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Reassurance needed - driving from San Francisco to Tahoe

 Poster: A snowHead
Poster: A snowHead
We are off to Lake Tahoe at Christmas, and are picking up a Midsize SUV (Chevrolet Equinox or similar) at San Fran airport. Hubby will be doing the driving, but as a self-confessed control freak with a speciality in excessive worrying, I am very concerned about both the journey to Lake Tahoe and driving around the resorts once we're there.

It has been mentioned that snow chains at San Fran cannot be guaranteed, and that vehicles hired this far away from the snow aren't always the best equipped for driving to and around the lake.

We're staying in Heavenly, but intend to try out a few other resorts using the hire vehicle. Also worried about getting stuck somewhere if the weather gets bad.

Can anyone offer any reassurance or advice, other than "snow will be crap in December, it won't be a problem!"?
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 Obviously A snowHead isn't a real person
Obviously A snowHead isn't a real person
We have been to Tahoe on three occasions....admittedly later than you in March and April....and have never had any major issues. We always went for an SUV and it always had winter tires. We never had any problem at any chain control points...they tended just to wave through any 4wd vehicle. Nobody carried out any in depth examination of our tires and certainly never asked if we had chains in the vehicle, which we didnt. That said we were never there in a major storm, but we were there at times when it was snowing (quite a lot by my standards but maybe not by theirs).

They seem to have two types of weather, a lot of sun and relatively short sharp storms which dump lots of snow. On the law of averages you should get sun, but you might be unlucky. If so, simple common sense and a weather forecast comes in handy......they usually arent surprised when the snow comes so you dont get caught unawares.

The drive from San Fran is pretty easy. We were going to the North end of the Lake and wanted to go to Reno first so we were on Interstate all the way to Reno. You leave the Interstate to get to the Lake and you climb whichever route you take. You may want to look at the weather and plan which route you want to do thereonce you leave the Interstate. In good weather the Mount Rose Highway (the one we took to go there) was fine but would be less so in a blizzard. There are probably other, better routes to get you to South Lake Tahoe.

Getting about whilst you are there, for us, was never an issue as not much snow fell at Lake level when we were there....when it did fall it fell at the higher elevations where the skiing is.

In short we have spent almost 6 weeks there over 3 holidays and I have had much worse driving in Scotland, where I live, with about a tenth of the snowfall in any storm.
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 Well, the person's real but it's just a made up name, see?
Well, the person's real but it's just a made up name, see?
Well not to alarm you too much as it's not THAT likely - but we were there last New Year (same as you, stayed in Heavenly and explored around). We hired an SUV, and we absolutely needed the snow chains, it was impossible to get up the hill to our chalet without them on a couple of days, and they were checking cars for them at the police point on one of the days. Though apparently if you have 4wd they are OK with that - but we found we did need them once - the winter tyres were not that great on the hire car.

Our car didn't have them so we bought a set. If the weather looks bad or you're worried, do this in SF if you don't get them with the car. They're not expensive (30 dollars?) if you don't get them in the resort. If you're super efficient you could pre-order them very cheaply online and have them delivered somewhere (any accomodation you have booked in SF?)

You CAN always gamble and get them there if you need them but they are around twice the price.

We gave them to a friend in San Francisco afterwards - otherwise I guess maybe you could give them to someone in Tahoe before you leave. Or maybe there are separate rental agencies for the chains?

The road to Tahoe is very well travelled, especially at Christmas I'd imagine, but you can always take the usual precautions if you're worried - make sure you have food, water etc. You'll have plenty of warm clothes with you anyway of course!


The road to the North Tahoe resorts (Squaw valley, Alpine etc) was closed because of the snow most of the time we were there, so we only drove to Kirkwood and Sierra - both of which I liked very much and preferred to Heavenly)

It was all cool though because we had great snow!!
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Quote:

Can anyone offer any reassurance or advice, other than "snow will be crap in December, it won't be a problem!"?

Christmas/New Year condition can range from bone dry piste to several feet of snow on the highway. So you do need to be prepared.

Quote:

It has been mentioned that snow chains at San Fran cannot be guaranteed, and that vehicles hired this far away from the snow aren't always the best equipped for driving to and around the lake.

There's no requirement to have chains in the car, as long as you have snow tires. The definition of "snow tire" is a certain thread depth. You can look at up at the California DOT site. In practice, all SUV have such "snow legal" tires.

