The winter of 2020/21 was a game of Whac-A-Mole, as California Highway Patrol Officer Carlos Perez succinctly puts it.
Drivers would pull over on the shoulder of Interstate 80 in the Donner Summit region, then passengers would climb out of the car and play in the snow on the side of the freeway. A CHP officer would show up, issue a citation, and the recreators would be on their way.
Or cars would be parked in the rest areas at the top of Donner Summit, where signs saying “No Snow Play” and “No Trespassing” are prominently displayed, and folks would do the same thing. Again, a CHP officer would appear, issue a citation, and send the car off.
Or visiting parties would take to the side streets of I-80, apparently ignorant of the “No Parking” signs every 100 feet, and park vehicles on the shoulders and even in travel lanes of Old Highway 40 to be able to play in the snow.
Serving as the primary enforcement for parking in the region, CHP issued citation after citation, but seemingly to no effect; officers would leave to perform other duties, then return only to discover a new person was parked along the side of I-80 or in rest areas or in no-parking zones and recreating in the snow — à la Whac-A-Mole.
“We had probably four or five times the normal parking tickets,” Perez recalled. “We towed some vehicles as well … In my [four] years being up here being a highway patrol man [and 21 as a Truckee resident], … [this past winter] was crazy. So many people everywhere; not just one general problem area — everywhere.”
Perez provided numbers to back that up: CHP parking tickets distributed in December 2020 compared to December 2019 showed a nearly 85% jump, while January 2021 had a 436% increase when compared to January 2020.
Now a new winter is on the horizon (fingers crossed), local ski resorts are experiencing record-breaking ski pass sales, and crowds are expected, so agencies, governments, and businesses are planning for those who seek out non-resort (and free) settings. Already in action is new signage, and in motion are efforts to raise the parking citation amount, construct additional snow play areas, and create a recreation master plan. Simultaneously, a tourism-dedicated group is helping get the right information in front of potential visitors.
“We’re working together with other partners and agencies to get this message spread out and help with this problem,” Perez said. “I know it’s not going to go away, but at least we can do as much [as possible] to alleviate most of the issues.”
Trisha Tillotson, community development agency director with Nevada County, said Covid-19 had a lot to do with nudging people outside last winter, and the Truckee/North Tahoe area obliged, providing the setting for numerous outdoor activities. However, people flocked to all the same spots, many along Old Highway 40 on Donner Summit. Signage every 100 feet prohibiting parking was ignored, Tillotson said, and once one person began parking illegally everyone else seemed to join the fray.
“Last [winter] we had people who blocked an entire lane for quite a long distance,” she said. “It’s definitely a major impact, not only for the visitors themselves — it puts them in danger — but it also puts the local residents and local businesses at a disadvantage too, if something should happen.”
Cars aren’t the only objects in need of a place to go on Donner Summit; so does people’s waste. Long-term solutions for needed restrooms and trash-disposal options are currently being brainstormed as part of a larger recreation master plan for the summit area, which is expected to be proposed in 2022. Donner Summit, Tillotson confirmed, will be an area of focus for that plan.
Convene, Champion, Catalyze is a roundtable to address peak period visitor impacts, born of Nevada County District 5 Supervisor Hardy Bullock and composed of leadership from organizations involved with or managing Truckee tourism. Currently, the CCC is seeking to raise citation fees associated with illegal parking on Highway 40.
“Right now, it’s $36 for a traffic citation,” Bullock said. “… We want to take that up to the $125 mark.”
Greg Dallas, president and CEO of Sugar Bowl Resort and Royal Gorge Cross Country, said in a Dec. 1 CCC meeting that he doesn’t see the current fines being effective at all in deterring illegal parking.
“The fines aren’t high enough, so the message is that the parking fines are ineffective at the low rates,” he shared in a follow-up email. “People just pay the fine as their cost to snow play.”
That cost is nowhere near as expensive as one lift ticket or, in most people’s cases, several lift tickets. For reference, a daily lift ticket for Palisades Tahoe purchased online in advance is $118 to $229 for adults; a day pass at Diamond Peak ranges from $120 to $145 (though thinking ahead pays off, p. 21). During the 2020/21 winter, some parties who were parked illegally had intended to visit a ski resort, Perez reported, but found themselves unable to due to Covid-19-induced capacity restrictions.
The attempt to increase parking fees will be a delicate process, Bullock cautioned, saying that the court system could shoot down proposed citation increases “if they don’t feel the fine is appropriate or fair.”
Such a change took place over at South Yuba River in 2018, when Nevada County increased the parking citation fine from $38 to $162 at Purdon and Edwards crossings. But the results weren’t as successful as county staff had hoped. The number of parking violations cited at Purdon Crossing in 2019 was 123; in 2020, it was 221. At Edwards Crossing in 2019, enforcement issued 34 citations, the following year, 35.
