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  1. Default Driving from Yellowstone to San Francisco via Twin Falls

    Hi, my husband and I are planning a trip to West Yellowstone mid December.
    We will be flying into Salt Lake City and hiring a car from there and making our
    way to West Yellowstone via Idaho Falls. We plan to make a one night stop-over
    in Idaho Falls though we are not sure if that is necessary. Our main intention is
    to spend 4 nights in West Yellowstone and than drive on to Twin Falls and onward
    to Portland, and down south to San Francisco and end up in LA. We have about 8 days
    to make our way to LA, so we can have stop overs where necessary. Our deepest concern
    is the driving conditions in winter from Twin Falls to Portland. We would prefer to make
    a stop over in between as we do not wish to drive once the sun sets. Apart from Boise
    where would you suggest we can stop over ? Is driving along that highway easy in the snow ?
    We have not driven in snowy conditions before and prefer to give ourselves a slower pace to
    move from one city to the next. Would you advise that we fly instead of driving ?
    Some advise is much appreciated.

  2. #2
    Join Date
    May 2003
    Green County, Wisconsin

    Default No Go

    Welcome to the RTA Forum!

    I'm sorry, but you've got a major problem with your plan.

    You can not access Yellowstone National Park via West Yellowstone in mid-December. The only part of Yellowstone that is open to traffic at that time of year is the very north edge of the park - Mammoth Hot Springs and the Lamar Valley areas. All other park roads are closed for the winter.

    I think you're going to have to come up with a completely new plan.

  3. #3

    Default Well, that depends.........

    ......on what your plans are once you reach West Yellowstone.

    Hello YCK,

    As Midwest Michael so aptly noted, most of YNP is closed to vehicular traffic by mid-December. West Yellowstone, Montana does, however, bill itself as the snowmobile capital of the world, where winter tours by snow machines are the preferred and only access through the short, dark days of winter. I haven't a clue as to exactly when the winter snowmobile tour season kicks off, but by the time the snowpack has built up, West Yellowstone is the place to be to tour Yellowstone in winter.

    As to the questions about driving in winter out in Utah, Idaho, and Wyoming, there is no way to predict what sort of snowfall you might see this far in advance. One completely predictable factor is you're in the shortest days of the year and on the western edge of the Mountain Time Zone. Immediately east of SLC, where I have spent many a night during late December/early January at about the same longitude as West Yellowstone, the sun doesn't rise until nearly 8:00 am and it sets by 4:30 to 4:45 pm. Depending on when your arrival flight gets to SLC, an overnight in Idaho Falls may be required if you don't want to drive after sunset. Add to that the fact while I-15 from SLC to Idaho Falls generally stays low on the west side of the main body of mountains, once past Rexburg, ID, US 20 rises to and above 6,000' before reaching Targhee Pass at over 7,000', so overnighting down low at Idaho Falls to avoid after-dark and a greater chance of seeing snow seems to be a requirement for you.

    For your trip to Portland, you're running Interstate highways from Idaho Falls to and beyond Twin Falls and Boise, and the entire distance from Idaho Falls to the Oregon line is along the Snake River Plain. It is of course possible to see snow there, but rather less likely than at higher elevations in ID.


  4. Default

    Thanks to Midwest Michael for responding

    Thanks FOY for your response too. I am in panic mode now. I was planning to overnight in SLC and drive up to Idaho Falls following day and stay over before heading to West Yellowstone where I will participate in some of their winter packages. Would you advise that we drive up to West Yellowstone ourselves or just hop onto a coach to take us there ? Coach means it will not be free and easy to stop anywhere we want. When in WY we will not be needing a car as the packages will include snowmobiles and snowcoaches activities. The set back is we are then unable to hire a car from WY to continue the rest of our journey. Change of plans - after WY trip, am thinking of driving to Twin Falls and then use highway 93 to connect to Reno. Route looks shorter. In view of shorter daylight, we don't mind taking overnight breaks. So we are limiting our drive to 4-5 hours to get into a decent town for stop over.

    Do you think it is safe to drive on those roads ? Like I said, we have no experience driving on snowy roads and I really have no idea what to expect. Your help and advise is greatly appreciated.


  5. #5
    Join Date
    Jul 2007
    South of England.

    Default Safety first.

    All major routes are a priority to keep open and traffic moving to allow business and Locals alike to go about their daily lives. As Foy mentioned the weather is totally unpredictable and there is just no way of knowing what it might be doing at the exact time you travel. The general adivice is to keep up to date with weather and road conditons as you travel and in the event of a bad storm take the time [and sense] to find somewhere safe and warm to pull off the road and let the road crews set about clearing them once more. That might be for a few hours or overnight, but you do not want to risk your own safety by driving in a storm that you [or anyone else] really shouldn't be.

