Seeing Yellowstone from a ditch? Do I need AWD?
December 7, 2009 4:53 PM   Subscribe

Driving from Salt Lake City to Yellowstone to Bryce Canyon during Christmas week. Everything's planned, except for the car... Am I screwed? Rental car options, and do I need AWD and/or chains?

Last year I went to NV/UT/AZ this time of the year and I absolutely loved it. We flew into Vegas, rented a 350Z with sticky tires and had a blast. Our routing was set to "wherever", and our schedule was open.

We ended up in a snow storm that caught us off guard. Somehow I never really connected "winter" and "350Z" like I should have. This slowed us down a lot but we did fine on roads of varying levels of plowed and were never stopped by the snow. For example, Zion at 11pm during a heavy snow was exciting and thick with snow and icy spots but I managed.

This year I want a better set of tires at the least, so I won't be repeating my mistake. Ideally, I'd get AWD, but there's absolutely nothing for a reasonable amount of money. It's literally 1/3rd the price to get a mid-size car over an SUV at this point.

So, am I going to NEED snow tires, AWD, or chains to get where I want to go? Specifically from Salt Lake City up to West Yellowstone? Can I (barring a storm) make it up I-15 and 20 with the all seasons on a FWD car, or are chains/AWD required anywhere along the way?

I think going down to Bryce will be ok regardless, as I've done that in sub-ideal conditions and managed.

Ideally someone knows where I can rent a Subaru in Salt Lake City during Christmas week, but Google's telling me to be more reasonable.

posted by ydant to Travel & Transportation (14 answers total)
Yellowstone may actually REQUIRE chains on certain passes, and the state of Montana can determine that they are required if certain conditions are present, but in any case, you will want them.

I lived in southern Montana for four years. You will want chains in December. Can't speak as to Utah.
posted by desjardins at 5:16 PM on December 7, 2009

More info:
Only two park roads are plowed in the winter and remain open for wheeled-vehicle use

the road between the North Entrance at Gardiner, Montana, to the Northeast Entrance at Silver Gate and Cooke City, Montana.

From Mammoth Hot Springs to the parking area at the Upper Terraces (approximatedly 1/2 mi. of road)

They are maintained only during daylight hours and may close during severe storms. Expect snowpack, ice, frost heaves, drifts. Mud/Snow tires or tire chains may be required and are recommended always.
Also, if you get stuck, don't expect to get rescued in short order. Montana's really desolate in places. Your cell phone probably won't work. Prepare accordingly.
posted by desjardins at 5:20 PM on December 7, 2009

Response by poster: Sorry, I should have clarified... I am only concerned with getting to west yellowstone and back. I have arrangements once I get there, just not to get there. Thanks!
posted by ydant at 5:28 PM on December 7, 2009

Best answer: Utah girl here.

I drive a FWD car with all season tires and I am fine on I-15. They plow it quickly if there is snow. Going into any of the canyons you will need chains and 4WD, it's required.

Yellowstone is another story. I would not go without chains. My hubby says that at Les Schwab (a local tire store) you can buy chains and then return them if you don't use them. That might be an option.

If you are staying on main roads in Yellowstone you will probably be fine with FWD and snow tires. I think they are pretty good about plowing (it's been years since I was up there.)

IMO, you are better off spending the extra money for a 4WD and being safe. Whatever you decide, you should pack an emergency kit in the car just in case you do get stuck. Some kind of food (Powerbars maybe), water, blankets, a flashlight, instant heat packs (hand warmers), something to tie to the antenna, and of course a cell phone. Even 4WD vehicles get stuck.
posted by TooFewShoes at 5:33 PM on December 7, 2009

A small shovel in addition to all of the aforementioned emergency gear.
a bag of sand or salt.
snowshoes: there's a good chance that both of your NP destinations will be inaccessible due to weather, but you will be in some great country for tromping around in the snow so why not have a plan B.
posted by OHenryPacey at 5:44 PM on December 7, 2009

If you need chains, spend the extra money on the easiest chains to put on. Cheap ones are hell to put on when you're inexperienced and have frozen hands.
posted by corey flood at 6:03 PM on December 7, 2009

Response by poster: Thanks for the comments so far!

Our hotel is in West Yellowstone, MT and it's fed by (according to Google Maps) a major road, so I'd expect semi-regular plowing based on my experiences in UT last year - I just want to make sure I'm not being entirely naive. Once at West Yellowstone we are renting snowmobiles and shuttle to/from the snowmobiles is handled for us.

@all I am mostly concerned about mandatory chain use, if any. That's not to say we won't get a set! AWD would be beautiful, but the cost difference is really hard to swallow.

@all Suggestions for emergency kit understood!

