Is it safe to cross the Cascade during the winter?
November 10, 2010 6:29 AM   Subscribe

Is it safe to cross the Cascade from Portland during the winter? I accepted a job cross-country. I will be leaving all my possessions behind. I want fly into Portland and rent a car and continue rest of my trip east into central Oregon. What's winter condition like at mountain passes on state route 20, 26, or I-84. Is it safe to drive in the mountain during late November/early December?
posted by Carius to Travel & Transportation (19 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Probably, but then they don't have gates which can be closed across the highway for nothing. There is a risk that a storm could come and close the highway, but if your time frame can accommodate waiting for the clean-up then you should be fine.
posted by caddis at 6:42 AM on November 10, 2010

Sure, that’s what the passes are for! Just check the pass conditions before you set out on the day of your drive. Check out Oregon’s TripCheck for live cameras, conditions, and chain restrictions. If there’s a storm, conditions can get a little hairy.
posted by SirNovember at 6:44 AM on November 10, 2010 [2 favorites]

How far across the country are you going? If you are going to take I-84 to I-80 or I-90, you have the potential to encounter a lot more stormy weather once you get past western Oregon.

What's your experience driving in snow/ice? It's a lot different than driving in other conditions. I worked for several years in Colorado -- I had an intern working for me that had no experience driving in the snow -- he had two fender-bender accidents within a week of the first snow storm. In Oregon you can get freezing rain which causes very dangerous icy conditions.

One-way rental car charges are much higher than round-trip charges -- you probably want to check that.

As others have said, you do have the risk of running into road closures -- hopefully your time frame is flexible.

Stay to the main roads -- don't be tempted by county roads that may not be closed when the main highway is closed. If it's bad enough to close the interstate, you don't want to be on some back road that "everyone" knew better than to try to drive on.

Make sure you carry some liquids, food, and warm clothing/sleeping bag in case you do get stuck.

There's a 99.94% probability you will be just fine. However, every year, we hear of a few stories of stranded motorists that run into trouble. You don't want to be one of them.
posted by elmay at 6:54 AM on November 10, 2010 [3 favorites]

Look at a better map before you start driving. Notice how I-84 goes through the Columbia Gorge? In other words, heading east, you don't go across a mountain pass until you are on the far side of Oregon, after you have driven through Pendleton and are on your way to La Grande, and even that one is fairly low. Its low altitude through Oregon means that I-84 will generally stay open even during weather that will close the high pass roads. (The high passes on I-84 come after you have left Oregon and are headed towards the Rockies.)

That said, the general rules of winter driving in the west still apply. Don't let your gas tank get below half; carry basic safety supplies (warm clothes, water, food, window scraper); make sure your car is legal to cross whatever passes your route goes over (that may mean carrying chains, for example); check the weather and pass reports a day or two ahead and don't be shy about deviating around bad weather; it's always safer and better to hole up in a motel for an extra day rather than drive into a big storm.
posted by Forktine at 6:59 AM on November 10, 2010

I don't think the Oregon stretch of I-84 is going to be your issue in December; as elmay says, the likelihood of trouble increases as you go east. If you decide to go another way and take true mountain passes, carry chains and know how to put them on.

I drove from Portland to Atlanta, using I-84 > I-70 > I-75, in March a few years ago. The weather was fine until I hit the Utah/Wyoming/Colorado stretch.
posted by catlet at 8:02 AM on November 10, 2010

Have you checked into the possibility of public transportation from Portland to your destination?
posted by mareli at 8:13 AM on November 10, 2010

If I'm not mistaken, the OP's cross-country move will be by plane from the East Coast to the West Coast, and the question is just about how to get from PDX to the ultimate destination in Central Oregon.

As people have said you should be able to use any of those roads with no problems, especially I-84. But it is likely you'll hit heavy rain and/or wind at some point on your drive so if you're uncomfortable driving in that maybe you should look into taking a bus.
posted by otio at 9:06 AM on November 10, 2010

Ooo! I drive through all of these frequently, especially in the winter.

First, check This is the Oregon DOT's website. You can always check the status of the passes through the Cascades. Today: I-84 is wet, no snow. US 26 snow, but mostly cleared, no chains except on SR 35. US 20 snow, poorly cleared, no chains.

I-84 rarely closes as it goes through the gorge and stays damn near sea level until fairly far east into Oregon, near Umatilla. If you take I-84, you will probably want to turn south at US 97. SR 35 from Hood River sends to directly to Mount Hood and US 26, which both can get snowy. Conversely, I-84 was closed two years ago before Christmas and last year during our one-day Portland snow. Typical winter weather on I-84 is rain and wind. The gorge can act like a 100-mile wind tunnel.

US 26 goes over the south side of Mount Hood. It gets cleared quite often and rarely closes, but chain requirements go up frequently. If there is no chain requirement, it's fine. Rental agencies don't typically provide chains, so if there is a chain requirement, stay away.

US 20 goes between Mount Jefferson and Three Sisters over the Santiam Pass. It is cleared regularly as well, but it is also subject to chain requirements. Same goes for US 20 as does US 26.

Basically: check the weather. Plan for an extra day or two in your travels if you are worried about getting stuck in Portland.
posted by Mister Fabulous at 9:26 AM on November 10, 2010

You should be fine with I-84 though do check the weather - The gorge has its own peculiarities and can occasionally be a bit iffy - you'll know by the 24/7 coverage of the Portland news channels if there is even a hint of anything.

The passes are also kept well cleared and you can get surprisingly close to Mt Hood before you see any snow. As long as you don't hit the weekend closing times at the ski areas, the roads should not be too busy.

