.
Know when it's safe to travel — and be prepared to delay a trip
It's always frustrating when plans change. But delaying, postponing or even canceling a trip to Tahoe is often the safest thing to do when weather means you'll be battling hazardous conditions to get there.
Nelson says that during the fierce storms over the New Year, "it was nonstop" for Caltrans and the California Highway Patrol, rescuing stranded motorists on Interstate 80 and Highway 50. He notes that often, it's the fact that people have travel plans they don't want to cancel or lose money on that convinces folks to attempt the drive to Tahoe despite bad weather, with little to no winter driving experience.
"They desperately want to get up to Tahoe and they don't really care what's going on outside," he says. "So that's when we run into problems."
Remember, even if you're secure in your own mountain driving abilities, not everyone on the road is — and bad weather can mean accidents between vehicles that can cause traffic jams, delays and even road closures. This is just another reason to consider delaying or canceling a planned Tahoe trip because of weather: Do you really want to be stuck on I-80 for seven hours? At the least, you might consider delaying your travel until weather passes to have a better chance of a smoother journey.
If you're traveling to Tahoe for winter sports, remember, too, that just because it's snowing, or has recently snowed, a ski resort is not necessarily operational and does not necessarily have all their terrain open. High winds frequently mean that resort chairlifts can be placed on wind hold or closed for the day, especially on the upper mountain. Sometimes, strong storms mean loss of power to the resorts, and equipment like chairlifts can get iced over and become nonoperational. In short: You could battle the worst weather and road conditions to make it to the resort of your choice, only to find that the resort isn't even able to open.
If the worst happens, and you realize you need to change your trip, don't assume you'll lose all your money from postponing. While hotels and ski resorts often won't let you outright cancel your prepaid purchases due to weather, you might find you can change the date itself free of charge.
Consider calling the hotel or resort directly, being prepared to be patient and courteous (and mindful that you might be one of many folks making the same call) and ask them what's possible.
Chain control: Do I have the right vehicle for Tahoe?
Know exactly what 'chain control' means
Chain control is a reality of traveling to and around the Tahoe region, and you shouldn't travel to Tahoe without knowing about it.
"Chains" is a catchall term for a traction device that's fitted onto the tires of a vehicle's drive wheels and gives that vehicle more traction on snowy and icy roads. These can look like link-type chains, or what's called alternative traction devices (ATD), which can include cable chains, textile snow chains, wheel-hub-attached chains and automatic tire chains.
California has three levels of chain requirements ("R"). R1 applies to the heaviest vehicles, like trucks. R2 is the chain requirement that applies most to drivers of passenger cars headed up to Tahoe. (R3 chain control requires chains on all vehicles, even those with AWD and snow tires, although it's more likely a road would be closed outright before R3 chain controls were implemented.)
How do I know if I need chains?
R2 chain control means that unless your vehicle has all-wheel drive (AWD, also known as four-wheel drive) and snow-tread tires on all four wheels, you need to use chains on your vehicle.
This means that if you have AWD but no snow-tread tires, you need to install chains on your car in a chain control area.
Less commonly, if you have snow-tread tires but no AWD, you also need to use chains.
Caltrans says that you'll usually have "about a mile" between "Chains Required" signs and any chain control checkpoint to install your chains. You can be cited and fined by the California Highway Patrol for not observing chain controls in Tahoe. Read more from Caltrans about chain control requirements.
Don't assume your AWD vehicle has the right tires
"All-wheel drive is useless if you don't have the right tires," says Nelson. So how do you know whether your vehicle has snow-tread tires?
They'll say "mud and snow" on the tires themselves, usually marked as "M + S." You might also see a snowflake symbol on the sidewall.
Even if you have AWD and snow-tread tires, you should still carry chains
You may be asked to show these chains in your vehicle at a checkpoint. For that reason, it's a good idea to have them clearly visible in your car so a Caltrans worker can see they're present.
Rental cars might not let you use chains
It's totally understandable to want to rent a vehicle to travel up to Tahoe — maybe you're flying into a nearby airport like Sacramento or Reno, or you need a car that carries a larger party for your trip.
But there's one thing you absolutely must know about: Many rental car companies will not allow you to fit chains or other traction devices on the tires of your rental car. And if you've rented a car that doesn't have mud and snow tires — even if it has AWD — and you hit an area where R2 chain control is in effect, a Caltrans chains checkpoint will make you turn around.
This is something that happens "pretty frequently," confirms Nelson, who says he and his Caltrans colleagues see drivers of rental cars without mud and snow tires "basically pleading, begging" to be allowed through a Tahoe chain control checkpoint without chains.
"It's not going to matter," says Nelson. "We're going to turn them around, because it's a safety factor for us."
Always check directly with your rental car company about their chain installation policy. Some rental companies will also let you filter results for cars on their site by whether they have mud and snow tires, before you book.
How do I know whether chain control is in effect where I'm traveling?
If chain control is in effect in an area, you'll see signs on the road indicating this. They'll either look like permanent black signs on the side of the road, flipped around so they're facing oncoming traffic, or illuminated signs over the highway. On lower-elevation areas of roads like I-80, Highway 50 and Highway 88, you may also see illuminated road signs giving you the heads-up about chain controls up ahead.
Certain roads may also have a Caltrans checkpoint at the start of a chain control area, staffed by Caltrans workers. At these checkpoints, Caltrans staff will manually verify whether you have the required vehicle and tires to go through the checkpoint.
If you don't have AWD and snow-tread tires, they'll ask you to pull over or turn around to install chains on your vehicle. If you aren't carrying chains, you will be asked to turn around and leave the area the way you came.