Much better to note down the phone number of DOT road condition report and check prior to heading up the mountain. So you know what to expect. If the recording say "drivers are advise to take alternate route", do as adviced. (There's but one mountain pass there, I believe the section most likely to present problem is called "Immigrant Pass", near Truckee). In pratice, there's no alternative. It's just another way of saying "don't bother coming up unless you fancy sleeping in your car for the night".

Now, I know this is unpopular advice. But I've lived in snowy places for quite many years. My approach of winter driving is to do minimal amount of driving and try NOT to drive when it's actually snowing, especially during the time when it's snowy HARD! Wait a few hours for it to subside, you'll have a much easier drive and still arrive about the same time. Smile

The drive from SF to Tahoe is only about 4 hours, give or take. But if it's actually snowing, it can turn into a 6 or more hours depending on how much snow has fallen. One year, the road was closed, stranded all traffic for 2 days! There's really not much you can do about that, chain or no chain. So, check the weather forecast the day before you have to leave. If a BIG storm is coming, you may want to consider heading out BEFORE it hits. Or you may risk missing your flight...

Having said all that, storms in the Sierra comes infrequently, and tend not to last for too long. So you chance of getting caught in one isn't that high. Driving around Tahoe isn't too big of a deal.
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 Anyway, snowHeads is much more fun if you do.
Anyway, snowHeads is much more fun if you do.
Generally if you have a 4x4 SUV with mud and snow tyres (standard on most SUVs) then you will pass any chain control with no problem. Cal Dot very rarely do a chain check for actually carrying chains, and they are more likely to close roads before you'd need them on a 4x4. There's a 1-800 number you can call to check the roads, or use the web site (I don't have my US phone at the moment or I would give you the number!)

Driving to Tahoe is easy - I-80 to Sacramento and then Rt 50 to South Lake Tahoe - it is very well signed. Just don't leave SF at 4pm on a Friday - you'll spend 3 hours going nowhere! North Lake (Truckee, Tahoe City) is even easier since it is I-80 all the way. It's very rare that the major roads are closed for very long - I-80 is a main truck route in to CA so only closes during heavy snow fall, and then for as short a time as possible.

Driving to the Norh Shore from Heavenly shouldn't be a problem since there are two ways around the lake, but the West Shore (rt 89), through Emerald Bay, sometimes closes due to avalanche danger and the nasty hair-pin bend. Rt 28 usually is fine, but it does sometimes snow heavier than the plows can clear quickly. The main roads are plowed almost continuously during storms, and the minor roads anywhere from every 2 hours to once a day, depending on where you are.

The roads round the lake clear pretty quickly once it stops snowing - the counties have spent a lot of money on plows recently! - so you shouldn't have any problems.

Most people are used to driving in snow around Tahoe so there doesn't seem to be that much trouble in the snow - just take normal winter driving precautions.

Just enjoy your holiday, and if you get to Squaw say hi!
Oh, and welcome to snowheads! snowHead
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You'll need to Register first of course.
This will give you the phone number to call and some other stuff

http://www.dot.ca.gov/hq/roadinfo/wntrdriv.htm

The chain requirements are

Chain Requirements:

* R1: Chains, traction devices or snow tires are required on the drive axle of all vehicles except four wheel/ all wheel drive vehicles.
* R2: Chains or traction devices are required on all vehicles except four wheel/ all wheel drive vehicles with snow-tread tires on all four wheels.
(NOTE: Four wheel/all wheel drive vehicles must carry traction devices in chain control areas.)
* R3: Chains or traction devices are required on all vehicles, no exceptions.

The brochure that you can download on the website says that normally they would close the road entirely before they got to R3.
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 Then you can post your own questions or snow reports...
Then you can post your own questions or snow reports...
In reality, for the 3 years I lived in the area, I've only seen R1 (often).

Never seen R2 except for commercial big trucks.

Never seen R3. They just close the road (once or twice a winter depeds on your luck).
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 After all it is free Go on u know u want to!
After all it is free Go on u know u want to!
Thanks everyone. You've given me some excellent advice and it's much appreciated.

Look out for my Lake Tahoe trip report in January!
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You'll get to see more forums and be part of the best ski club on the net.
just to add to what everyone else has stated, it's worth checking when your flight gets into San Fran.

