The road once carried stagecoaches during the Gold Rush and wound its way through what is now a national forest and an area of the Sierra Nevada known for its snowmobiles.
In the winter, the rugged passage known as Quincy-La Porte Road or County Road 511 in Plumas County, California, is closed.
But Wendy Becktold, a Bay Area editor who was on her way Monday to visit an ailing relative in Reno, Nev., said she wasn’t aware of it as she navigated her rented Toyota Corolla while exploring the region. still struggled. with a record snow storm.
Google Maps had led her in that direction because two major highways near Lake Tahoe were closed, she said in an interview Wednesday, following concerns from other motorists and public safety officials about the potential dangers of relying too much on GPS applications.
They said Google Maps and Waze, which is also owned by Google, along with other mapping programs, wouldn’t always explain seasonal road closures or treacherous terrain, instead focusing on temporary road closures.
“There were a lot of cars behind us,” said Mrs. Becktold. “Obviously Google Maps routed everyone the same way.”
Ms. Becktold, 50, senior editor of stories for Sierra, a magazine published by the Sierra Club, said she and her cousin had seen a tree branch on a power line and passed many huts while unknowingly penetrated. Then an employee in a safety vest waved them off, said Ms. Becktold, who lives in Berkeley, California.
“He said, ‘Everyone just show me their phones,’” recalled Ms. Becktold. “He was just like annoyed.”
A Google Maps spokeswoman said in a statement Wednesday that the tech company is taking steps to provide drivers with accurate route information.
“In light of the unpredictable conditions of the current snow storm, our team is working as quickly as possible to update routes in the Lake Tahoe area using details from local authorities.” said the spokeswoman, Madison Gouveia. “We are currently displaying a winter storm warning to alert motorists in the area and encourage everyone to remain alert and attentive.”
Google Maps did not answer questions about the types of safety measures for drivers it uses, including warnings about winter road closures or unpaved roads. SFGate.com previously reported on the detours.
In Washoe County, Nev., which includes Reno, a family of five from Southern California was stranded for two hours Monday night when their rented pickup truck became stuck in snow on a two-lane dirt road, the police’s office said. sheriff of the county.
The family had sought an alternate route along the way to visit relatives for the vacation in Truckee, California, during the storm, which closed off a 80-mile stretch of Interstate 80 and contributed to the Sierra’s snowiest December ever.
More than 5 meters of snow had fallen last Thursday, according to the Central Sierra Snow Lab at the University of California, Berkeley. The storm also closed Highway 50 for about 50 miles in the Sacramento Valley and the Lake Tahoe Basin before reopening it and I-80.
In a Facebook post on Tuesday, the Washoe County Sheriff’s Office said the family had ignored illuminated warning signs telling motorists not to use the Dog Valley-Henness Pass Roads.
“However, the family’s GPS has won the battle over which technology to listen to,” the sheriff’s office said in a Facebook post on Tuesday, adding that the family had been rescued.
It was not clear which GPS application the family had used.
In a public warning last week, the Washoe County Sheriff’s Office said drivers had often taken the same detour when using GPS. According to the sheriff, emergency services were called for 11 rescues from November 2020 to last February.
Raquel Borrayo, a spokeswoman for Caltrans, California’s state transportation division, said in an email Wednesday that the agency had tried to reinforce that relying too much on GPS apps could be risky.
“When people try to use map apps like Waze or Google Maps to avoid highway closures, they can sometimes find themselves in very precarious and dangerous situations with unploughed roads/dirt roads, large amounts of snow and no cell phone service,” said Ms. Borrayo. . “We always tell people to stay on highways and that way find alternative routes instead of using rural roads. We also advise people to just sit and wait for the highway closure to be lifted.”
During this week’s storm, several people posted screenshots to Twitter of Google Maps and Waze directions directing users to the Henness Pass Road, which the Sierra County Historical Society describes as a remote and winding mountain road that rises to an elevation of 6,920 feet. The road, a primary emigrant trail from Virginia City, Nev., has been “omitted on many maps,” according to a description on the historic society’s website.
Named for the doomed snowy pioneer family, some of whom resorted to cannibalism in the 1840s, Donner Pass is about 40 miles from the detour.
A spokeswoman for Waze said in an email on Thursday that the company is committed to helping drivers navigate efficiently and safely.
“In light of this week’s blizzard and changing weather conditions, Waze Community Map Editors will continue to update our maps with the latest real-time route information,” said spokeswoman Caroline Bourdeau. “We encourage drivers to be careful and stay alert on the road,”
Waze has a filter that allows drivers to avoid unpaved roads.
Crystal A. Kolden, a geographer and disaster scientist who teaches at the University of California, Merced, said she couldn’t believe it when she saw that Google Maps had suggested Henness Pass and other backcountry roads to drivers looking for alternatives to the I. -80.
‘In the summer they are hardly passable,’ said Professor Kolden on Wednesday. “How trustworthy should these companies have an ethical responsibility?”
Professor Kolden, 44, who was at her home near Sonora, California, in the Sierra foothills during the storm, criticized Google maps on Twitter. Some commentators mocked her post, saying drivers should take responsibility for monitoring conditions and that she sounded like a Prius-driving millennial.
“Blaming vulnerable people for going the wrong way is like blaming some of those poor vulnerable people who drowned in their basement apartments in New York City not long ago,” she said in an interview, referring to deadly floods in September.
On Wednesday, Google Maps showed red dots with dashes in them on the road Mrs. Becktold had taken during her circuitous journey on Monday. The road closure warnings hadn’t been there two days earlier, she said.
“It wasn’t like we were just frolicking, looking for a day in the snow,” said Mrs. Becktold.
Mrs. Becktold said she had no choice but to return to Berkeley when she was about 240 miles into the 200-mile journey. Her cousin, who had been trying to reach her ailing brother in Reno, eventually resorted to flying from San Francisco to Reno — via Los Angeles, she said.
“It seems a bit silly in this day and age,” she said, “that there couldn’t be any clearer information online that these roads are closed.”