“Even an increased fine could not be that much to some people,” Tillotson said. “The fine amount, while we’re looking at increasing it [on Donner Summit], it hasn’t really proven to be much of a deterrent down at the Yuba River.”
Any plan for increased fines must include buy-in from Placer County since both lay claim to parts of Donner Summit roads, and is likely a year or so out.
Parking for snow play areas does exist around Donner Summit — mostly at commercial snow play areas like Boreal Ski Resort, Donner Ski Ranch, and Soda Springs. But the Donner Summit Sno-Park, near the Boreal ski area turn-off, offers national forest land for recreation and only requires a $5 day permit or $25 annual pass. Bullock said the Truckee Donner Land Trust and the U.S. Forest Service are talking about the possibility of adding a new snow play area west of Cisco Grove, potentially cutting down vehicle trips to Donner Summit.
Just beyond the eastern shore of Lake Tahoe is Tahoe Meadows, an area of public land suited for all seasons and overseen by the USFS. Parking mostly takes place along either side of Highway 431, which bisects the meadow. While many cars zip through between Incline Village and Mt. Rose Ski Tahoe, Brian Hansen, recreation officer with the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest, says very few incidents have happened.
“Anytime, anywhere when you park on the side of the road there’s always a safety concern,” he told Moonshine. “… But depending on the snow year, typically there’s a large enough pullout for individuals to safely access Tahoe Meadows for both motorized and non-motorized [activities].”
Parking for and recreating in the meadows is completely free of charge, and Hansen said the creation of a management plan is being considered by the forest service and Nevada Department of Transportation to reduce public safety concerns and institute better management.
While illegal parking on any street could mean financial punishment, the penalties for parking along the shoulder of I-80 carry more weight. In addition to a $50 fine, those making non-emergency stops on the freeway receive a point conviction, affecting driver’s license privileges.
The day visitors who are receiving these tickets, Officer Perez added, mostly come from Sacramento Valley and the Bay Area, though a few tend to hail from Reno. Truckee/North Tahoe locals, according to Perez, are the ones calling CHP to inform the agency of illegal parking.
With the same citation fees still in place for the 2021/22 winter, Perez said communication between agencies and resorts will be key. At a meeting of the minds between the CHP, ski resorts, and the counties in late October, a plan was hatched for the resorts to notify CHP and Caltrans when their lots are parked out so the agencies can update digital signage to reflect that information to inbound travelers. Palisades Tahoe is adding more of its own changeable message signs on roads toward the resort for the 2021/22 season.
Visitors to Donner Summit this past summer saw several solutions already underway as Nevada County established bike lanes and improved parking areas. Additional parking signage had already been installed in February 2021. The summer construction was part of a larger project to rehabilitate the road from the Soda Springs exit on I-80 to the Town of Truckee limit and increase access to public lands.
“What we’re really doing is defining where you can legally park and where you cannot,” Tillotson said. “And along the roadway, you’re not allowed to park anywhere on the pavement where it’s not designated as such — any of the travel lanes you’re not allowed to park on. What we’re doing is we’re partnering with our law enforcement officers to really have a strong presence this winter.”
The strong presence may be hampered, however, due to lack of staff. Perez said at the end of November that CHP Truckee staffing was at 60% capacity — a kick in the teeth for an office that covers Truckee and the North and West shores of Tahoe.
“It’s frustrating because it takes away from calls,” Perez said of the illegal parking time-suck. “Obviously you have priority calls where we’re going to go to first, but people get mad at us. We’re really trying, and we’ll get there.”
Visit Truckee-Tahoe, the Truckee-area tourism office, has a plan to educate visitors about appropriate snow play places and parking options, according to brand and stewardship communications manager Siobhan Kenney. Underway is its Sustainable Truckee winter plan, which will include a digital, interactive recreation map to direct people to snow play and sledding areas (not public as of press deadline, though expected to be launched by the end of December at visittruckeetahoe.com/travelalert), A-frame trailhead signage, and trail host ambassadors.
Tillotson mentioned arounddonnersummit.com as a resource of available snow play areas, and Perez said CHP officers list places people can go for winter recreation whenever they give out citations for illegal parking.
Looking to the future, Sugar Bowl Resort is in the permitting process for a tubing area, to be ready at the beginning of the 2022/23 season. “The tubing area will be located right off Judah Road, with dedicated parking and restroom facilities,” shared Jon Slaughter, executive director of marketing and sales for the resort, in an email. “Our hope is to offer the most tubing lanes in North Lake Tahoe, which should alleviate some of the pressure for sledding on Donner Pass Road and Old 40.”
In general, those speaking with Moonshine urged anyone seeking a snow play area to visit locations meant for such recreation.
“I would personally highly recommend it that you go to a sno-park or a ski resort or an organized location,” Tillotson said. “Really alongside the road too, we see such unsafe activities occurring — sledding right up to the edge of the road. That’s just not a great idea, especially with the amount of traffic that we see on Donner Pass Road.”