The timing of our flight meant we hit the afternoon/early eve rush hour and as pollittcl, mentioned it took us the best part of 3hrs to get out of San Fran and although the drive up to Heavenly is straight forward it took us a good 6hrs which after considering the flight we'd had and the fact that last part of the drive up and over the mountains around the lake was in the dark it ended up being pretty tiring & stressful.

We we're advised before we went to check into a cheap travel lodge type hotel in San Fran get a bit of rest and the get up early for the drive to Tahoe, advise i ignored, but will deff do next time i visit.
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 Ski the Net with snowHeads
Ski the Net with snowHeads
I dont want to worry you but you really do need decent tyres on the vehicle. 4x4 rented from San Fran is very unlikely to have winter tyres with the snow flake on them. I even struggled getting one from Reno and that's only an hour away.

On the road from Kirwood to Heavenly a storm rolled in and I ended up doing a 720 on the road with a massive ditch on each side... just missed a couple of cars.. hit some slush at the edge of the road.

My huge 4x4 Shogan was great I thought but didn't have snow tyres so was actually pretty useless in the snow. At the time I wasn't that experienced at driving in the snow and maybe i thought I had golden dangly bits or something ! But I'd do everything possible to get a car with winter tyres on it as that will then mean a very stable and secure ride.

I know have an A6 Quattro and I put winter tyres on every season and it makes a huge difference. I see so many brits in their X5's spinnig all over the place. You are better off with a 2 wheel drive car with winter tyres than a 4x4 with road tyres.

Don't want to worry you, but I believe this is advice that will be valued in the future as when storms come into Tahoe they are normally fairly big.

Alex
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The 4x4s I've had from San Francisco airport have all had snow and mud tyres (which I believe aren't quite the same thing as winter tyres). There are a few tricky bits to beware of even if it's not snowing hard, particularly one of the bridges on i80 near Donner Pass iirc, which can get super icy.
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 Dave Spart
Dave Spart
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There are places en route that offer to fit chains should the need arise.

I have done the trip in a Ford Taurus and Chevrolet Metro. Never had chains.

You can get one way rental from Avis and Hertz. Good offers going back to San Francisco.

Car not absolutely necessary in South Lake Tahoe for Heavenly, Sierra, Kirkwood and Squaw Valley.
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 So if you're just off somewhere snowy come back and post a snow report of your own and we'll all love you very much
So if you're just off somewhere snowy come back and post a snow report of your own and we'll all love you very much
It was necessary when I was there, last New Year. They weren't running the buses on several of the days because of the snow.

btw this is a really good bar in Meyers on the outskirts of S.Lake Tahoe, on the way to both sierra and kirkwood. You'll see it from the road. We stopped for apres there several times, and the food is really good and not expensive. There's a place that will fit snow chains next to it as I remember, too!
http://www.thedividedsky.com/about.php
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 You know it makes sense.
You know it makes sense.
Alex A wrote:
I dont want to worry you but you really do need decent tyres on the vehicle. 4x4 rented from San Fran is very unlikely to have winter tyres with the snow flake on them. I even struggled getting one from Reno and that's only an hour away.

Alex, I've NEVER seen rental cars with snow tyres! So forget about it. After all it's not to the best interest of the rental company to put snow tyres on their cars (it wears faster on dry road).

But all SUV's have deep thead tyres which are "snow legal".

Whether you end up in a ditch or not is largely down to the driver. The common mistake is going too fast FOR THE CONDITION. The mistake is most likely made by people who have little winter driving experience, but think they're invincible because of their viehcle (or tyres)!

To be fair, for those who haven't driven on snow much, they really have no way of knowing what is too fast and what is not. Going by the same speed as other car is NOT a good indication. Many of those fast cars DO have snow (or even studed) tyres. And the rest are only minutes away from the ditch next to the one you'll be in (if you drive at their speed)!


Last edited by You know it makes sense. on Wed 21-10-09 18:31; edited 3 times in total
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 Otherwise you'll just go on seeing the one name:
Otherwise you'll just go on seeing the one name:
alibongo42, you'll be fine snowHead

On the smaller roads most locals are fairly cautious, they know the bad bits and drive accordingly. You can always do a brake test when you start - drive slowly (less than 10mph in my case) on a straight empty road and put your brakes on hard, if you have trouble stopping it's a slippy day!