    I can't offer any greater detail than that as I am not familiar with this area at all and will leave that to others.

  6. #6

    Default No need to panic


    It's just over 200 miles from the airport at SLC to Idaho Falls, and only 325 from the airport all the way to West Yellowstone. You're looking at a 3.5 hour drive to Idaho Falls and only 5.5 or 6.0 to West Yellowstone, each being entirely do-able in broad daylight even on a shortened mid-winter day. While there's no way to guess what the weather may bring two weeks in advance, I-15 is a major commercial traffic artery and as such will receive much attention from the UT and ID DOTs. It's been decades since I've driven US 20 from Idaho Falls to West Yellowstone, so I can't do anything other than look at some detailed maps I have for clues as to what it's like. While it of course passes through mountains from north of Ashton to West Yellowstone, the detailed map shows it to be rather straight and free of very curvy sections and switchbacks. Given that it's a major through-route on its own (connecting I-15 at Idaho Falls through West Yellowstone to I-90 at Bozeman, MT), I would expect the higher-elevation sections to receive lots of attention from the ID and MT DOTs, too.

    I'm uncertain as to your "change of plans" as relates to using US 93 from Twin Falls to connect to Reno, unless you're suggesting skipping Portland and instead taking I-15/I-86/I-84 to Twin Falls, thence US 93 to Wells, NV, thence I-80 to Reno. And there's nothing wrong with that plan--just 18 months ago I drove from Wells to Twin Falls on US 93 and it's a delightful, if remote, highway. You've got Jackpot, NV at the ID-NV line, and from Jackpot to Wells there are no services or fuel (70 miles or so), but US 93 is a major highway and you'll probably never be out of sight of other travelers. Wells, NV is small (but includes a large, modern and clean travel plaza/truck stop) but just west of there, Elko is a large town with a host of motels, casinos, restaurants (including Basque restaurants), and bars, and is where my wife and I spent two fun-filled days and a night while attending a rodeo in July 2011.

    My own feeling is to rent a car, keep the fuel topped off, have a good highway atlas on board, and go for it. My view is admittedly from one who has enjoyed (and endured) lots of crummy winter weather in the Blue Ridge Mountains of NC and more of the same all over CO, WY, and UT. Even without that experience, you should realize that driving on "snowy roads" is essentially a voluntary situation, where a snowstorm is most likely to dump some snow, get plowed off, and at worst you'd be on a few patches of snow or ice here and there, all well visible during daylight hours. With as much time as you have, the most elementary of diligence as to weather forecasts and reports for your intended route should keep you from driving into a severe weather situation, allowing you to lay over if it's snowing hard up ahead (and this is where the "voluntary" observation arises). Notwithstanding that, I must say there is a palpable sense of concern in your writing, so I wonder just how comfortable you're likely to be driving out there.

    If the trip from SLC to West Yellowstone is your primary concern, why not take the coach/shuttle from SLC to West Yellowstone and back, then pick up your car for the trip across western UT and Nevada, where I-80 runs across the Great Basin and rarely reaches > 5,000' elevation and is mostly at and below 4,000'?


  7. Default

    Thanks again Foy for your informative and assuring advise.

    You're right. My change of plans would mean skipping Portland. It seems easier to cut through Nevada and get to San Francisco via Reno. If Elko is interesting enough, we may spend a night there instead of driving non stop to Reno to beat night fall. I just read your posting on Albert Chretien and the route he took appears to be the one I plan to take :(

    I considered taking a coach from SLC to West Yellowstone and back but that would mean missing out on Twin Falls. Is Twin Falls worth going at all ? Besides, I don't think we want to back track down to SLC again. We will spend the afternoon we arrive in SLC and the following morning to sight see a bit before driving off to Idaho Falls. A night over at Idaho Falls would give us the opportunity to sight see a bit too. Would there be anywhere else worth stopping over for ?

    Coming from Brisbane Australia, you can imagine my concern driving in the snow and on the left hand side of the car. 13 years ago we traveled around California but that was easy as weather in September was adaptable. I have to prepare myself for -20 deg C by the time I get to Yellowstone and frankly, it is beyond my imagination how cold that can be. In my life time, the minimum I have ever been is probably 0 deg C and that itself is freezing cold for me.

    One more thing - do you suppose it matters the type of car to hire when going on those roads ? My intention was a small car - the cheaper the better. I assume they would be fitted with snow chains already.


  8. #8
    Join Date
    Jul 2007
    South of England.

    Default Relax.