For extra security - Chains are still an option - Les Schwab allows you to return unused chains in the spring.
posted by azlondon at 9:31 AM on November 10, 2010

Back in the '80s, I lived in Bend and went to school in McMinnville (which is between Salem and Portland). I drove back and forth over Santiam Pass (Route 22) several times a year in a front wheel drive diesel Rabbit and never had to use chains. My family and I also regularly drove to and from Portland via Government Camp Pass (Route 26), and never had any issues. This was before the roads were widened and the grade was smoothed. It takes a *big* storm to close either pass, and they roll out the plows really fast.

Do you have any experience driving in ice and snow? Just don't drive like an idiot.
posted by computech_apolloniajames at 9:44 AM on November 10, 2010

One-way car rentals are problematic. Most car rental agencies expect the car to be returned to the place you got them.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 9:54 AM on November 10, 2010

I'm gonna make an assumption here: Portland to Bend. Because there is fuck-all in eastern Oregon (I mean, beautiful country and all, but the poster is going for a job, this is a post to Metafilter, asking about the Cascades, and Bend has a number of tech companies. So it's either out to The Dalles or down to Bend, but the mention of 20 says "Bend").

A few years ago over a Thanksgiving I did a road trip that went up to Lakeview, through Fort Rock State Park, back over to Bend and then back down 5. No problems. It was snowing as we came over from Bend into Eugene, and being the paranoid sea level dweller that I am we did check to make sure that just flurries were predicted, but had no problems. That road is fairly major, it's not the sort of back-mountain road that James Kim and his family ran into trouble on, even during a storm they'll have sand trucks and plows out on it.

If you head down I5, check the forecast before you head over 20, but the worst that happens is you spend a night in Eugene because they've got the "chains required" signs up and you decide to turn back rather than spend the $40 bucks that the gas station just the downhill side of said sign charges for a set of chains for your rental car.
posted by straw at 10:43 AM on November 10, 2010

Check your chains BEFORE you set out!

This is my tale of woe: I bought chains at Les Schwab and merrily drove over the hill to Kah-Neh-Tah. Ah, blissful soaking in a hot pool while snow flakes fell. hmmm, snowflakes, better get going. Oh crap, it's snowy! Better put on the chains. WTF! These chains don't work! What are chains supposed to look like? Uh, not like that! Husband proceeds to white knuckle it down to the Gorge (passing several flipped over vehicles including a state trooper!)

basically Les Schwab sold me broken old chains instead of new ones. and when I returned them, they totally did not get why I was so pissed.

(but you should be fine, as long as you check your chains first!)
posted by vespabelle at 2:11 PM on November 10, 2010

Well, looks I-84 is my best bet and one way rental is a bad idea. I guess I have to fly out.

I have to say people at Metafilter constantly amazed me.

OK full disclosure. Yes, I am indeed going for a job in Bend. I will be moving from Ohio. While I'm a no stranger to snow, but snow at high attitude? No experience whatsoever. Putting on chains? No experience either.

Silly question: Do you put on the chain only when you need it or can you leave it on the whole winter?
posted by Carius at 5:49 PM on November 10, 2010

Only put them on when you need them, and then take them off when you get home/the snow clears. Leaving them on will reduce your gas mileage and limit your speed, and some places will have restrictions about using them on otherwise dry roads.

Edmunds has a good how-to on installing chains (actually, cables in their example).

You may be able to get a one-way rental from PDX to Bend, which has its own airport - it's not like one-way rentals are unheard of or illegal or something. But they are generally more expensive.
posted by rtha at 6:12 PM on November 10, 2010

Sorry, typed too fast and screwed up some cut-n-paste. I meant to say that I don't know if Bend's airport has car rental facilities, though there may be a rental office in town. It will probably cost you more than $100 for a one-way rental like that.
posted by rtha at 6:21 PM on November 10, 2010

I used to live in Bend and did the drive to Portland many, many times as did many other folks (girlfriend-at-the-time's family was in Portland, etc). The vast majority of the time you can do that drive without any issues. Very rarely will you ever need chains on a passenger vehicle on regular highways - I've driven everywhere with either front wheel drive car or a 4 wheel drive truck with all terrain tires and never had many problems. The key for all winter driving is to drive slowly, even when everyone else is driving fast. 26 is maintained very well. Have a great time in Bend, it is a great town.
posted by fieldtrip at 8:38 PM on November 10, 2010

I don't know if this is possible, but I thought I'd suggest it. If you're coming in with just suitcases or similar luggage, is there any chance you could get someone from your new place of employment to drive up to Portland to pick you up, and then take you back to Bend?

If you call them and explain your problem, maybe they can come up with something for you.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 12:49 AM on November 11, 2010

Central Oregon Breeze advertises twice daily bus service between Portland (including the airport) and Bend.

As others have said, once you've done it one time chains are easy, take about 10 minutes to put on or take off, and you don't want to drive with them if you don't have to. A pair of pliers or a multi-tool can come in handy just for leverage, but isn't really necessary.

On the fear of driving in the mountains generally: I totally understand. I grew up on the east coast and lived in the south for nearly a decade before I came to California, and it took me several years out here in the Bay Area before I mustered up the courage to cross the Sierra in winter. And then I realized that if you're on one of the main drags it's no big deal (except that once it took 8 hours to get through Tahoe because of a storm). Yes, you don't want to be on small roads at altitude in the winter unless you know what you're doing, but if you're on a road with other cars you'll be fine. And if you're the only set of tracks, turn around and go back down.

And despite what they try to tell you, Bend isn't that small a town. It really does have contact with the outside world.
posted by straw at 11:30 AM on November 11, 2010

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