driving in the winter on a snow covered road with heavily snow covered trees on either side of the road - truckee north lake tahoe

Dreaming of a winter getaway to Lake Tahoe? The breathtaking drive from the California coast to North Lake Tahoe is an integral part of the experience! However, as seasoned travelers know, not all days are created equal and you’re going to want to avoid battling thousands of other drivers on your journey. In a recent article by the SFGATE, reporter Silas Valentino interviewed a spokesperson from the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) to get some insight into traffic patterns and volume on Interstate 80, particularly near Donner Summit, which is a key route between San Francisco and Lake Tahoe. We’ve rounded up all the information we could to find out when the best time to drive to Tahoe in the winter is!

Key Takeaway 

According to Steve Nelson, a spokesperson for Caltrans, the key to a smooth Tahoe experience lies in a simple mantra: avoid the Friday drive. In a recent interview with SFGATE, Nelson revealed that his family’s golden rule is to “never drive up on Friday and never leave on Sunday.” The reason? The nearly 200-mile trek from San Francisco to Tahoe City via Interstate 80, which typically takes 3.5 hours on a weekday, can balloon to a laborious 5.5 hours during the Friday rush.

Caltrans Data

Delving into Caltrans data featured in the SFGATE article, let’s focus on eastbound traffic on I-80 near Donner Summit from January to March 2021. Fridays consistently witnessed a higher volume of drivers, with as many as 7,500 more vehicles on the road compared to Thursdays. This solidified Thursday as the preferred day for a smoother, more enjoyable drive.

Tahoe Loves Thursdays

The preference for Thursdays extends beyond traffic considerations. In Lake Tahoe, Thursday holds a special place in the hearts of locals. Whether it’s the renowned Truckee Thursdays in the summer or a serene ski day before the weekend influx, Thursdays are a cherished tradition. Carol Chaplin, president and CEO of the Lake Tahoe Visitors Authority, endorsed Thursday as an optimal day for both travel and activities and highlighted that visitors can also find more vacation rental options during the winter months if you plan to visit before Friday. 

Planning Your Winter Weekend Escape

Armed with this information, planning your winter weekend escape becomes a breeze! If your schedule allows, consider telecommuting or using a bit of PTO to hit the road on Thursday instead of Friday. By doing so, you can avoid the notoriously bad Friday traffic and enjoy a relaxed start to your weekend. 


In the quest for the perfect winter weekend in North Lake Tahoe, every detail matters! Thanks to the insights shared by travel experts and the meticulous data provided by Caltrans, you now know that Thursday is the unsung hero of Tahoe travel. So, as you plan your escape, mark Thursday as your departure day on your calendar, enjoy an easy travel day and look forward to the incredible winter wonders North Lake Tahoe has to offer!