[Road Trip] San Francisco to Tahoe

Tahoe, Tahoe, it’s off to ski we go. 

What Tahoe should resemble. 

Popular ski resort area Lake Tahoe is known for its water-sports summers and, generally, its powdery winters. While the northeast is blanketed in seemingly-eternal white, Tahoe has had a rather warm winter. Though less and less people are headed to Tahoe, not even rising temperatures can stop the San Francisco snowbirds from packing up their skis every Friday to hit the slopes.

We analyzed hourly data for nearly 1000 trips originating in the city of San Francisco that finished in the greater Lake Tahoe region throughout a weekend in January to see what an average drive looked like. Though it may be warmer up there this year, hopefully this helps you figure out the best way to get there.

Don’t Get Sac’ed

The majority of drivers head to Tahoe in the morning, between 6:00 AM & 9:00 AM, and in the afternoon, between 3:00PM – 9:00PM on Friday. Not surprising: people are either take off Friday or try to leave early to “beat the traffic”. They probably don’t know that 7:00PM is actually the #1 time to leave for Tahoe, and drives to Tahoe that begin at 7:00PM have the longest drive times.

Honestly, regardless of when you leave, it’s very difficult to avoid traffic. Nearly every route to the Tahoe area passes through downtown San Francisco, the Oakland metropolitan area and California’s capital city of Sacramento.

This creates some difficulty in route planning, since major traffic may be picking up by the time you pass through the next city. Below we created a simple visualization of the type, magnitude and location of alerts that occur in Sacramento on a typical weekend. Note that they fall directly in the middle of the “shortest” route (according to Waze).

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Reporting data for Sacramento, a city on every San Franciscan’s drive to Tahoe [OC]. 

In general, the worst time to drive through Sacramento is at 5PM- even on Saturdays. This is when the most traffic alerts occur, and would be likely to add 20-30 minutes to your Tahoe trip. Be particularly wary of I-80 between Davis and Sacramento in Yolo County (seriously)- that’s where the overwhelming majority of traffic reports happen during these drives.

If you really want to beat the traffic to Tahoe, take Friday off and leave at 6:00AM. You’ll enjoy less congested roads and the highest average speeds out of all the trips (58 MPH). If you want to really beat everybody to the mountain, head out after 9PM Thursday night, but understand that driving in the evening hours when temperatures drop may increase risk if you encounter any severe weather.

For the return trip, it’s always better to leave early. No matter when your fellow San Franciscans leave for Tahoe, everyone’s coming back on the same day: Sunday. Leave early in the morning or late at night to enjoy a pleasant trip home.

Or just take Monday off too….not like you’re in a hurry to get back, are you?