@OHenryPacey Snowshoes are already planned. That's our plan for Bryce, so they'll be with us.
posted by ydant at 6:19 PM on December 7, 2009

Keep in mind that most of Bryce sits at 9000 feet, so snow can come fast and furious.
posted by netbros at 6:55 PM on December 7, 2009

Best answer: I've done a number of trips down I-15 and over 20/89 during the holidays in a standard front-wheel drive compact around the holidays. Most of the time I've been fine. You probably will be too.

But on the other hand, on at least three occasions, it has been some of the scariest white-knuckle cars-everywhere-off-the-road OMG-semitruck driving I've ever done (even vs some rather tense moments over Donner Pass, a full-out Pennsylvania ice storm, and a Montana blizzard). Including one occasion where I lost control and spun out. So some extra precaution is definitely warranted.

And that's just 15. if you haven't driven near Bryce before, be aware there are more exposed heights on parts of the drive where you will not want to mess around, and even a spot or two on 20 that can be dicey. Probably manageable outside of storm conditions, but be wary and serious about staying on top of the weather. As netbros says, sometimes it can come on fast.

Don't know much about Yellowstone this time of year. I just know how cold it can get there even in September, so I assume winter is fairly serious business there as well.
posted by weston at 7:56 PM on December 7, 2009

This doesn't specifically apply to Salt Lake, but where I live ALL RENTAL CARS ARE BOOKED UP a couple of weeks before Christmas Week. Act Soon.
posted by ovvl at 8:19 PM on December 7, 2009

Best answer: For Utah (where I live) it might be sunny and dry and beautiful with no sign of snow. Or it might be the worst blizzard you've ever seen. Here in Salt Lake, I usually drive down the freeway on Christmas to visit relatives with no trouble, but one year out of the last 5 we were trapped in our driveway and unable to drive even a block.

Idaho and Montana are another story.

Our hotel is in West Yellowstone, MT and it's fed by (according to Google Maps) a major road, so I'd expect semi-regular plowing based on my experiences in UT last year - I just want to make sure I'm not being entirely naive.

There are no major roads in West Yellowstone, MT. At least by Utah standards. I've seen undrivable winter road conditions there in mid-April before. They do plow regularly, but in winter the roads are sometimes chains-required, and sometimes closed for a day or more.

Same with the trip to Bryce Canyon - there are some potentially very bad spots on the drive from SLC. (in order: point of the mountain, Nephi, Fillmore, Beaver, Cedar City.) We make that drive every January and 9/10 times there's no trouble, but check the weather reports.

If your schedule is flexible, you can probably wait to avoid storms. Otherwise, get the 4x4.
posted by mmoncur at 2:12 AM on December 8, 2009

Response by poster: Ok, our schedule is fairly flexible, although there is at least one deposit on the line if snow blocks us out. I have two days buffer on the end with no plans at all, so I can always move things around. Any event that would keep me in one place for two days would probably also affect my flying back anyway, so I'm not too worried.

I rented a FWD, but I'll get snow chains as well... somehow.

I think I went through some pretty nasty stuff last year although nothing that closed the roads for more than a day. With any luck, it won't be any worse than that this year, too!

I'll definitely pack an emergency kit.

Thanks, everyone!
posted by ydant at 12:15 PM on December 8, 2009

This blog has some helpful advice if you do get stuck. Also, toss a pack of cards into that emergency kit.
posted by TooFewShoes at 12:46 PM on December 8, 2009

Response by poster: Just to finish this off in case anyone else wonders the same.

Despite warnings above, I-15 and highway 20 are both well maintained and do not require chains at all. There are places to chain-up. During heavy snow or icing I'm sure chains would be necessary or at least very beneficial on some of the steeper roads. Highway 20 is 4 lane (2 each direction) until 50 miles from West Yellowstone where it drops to a single lane in each direction. The last 50 miles is through a lot of park land and is hilly and was icy even given the weather had been clear for a few days prior. This is certainly a major highway by my definition with wide lanes, good banking, plentiful shoulders, excellent signage, and frequent traffic. All of the turns were heavily maintained (de-icer, plowing).

The FWD on all seasons did just fine. To anyone contemplating AWD, keep in mind it isn't some magic bullet that will let you drive safer in icy/snowy conditions. Other than the steep sections, AWD wouldn't buy you much (but certainly costs a LOT more). I did miss some exploring on snow covered roads due to the lack of traction, but getting from point A to B was never compromised.

The snowmobiling was excellent, and I definitely would go with Two Top Snowmobile again. There's a lot of beautiful country to explore and their sleds are in great condition.

Thanks for the help, everyone!
posted by ydant at 10:18 AM on December 30, 2009

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