Top Tips for Mountain Travel in the Winter

With 400 inches of average snowfall a year, Mammoth Lakes has one of the best winter snowpacks in the West.

Most winter travelers visit Mammoth for skiing and snowboarding, snowmobiling and sightseeing, but with winter recreation comes winter travel and sometimes it is not as smooth as we all hope.

A big snowpack means plenty of snowstorms and travel can be difficult, even dangerous. The best way to handle mountain travel in the winter is to be prepared physically and mentally. Flexibility and a positive attitude is key.

What to Pack in Your Car for Mountain Travel

If you are driving to Mammoth Lakes for a winter vacation, be prepared for snowstorms. The region can have treacherous storms with rain, hail, and snow even in the summer. It’s best to be ready for weather anytime you are traveling in the mountains, but even more so in the winter months. You’ll want to pack a few things in your car in case of weather delays.

Always carry snow chains for your vehicle in the winter months. Even if you own a four-wheel-drive or all-wheel-drive vehicle, snow chains are sometimes required and the Highway Patrol will check to make sure you have them. Have an ice scraper and shovel handy in your vehicle, so you can clear your windshield of ice and snow, and dig your car out of the snow.

Pack warm blankets and extra clothing in your car when driving in the mountains. The extra warmth will make a delay or road closure more comfortable. Water and snacks are also nice to have handy for delays and in general during winter travel. The speed of travel can be slow and there are long distances between amenities on Highway 395.

Tips for Winter Travel

Before you set out on your mountain adventure, check Cal Trans for road conditions. If a storm is happening, check back often as conditions can change quickly in the mountains. Call 800-427-7623 or visit Cal Trans online for up to the minute highway conditions.

There are different categories of road conditions and chain controls issued by Cal Trans used to communicate the degree of hazard on the roads: R1: Chains are required, snow tread tires allowed; R2: Chains are required on all vehicles except four-wheel-drive vehicles with snow tires on all four wheels; R3: Chains are required – all vehicles – no exceptions.

Many mountain passes are closed in the winter. If you are planning on crossing the Sierra Nevada, check the highways before you go. Tioga Pass, Sonora Pass, and Monitor Pass are all high elevation mountain routes that are closed seasonally. Plan accordingly if you want to travel to Mammoth from Yosemite or the Bay Area.

Anytime you travel in the mountains you are advised to slow down and enjoy the experience of mountain travel. Driving in snow or icy conditions can be stressful and will only be more dangerous at higher speeds. Even if there is not a storm shaded or north-facing areas can have snow or ice on the roads. Be sure to read all road signs as speed limits are changed during weather events and travel advisories are often posted.

Keep your car fueled when driving in the mountains. There are long distances between gas stations on some sections of the highway. When driving in the winter you may experience travel delays or may be turned around.

Do not try to take side roads to get around road closures. If the highway is closed, there is a reason for it. Cal Trans does a great job of maintaining the road and clearing it of snow. Chances are Highway 395 is in better condition than any detour routes you may try, and heading off on alternate routes can be dangerous or deadly.

Winter Flights to Mammoth Lakes

United Airlines and JSX offer flights to Mammoth Lakes in the winter from Los Angeles, San Francisco, Orange County, Burbank and Denver. So if driving is not your idea of time well spent in the winter, flying might be for you. The flights to Mammoth Lakes are relatively inexpensive and generally hassle-free.

However, if you are planning on landing at Mammoth Yosemite Airport in the winter there are a few things to consider.

Flights to and from Mammoth Lakes are occasionally canceled due to weather. A flexible itinerary will help with the stress of a canceled flight. Airlines do not offer compensation in hotels or rental cars when flights are canceled due to weather. They will, however, re-book your flight without fees or refund your ticket because of weather, but trip insurance is advisable especially if you have a connecting flight on a different airline.

What to Do if You Get Snowed-In

Chances are you’ll have no problems traveling to Mammoth Lakes in the winter, but if you happen to be on the road in a closure, never leave your vehicle. Always obey closures and take the advice of Cal Trans and California Highway Patrol. 

You may need to spend an extra night in Mammoth Lakes if the weather does not permit travel. Typically when you are snowed-in, others are snowed-out so finding somewhere to stay is rarely a problem. If your hotel or condo is completely full, ask for recommendations on other lodging. If you need emergency shelter, call the Mammoth Lakes Police Department to learn about options.

If you should be so lucky to get snowed-in in Mammoth Lakes, remember that no one can control the weather so you might as well enjoy an extra day of winter vacation.

Monica Prelle

Monica Prelle is an outdoors, wine, and travel writer who would rather be running, climbing, or mountain biking. See more of Monica's posts here, read more of her work at monicaprelle.com and connect on twitter @monicaprelle

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