I don’t disagree with anything said on this thread, but would add, beware of the weather; it can change everything. It is hard to explain a major high Sierra winter storm unless you’ve experienced it. If you have you’ll never forget it, nor take it lightly again. Having had numerous experiences, if I were laying down money in advance in winter for transportation, lodging, and lift tickets, I’d go via LA. Getting out of the LA Basin can indeed be bad, but once past Palmdale and Lancaster it’s easy. The route is 14 to 395. After Mohave you’re on the east side of the mountains and it’s a flat drive through the desert to Bishop, which is at 4000 ft. It is only then, if there’s a storm, that you’re likely to have snow. From bishop to mammoth lakes is 40 miles and 4000 feet of elevation gain, steady, and on a well maintained 4 lane road. I made a lot of business trips to Pasadena while working and made many side trips to mammoth at the conclusion of busi!
ness. I-210 W from Pasadena to I-5 is not heavily trafficked in the evening commute. I’d Leave Pasadena by 3 and get to mammoth in 5.5 hrs.
I have flown into SFO, Sacramento, and Reno, on various occasions and gone to or from mammoth on 395 from the north. I got caught in a major storm once. There are 3 high points between Reno and mammoth that are near or above 8000’. Each was in whiteout, with fierce wind blown snow and required chain up. I knew this and had bought 1/2 price chains in mammoth (it was April). Rental car companies hate this and if there is any damage from a thrown chain you could be in big trouble. Wind on the Sierra crest always exceeds 100 mph in major winter storms. Putting on and taking off chains I was in fear of being run over by an 18 wheeler. 395 doesn’t have heavy enough traffic to draw chain jockeys (you pay them do it) so it’s do it yourself. I ran out of nerve to continue this ordeal and so stopped at the first casino in NV, spent the night, and had to rebook my flight home.
Aside from this, if you love mountains as much as I do, you must, before you die, drive 395 between mammoth and Mohave on a sunny day. The scope and grandeur of the Sierra is jaw dropping. There are endless backcountry opportunities there. Matt K has done some of the serious ones. I have heard it said that more than half of US backcountry skiers live within 100 miles of LA. Seems preposterous but consider the population.
finally, having written this much, let me say something about the passes in the Tahoe area. There are only 3, I-80, US-50, and CA-88, in north to south order. South of 88, nothing is open in winter all the way to Bakersfield. Winter ends anywhere from mid May to July (last year). Traffic. 80 is the major east west road in this part of the country and is very heavily travelled. As a wild guess I’d say it gets 10x the traffic of 50 and 100x that of 88. All 3 roads close or are subject to chain restrictions frequently throughout the winter. Each road has distinctly different worse case scenarios. 80 is prone to wind, wind blown snow and whiteouts. 50 is prone to rock slides, mud slides, and washouts. 88 is prone to avalanches. Chain up delays on 80 are legendary. A mere 3 weeks ago it took me 90 minutes to go 6 miles on 80 to the chain up point. Having a Subaru was no help. You get waved through at the inspection point, but before that everybody clogs every !
lane. It snowed down to 3000 ft. That day. There are 38 million Californians (= Canada). A lot of them drive like idiots in good conditions. In snow you are guaranteed crashes, sometimes pileups of 30 or more vehicles.
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