During chain control the speed limit is 25mph (35mph on the freeway) and you'll see 4 kinds of drivers - locals who drive fairly fast in dryish snow (45-55 mph) so will over take you, tourists who drive fast and you'll see them in the ditch around the next bend, locals who drive slowly at or just above the speed limit and get there eventually (and who get called names by their friends), and tourists who drive slowly and either get there or get stuck because they have a 2wd without chains! If you're driving slowly (which is what I do) then keep over to the side of the road so other can pass - that's their problem! snowHead

As for the kind of tires you have mud and snows are counted as snow tires for CalDot, usually. They will have M&S on them, or sometimes they have a mountain/snowflake on them.

If you need to fit chains on the freeway there are always chain fitters at the point where chain control starts, and finishes. They are licensed so it's fine to use them. Cost is about $30 to fit, and $20 to remove (you supply the chains) although the prices might be higher this year.

While I don't want you to get stuck in the snow I do hope you have to drive in it! Shocked snowHead
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 Poster: A snowHead
Poster: A snowHead
Hi Alibongo,

I've done the SF to Tahoe drive dozens of times (used to live in SF). Just to add a couple of points to the above;

i) Make sure the SUV you hire is 4WD. Some are 2WD(!). You should be fine to get this sorted at the rental desk, but maybe worth calling them in advance.

ii) As someone else mentioned, Tahoe snow tends to be somewhat infrequent, but very heavy when it arrives. On one occasion when I was there the snow started at 4pm on a Saturday. By Sunday morning there was c. 3ft and by later in the day up to 5ft. I-80 remained open but was down to one lane with all traffic crawling at less than 5mph. The drive back to SF took 11 hours instead of the usual 4. If this looks like happening on your last day, ditch any thoughts of skiing and leave ASAP...

Make sure you check out Kirkwood whilst you're there - great little area about 30 mins South of Heavenly.

Cheers
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 Obviously A snowHead isn't a real person
Obviously A snowHead isn't a real person
Relax, Highway 88 has nothing on the A939! snowHead

(well about 6000ft at the summit, but still..... Laughing )
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 Well, the person's real but it's just a made up name, see?
Well, the person's real but it's just a made up name, see?
alibongo42, When we did tahoe a couple of years ago we drive an SUV from San francisco like you. I paid for snow chains 'just in case'.

No probs on the way there, but on the day we left it was blizzarding and the snow piled up quickly. We got about 3 miles from Tahoe and the signs started up saying fit chains now. So I pulled over and spent 30 minutes frezzing my fingers getting the bl**dy things on. Drove half a mile down the road and met a gang of fitters who would have charged me just 20 dollars to fit them for me, and only another 30 dollars to sell me a set.

As we came out of the mountains there was another gang who this time I took advantage of who removed the chains for me for £20 dollars.

Moral of the story - If I do the trip again I'll pay for chains only if I need them, and buy them from the fitters on the road. snowHead

GL Tahoe is great, we skied at heavenly and it was.
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I second Kirkwood - really liked it there.
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 Anyway, snowHeads is much more fun if you do.
Anyway, snowHeads is much more fun if you do.
Well, we took the "buy them if we need them" option, and were lucky not to need them. We got a good selection of vehicles to choose from at SF and picked a 4WD jeep. The best we were going to get at the airport was the snow and mud tyres.

We used the websites suggested on this thread to keep up to date with road conditions, and used the free shuttle bus to get to Sierra (it was really icy that day), and to Heavenly on days when we didn't plan to start and finish at the same base lodge. This also minimised those marital arguments surrounding driving abilities, or lack of wink

Drove to Kirkwood with no issues.

The only time we passed a chain control point was the day we drove back to SF. As advised above, the guy barely batted an eyelid when he saw we were 4WD.

Had we needed to buy chains, Safeway ($30 - $60, depending on type) would have been our store of choice.

Thanks again for all your advice. I'll get my trip report up soon!

Brief comments: Overall, had a great time. Enjoyed the slopes at Kirkwood and Sierra much more than Heavenly. Heavenly disappointed me a little in that I'm at the stage of enjoying steeper European reds, and their blues are fairly easy, but the blacks too hard for me (I don't do bumpy). While not an issue for us, once off the slopes you would never know anyone else was also on a ski/board holiday. Probably because a lot of them aren't and lots of (very friendly) people were local and had only travelled there for the day.
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