Even if there's no checkpoint, or road authority staff present in a chain control area, you still need to pull over safely and install your chains, if your vehicle needs them. You might hit a checkpoint further up the road, or have a Caltrans staffer or California Highway Patrol officer pull you over if you don't have chains in a chain control area, where you can be fined.
Whether you're having someone fit your chains for you, or installing them yourself, you must only pull over to the right and fit your chains in an area where it's safe, which will almost certainly be in a designated chain installation area off the side of the road. You must not block the road to fit your chains, or risk your safety (or that of others) when installing your chains. Jump to more information about installing chains in chain control areas.
How do I know which chains I should buy or rent for my vehicle?
Check your vehicle's manual for any information about which chain-style traction devices are recommended (or even prohibited, as with certain vehicles). The exact chains or other traction devices you buy will also depend on your tires' size. You can find your tire size on the sidewall of your tires, which will start with a "P."
You can buy chains up in the Tahoe region, and in fact you'll see several businesses along major entry roads to the Lake Tahoe area advertising their chains. Buying chains in Tahoe when you need them might well be more expensive than purchasing them back in the Bay Area, especially during periods of strong weather and frequent chain control.
Option 1 for chain installation: Pay someone to fit your chains for you
At chain control checkpoints, you'll very often see chain installers who can do it for you — for a price.
These installers aren't Caltrans employees, says Nelson, but they're contracted and permitted through the agency. A usual price for this would be $40 to install chains, and $20 to remove them at the point where chain control ends, but "sometimes they'll raise their rates depending on the need," advises Nelson.
Caltrans makes clear that these independent chain installers are not allowed to sell or rent chains to you — only fit or remove ones you already have. The agency also recommends that if you pay an installer to fit your chains, you should get a receipt and "jot the installer's badge number on it," which they say "may help with any misunderstandings later."
But remember, not all areas where chain control is in effect will have contracted installers on hand to fit your chains for you. That's why it's a good idea to opt for the second option ...
Option 2 for chain installation: Learn how to do it yourself (recommended)
"If you can [fit your chains] yourself, you're going to save some time and some money," says Nelson.
If you've never installed chains before, you will find it tricky and time-consuming the first few times you practice. This is why it's a really good idea to do several of these "practice rounds" at home on your own street or driveway. "You definitely don't want your first time putting chains on to be actually up on the mountain," warns Nelson.
Remember, you could very well find yourself installing chains for real at a chain control checkpoint in the dark, or when it's very cold, or actively snowing or raining. Consider packing a headlamp (or a flashlight for someone else to hold), and fingerless gloves to allow you to maneuver the chain links.
For true realism, also consider practicing installing your chains at home at night, or even when it's raining — because that could well be the environment in which you're doing this for real in the mountains, at much higher elevation and in the freezing cold.
Advice for safer driving in Tahoe in the winter
Preparing yourself and your vehicle for a winter journey
You'll need to prepare more for a winter journey in Tahoe than you usually would for travel outside the mountains. In addition to making sure your vehicle's in good working order (brakes, wipers, heater, etc.), you'll need to carry chains (see above).
Make sure you also have as much fuel as possible at all times. Not only could gas become more expensive as you approach the mountains, but you could be delayed or even held on the road, which will burn up the fuel in your tank. Gaining elevation as you ascend into the mountains will also use more gas. Running out of gas at the best of times is no fun — running out of gas at 7,000 feet of elevation in a freezing blizzard is way worse.
Since winter travel brings with it the possibility of delays, or even being stuck on a road when it's closed due to weather, it's also a good idea to have the following items in your car:
Food and water
A shovel, in case you need to dig your vehicle out of snow
An ice scraper
Don't always follow Google Maps and co.
Strong weather can mean more traffic, and navigation apps like Google Maps, Apple Maps and Waze can sometimes suggest alternative routes to save you time, or "shortcuts."
In the mountains, and especially during or just after bad weather, you should be very wary of taking these shortcuts. That's because your navigation app very well might not account for weather or road conditions on the side roads it's recommending, and you could find yourself on a steep, unplowed road that's not safe for your particular vehicle to drive in winter conditions.
If in doubt, stick to the main, plowed roads, even if there's traffic.
Take it slow
You'll see the words "Ice and snow, take it slow" on road signs in Tahoe, and you should heed the advice — especially in areas with chain control, which is in effect for a reason.
"It is tricky driving in snow and ice, but I'll tell you, if people actually drove the speed limit in chain controls, they'd have no issues on Interstate 80," says Nelson. "It's 30 miles an hour. And on Highway 50, it's 25 miles an hour in chain checkpoint areas."
If you adhere to the speed limits, says Nelson, "then you're fine. It's the people that still try to drive 55, 60 miles an hour in snow. That's when problems start."
Leave far more braking distance between you and the car ahead than you normally would. If cars behind you are clearly trying to go much faster than you, that's their issue. Pull over only when it's safe to do so, and let them pass.
Remember, when you finally reach the Tahoe area ...
... you might be glad you brought the shovel mentioned above if you wake up at your hotel or accommodation to find your car has accumulated several feet of snow overnight. (Hotels will often provide shovels, too, but they'll be shared among many guests trying to do the same thing.)
Be sure to brush as much of the snow off the top of your vehicle as you can before leaving a parking lot. If you don't, a large sheet of snow can later fall off your car — either blocking your own windshield, or falling onto the road (or the car) behind you and causing a potential hazard to other motorists. Caltrans suggests you could even bring a broom in your car for this purpose, if snow is forecast during your stay. At the very least, it's a courtesy to your fellow motorists — at the most, you'll avoid causing a potentially serious accident.
Finally, remember: You don't have to drive to go to Tahoe
If all of this advice about winter driving is making you reconsider driving up to Tahoe, but you still really want to visit the mountains, you should know there are several public and private options for traveling to Tahoe other than driving.