    I just read your posting on Albert Chretien and the route he took appears to be the one I plan to take :(
    This tragedy was the result of a poor judgement call and the couple turned off the main highway for a short cut on gravel roads. It would actually be hard for you to find the route they took and I doubt you are planning to go off the main highways. :-)

    I have to prepare myself for -20 deg C by the time I get to Yellowstone and frankly, it is beyond my imagination how cold that can be
    Make sure you pack layered clothing, warm head gear, scarf and gloves etc. My experience of this type of cold has been OK, both in Austria[ - 25] and the US [-15] has been of a 'crisp' cold feel that when wrapped up well doesn't feel any worse than the damp, windy cold we get here in the UK at zero or just below.

    One more thing - do you suppose it matters the type of car to hire when going on those roads ? My intention was a small car - the cheaper the better. I assume they would be fitted with snow chains already.
    It doesn't really matter, with the fact that if the weather is bad enough to require chains [or the thought of 4 wheel drive] then you shouldn't be on the road at all. A 4 wheel drive might help you out of a tricky situation but you should avoid getting into one at all costs, prevention is better than cure. With no experience of snow and 4 wheel drive I doubt it would be of much use and could tempt you into a poor situation that otherwise you may have avoided. Personally I would opt for a mid size sedan over a small car for more space and comfort which will deal with the mountains and Interstate driving better.

    The car will most likely not come with chains so this is something you will have to ask the rental company about. You can usually buy them quite reasonably, or they may have some to rent out to you. Like I mentioned you should do all that you can to avoid a situation where you will need them, but it's generally a good idea to do a test fitting [in the hotel parking lot for example] and familiarise yourself with them prior to needing them for real.

    Don't let too much 'bad' stuff play on your mind. You are going into the trip well prepared and asking the right questions and collecting the right kind of info, and like millions of other winter drivers and tourists you will have a great time . [I hope you wil share your adventure with us after your trip.]

    Check this thread out and open the links by Mark in post 2, some great winter driving tips.

  9. #9
    Join Date
    Oct 2008
    Joplin MO


    Rental cars in that part of the country will be equipped with "all season" tires. As Dave said, if the conditions are bad enough to require chains, you have no business being out on the roads anyway. Other than in the mountains in California, very seldom will you find legal requirements to possess or actually USE chains, and if you have chains on, you can't drive over 25 mph.

    If you can afford it and want a bit more reassurance, you could rent a small SUV with all-wheel drive.

  10. #10

    Default Twin Falls, Idaho Falls, and the Chretien route


    On my summer 2011 RoadTrip, I passed through Twin Falls once and Idaho Falls twice but didn't stop in either place save for a very interesting stop at the bridge which carries US 93 across the Snake River canyon in Twin Falls. The views down to the river are terrific. I haven't a clue as to what other sights to see in either place.

    Elko, NV might be referred to as a "cow town" or "mining town", as ranching and mining would likely be the dominant activities of the locals. My wife and enjoyed a real taste of ranching and Basque culture by attending the final night of the Silver State Stampede in early July 2011, which is billed as the oldest rodeo in Nevada. I don't know what entertainment activities Elko may offer in winter, but surely the casinos, bars, and Basque restaurants will be open and welcoming business.

    It would require a spectacular failure of planning and navigating to drive into the Bruneau Canyon tributary where the Chretiens became marooned in March 2011. All you need to do is follow the Interstate signage from Idaho Falls where you'll get back on I-15, to I-86 connecting to I-84, to US 93 at Twin Falls (and the aforementioned bridge view point-pull-off is immediately after you leave I-84 for US 93 south), and stay on US 93 all the way to Wells and I-80. I didn't mention these points about US 93: Once out of the outlying suburbs of Twin Falls, the highway is all two-lane but is wide, has broad shoulders, and has but the broadest of curves. There is fuel, food, and overnight accomodation (casino hotels) in Jackpot. The segment from Jackpot to Wells is beautiful, wide open, and remote, but given US 93's status as a regional through-route, it's well-traveled.

    I wholeheartedly agree with my colleagues' comments as to cars you may choose: If you're talking about all-wheel-drive or chains, you're talking about a day you'd be better advised to lay-up and wait for weather to pass. Do be advised of so-called "chain laws" in the various Western states, where use of chains can be required by the authorities for travel during major winter storms. Here again, if you stick with the philosophy of just laying up during a storm, no need for concern about chain laws. And there is really no chance a rental would be "fitted with snow chains" inasmuch as chains are intended to be installed at the point at which they're needed then immediately removed once they're no longer needed. On your trip you'll see widened places on Interstate and other highways signed "chain up area", typically at the foot of major passes, where truckers and others can more safely pull over to install chains on their drive wheels. By avoiding driving on the occasional bad day, you'll be skipping this activity altogether.


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