Conquering Donner Summit

Interstate 80 is no problem if you are patient and prepared for bad weather

A little preparation and awareness can keep you from spending hours on a three-lane parking lot when Donner Pass gets a little slick.

A little preparation and awareness can keep you from spending hours on a three-lane parking lot when Donner Pass gets a little slick.

Photo By Chris Carnel

I’m in four-wheel low and making the mid-winter trek over Donner Summit as the narrow road is completely engulfed by blowing snow. I slow down, but there’s no one else on the road. It’s a sheer whiteout, but I navigate by frequently looking out my side windows to where I can see the line the snow plow left. It’s hypnotic and surreal. But I get safely through the storm to where it’s raining lightly down near Blue Canyon.

“Winter” months—from late October thru May—produce road-covering snows up there, although you should be prepared for snow outside of these dates. During those weather-prone months, always prepare for the unexpected. Carry boots, gloves, cables or chains, a flashlight, blankets, tools, a shovel and plenty of water stuffed into the back of your vehicle.

I’ve been fortunate never to have had to spend the night stranded up there stuffed into a snowdrift on the side of the road. Quite lucky, considering the rollovers, multiple-car spinouts and unannounced summit closures I’ve seen when the road is packed. Weekend crowds, lack of common sense and unprepared drivers have generally been the cause of such mayhem.

Here are a few things to prepare yourself for the journey:

• It’s good to have a rough indication of conditions up there before you leave town. Enter the Cal-Trans highway information into your phone, so you can check the latest in road information before heading out. Their number is 877-NVROADS. On the Web, it’s

• Worst-case scenario is knowing there is a major storm in the Sierra but not knowing what the precise conditions are. If it’s a warm storm, it might just be raining to the top, but you might have to put chains on anyway. Or it could be a cold storm and snowing down to Martis Valley where there are enforced chain controls (and chain monkeys galore) near Boca. You can get this crucial information through a link to a few vital webcams at The camera at Sugarbowl’s Village lodge is similar in elevation to the summit and a good indicator of what might be happening at 7,200 feet. Also check the Truckee webcam above the inspection station. It faces west toward the summit, and you can see if it’s a lower-elevation storm that’s sticking or if there is traffic sitting on the highway.

• Avoid traveling over Donner Summit during peak travel times and holidays. All it takes is one spinout to turn the summit into a three-lane parking lot. In that scenario, try the less-traveled old Highway 40 that routes around Donner Lake and eventually up past Sugarbowl and Donner Ski Ranch. Approach this only from Truckee and Donner Pass Road to avoid I-80, and keep an eye out for the Open/Closed sign on the side of the road and/or gates crossing the road when you reach the west side of Donner Lake. If it’s a major storm that the plows can’t keep up with, the gates will be down. In that case, you’re out of luck. Until the summit opens and travelers clear out, hit a coffee shop, bar or restaurant in Truckee, and hang out for a while.

It’ s better to be sitting in the booth of a nice restaurant than confined to the inside of your car, running out of gas, stuck in traffic. Unless, that is, it’s just you traveling over the pass in that surreal blizzard. In that case, it’s sort of like the solitude of outer space, and it’s kind of nice.