A lot of people post each day on RTA about how they are concerned about the mountain passes, especially in winter. While most of the concerns expressed are exaggerated, the truth is winter and mountain driving can be dangerous. Being that I earned my license in Washington State, a great emphasis was put on the rules of mountain driving. In the Northwest, a majority of the people cross the Cascade Mountains in general at least once per year. Mountain driving is sort of bred into the culture in certain parts of the country, primarily those areas that actually have mountains.
Places like Florida, Iowa, and Nebraska really don’t have mountains, and so even if you learned about mountain driving in Drivers Ed, you probably never used it… until Aunt Sally in Seattle wants you to come up for a visit for Christmas. As you crawl over the map, you begin to see them. Those infamous brackets that are used to note a Mountain Pass crossing start showing up, and you gulp as you count “One, Two…” as you trace the proposed route with your finger. Now, before you call the trip off until Independence Day, take a look below at some very important information on how to play it safe when crossing the Mountains (or just driving in general) during the winter months!
The Interstate 5 Myth: There is sort of a myth out there that basically says you can avoid mountain driving in the Western US by driving along the southern border states and up I-5 from Los Angeles. Actually… you may be crossing more mountain passes than if you were to take a more direct route. Sorry. Here are ALL mountain passes along Interstate 5 from South to North.
1. Tejon Pass, CA(elevation 4,183 ft/1,275 m) between Los Angeles area and the San Joaquin Valley.
2. Siskiyou Summit, OR (elevation 4,037 ft/1,230 m) between Northern California and Oregon. *NOTE: Mountain driving begins several hundred miles prior to the summit BOTH DIRECTIONS.
3. Sexton Mountain Pass, OR(elevation 1,970 ft/600 m) Just north of Grants Pass en route to Smith Hill Summit (1,727ft).
4. Stage Road Pass, OR(elevation 1,830 ft/558 m) Just north of Smith Hill Summit).
5. Canyon Creek Pass, OR(elevation 2,020 ft/616 m) Just north of Stage Road Pass.
The two passes of note are Tejon and Siskiyou. The other three are lower passes, but still may pose some problems.
Mountain Driving Tips (with additional tips from the Washington State Department of Transportation)
Take it SLOW! When the pavement is dry, you can do the posted speed limits, but when there is water, frost, ice, slush, or snow, go as slow as you need to maintain control. It is not uncommon to travel only 25 MPH on a freeway in the snow and there be no one around you.
A Vital Link: Chains. Know how to use your chains, make sure they actually fit, and make sure you actually have them. Some states require motorists to carry chains when traveling in mountainous areas.
Bald is NOT beautiful. When it comes to tires, that is. Have a tire shop check your treads. Advise them that you will be traveling in a mountainous area with snow and ice, so they can better adjust their recommendation on if you need new tires.
Are all systems go? Get your mechanic to check all your vital systems, including wiper blades, fluids, batteries, defrosting and heating systems, etc. Again, advise your automotive services professional where you will be traveling and what conditions you’re expecting.
Allow for extra time. Always give yourself some extra time when crossing the mountain passes.
Listen to the Radio. The radio is your best source for mountain condition information. Some states require broadcasters to provide Road Condition reports. A NOAA/NWS All Hazards-Weather Radio (or combination CB) is also a good idea to carry.
Get the 411 on 511. Confused? We all know 911 is for emergencies, 411 is for information. How about 511? Many states have become part of the 511 system. The 511 system is an automated Traveler Information Service. In the past, states had traveler information phone numbers, only they were not easy to remember and not easy to pass on to motorists that are from other areas. Find out more information on the 511 system and where you can use it from the Federal Highway Administration 511 site.
Watch the truckers. If you start noticing a large number of truckers getting off the highway just before a pass, it might be a good idea to stop as well. At least to inquire road conditions. If the trucks don’t want to cross, it might be a good idea to also wait it out.
Know your route. Know where you can expect lodging, now where rest areas are, note the nearest towns, etc.
Know of other routes. So you get to the town just before making the climb to the top of the pass, and you see it. A state patrol officer directing all traffic off the highway and into the community to wait it out while they do Avalanche control, or are cleaning up a rock slide. You find out from the owner of the Truck Stop that they’re expecting the pass to be closed for 2 days. You may have to wait it out, you may have to drive 4 or 5 hours out of the way to find a good crossing. Know your options.
4 wheel-drive doesn’t mean your Superman. I saw this scenario frequently when traveling across the Cascades of Washington State. Traffic is crawling in the right lane because it’s snowing, as it should be. Like clock work, the All-Wheel-Drive vehicles start flying by: Subaru’s, SUV’s, Off-Road trucks. And, like clock work, we would end up passing one or two of them in a snow bank with a State Patrol officer calling for a tow truck, or worse. Just remember, AWD is much better in winter conditions, but it doesn’t make you invincible.
It may be 60*F on both sides of the pass, but pack for frigid temperatures! Another thing I have seen a lot, especially here in Arizona, is people forgetting that even though it’s warm where they are, it won’t be when they get into higher elevations. I too, have been guilty of this crime! Remember to pack for frigid temps. Some items to include (for yourself and the car): Jumper Cables, Cat litter or sand for emergency traction, A shovel (preferably a flat shovel, not a spade), Ice Scraper (please, your Visa does not double as an ice scraper.), Warm winter clothes for everyone (Gloves, Hats, Snow Boots, Warm Jacket, extra clothes (including socks)), Blankets, Flashlights and batteries, First aid kit, Food (non-perishable foods), Water (and sports drinks), A battery operated radio, Cell phone and car charger.
Look familiar? It’s very similar to the Summer Travel Kit, only with winter items instead of summer.
Watch for rocks! You might even want your passenger to help with this. Watch for falling rocks or an avalanche.
Okay, now that I’ve probably caused some of you to write off traveling in the mountains during the winter ever again, let me reassure you. Mountain travel is weather permitting. Many times the road will be (and take note of these terms) Bare and Dry, Bare and Wet, Dry with Frost in Places, Wet with Slush in Places, OR Wet with Slush or Compact Snow and Ice in places. Other times it will be just Compact Snow and Ice. For those not used to it, those terms are in order of severity. If you hear the road report say “Bare and Dry”, the road is clear. Compact Snow and Ice does mean that there is a compacted layer of snow and ice on the road. While this sounds horrifying, it just means you will be crawling at maybe 15 mph with huge gaps between cars and potentially having to put on chains. Novice drivers may not want to try this at night. What’s above Compact Snow and Ice? CLOSED. Most passes will be closed at the largest town before the climb.
State DOT’s have no qualms about throwing up the road closed gates when it gets too bad. And PLEASE, don’t drive around them. There’s a very good chance the pass is closed because the DOT is detonating explosives on avalanche prone slopes to cause an avalanche, and you don’t want to be there when it happens.
When passes do close, lodging fills up, and fast. Don’t be surprised if you have to back track to find a vacancy. I say this because if you hear a pass is closed but you’re a while from getting there, just stop for the night where you are.
The point of this post is to remind experienced mountain drivers to check things over, but also to give a heads up to novice drivers what to expect. We always discuss the worst case scenario, and it’s best to anticipate that… but it won’t always be like that. I have made at least 100 pass crossings, a good portion of those were in winter. We never encountered problems because we took it easy, watched the weather, and were prepared for the worst.
For anyone who wants one, the Washington State DOT offers a free winter driving brochure. Other states may have similar reading material available, so check their websites by Google Searching “[state] DOT”, replacing [state] with the state you’re searching for.
I might have missed a few things, so additions are welcome!