Road trip through Western US
June 9, 2009 6:22 PM   Subscribe

What is there to see on I-80 in the Western US?

In a few weeks, I will be on a road trip from San Francisco to Kansas City, helping my sister move her worldly belongings in a minivan to her new home city. There will be three of us going, and we figure that it's about a three day trip along I-80. This isn't a vacation, but none of us has been to this part of the country before and we'd like to find interesting things to stop at along the way to break up the monotony of the highway.

Our route takes us through Sacramento, Reno, Salt Lake City, Cheyenne, WY, and Lincoln, NE. What are some cool/interesting/historical sites to see along the way?

Looking at the map, I see that if we get off of I-80 in Sacramento and take US-50 to Carson City and then connect back up to I-80 in Reno, we'll pass Lake Tahoe and add one more state capital to the trip (we'll be passing through the capital of every state we hit, except Missouri). Are there any other detours that will might add interest but won't add more than an hour or two to the entire trip?
posted by donajo to Travel & Transportation (26 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Lake Tahoe is totally worth it. One of the great sites in the US, IMO. Truckee rules. Sacramento has some great food. From Reno to SLC is pretty much a wasteland. It's interesting in terms of terrain, but it will get boring. SLC is a great city and deserves a stop. Check out the LDS Temple, the Salt Lake, the Salt Flats, Park City, and a million other things.

Then you're in for more waste land for a while in Wyoming. Again, it's interesting in its own way but you won't have much reason to stop besides gassing up. Once you hit Laramie you'll climb up to something like 8000 feet, which is sort of cool. There's a giant head of Abe Lincoln up there on top somewhere.

Nebraska is the worst of all. Put on some Bruce Springsteen (Nebraska) and get in the mood for the state. It's slow, boring, and monotonous, and you won't even be hitting Omaha on your trip, which is the only thing there that's worth seeing.

KC is a great city with lots of history, jazz music, great food and shopping, etc.

Have a good trip and fill up your iPod before you leave.
posted by crapples at 6:34 PM on June 9, 2009

Oh wait -- If you take 50 over Echo Summit to Reno, you will bypass Truckee. My recommendation would be to do this. The drive into Tahoe is breathtaking, and Truckee can't compete.
posted by crapples at 6:35 PM on June 9, 2009

Don't bypass Mono Lake on your way out; those tufa towers are pretty incredible. Somewhere nearby is the If you love a scenic drive, I would not miss US-50 in Nevada, known as the Loneliest Road in America. Once you're off it, you might find your way up to the Bonneville Salt Flats in northwestern Utah (just off the Interstate). Alternatively, there's the absolutely gorgeous Snake River Canyon just up north in Twin Falls, ID. Either way, if you head south through Utah you get the ridiculously amazing Arches/Moab region, and can take I-70 across over the Rockies to Denver. If you've got the time, maybe you can take in a show at the Red Rocks Amphitheatre, carved out of the mountains. Or, you could drive further south at first, and hit up Death Valley, passing through some sweet ghost towns, like Rhyolite, Nevada.
posted by thejoshu at 6:37 PM on June 9, 2009

Best answer: Red Iguana (restaurant) in Salt Lake is not to be missed.
posted by sulaine at 6:40 PM on June 9, 2009

Best answer: As someone who has traveled SLC---> KC several times via I-80 I can tell you with much certainty that the most exciting things you will see are state borders. That is of course, unless you're a huge fan of cattle, corn, soybeans and wheat. F

In Wyoming they prefer that you do the speed limit (I was pulled over for doing 5 over) but after that a good 5-10 mph over is fine. Best of luck!
posted by julie_of_the_jungle at 6:40 PM on June 9, 2009

Best answer: Then you're in for more waste land for a while in Wyoming.

Hey! Some of us consider that wasteland to be our ancestral stomping grounds! ;)

You can stop at Vedauwoo (just outside Laramie) for a picnic and a short hike on one of the trails.

In Wyoming they prefer that you do the speed limit (I was pulled over for doing 5 over) but after that a good 5-10 mph over is fine.

Man, how times have changed...
posted by scody at 6:44 PM on June 9, 2009

Seconding the get a ticket easily in Wyoming thing, be watchful of your speed!
posted by yodelingisfun at 6:50 PM on June 9, 2009

You might consider dropping down to I70 after Salt Lake. Farther, but I70 through western Colorado is beautiful. Stop at Glenwood springs and have a break at the 1 million gallon, 90deg. hot spring pool.
posted by cosmac at 6:52 PM on June 9, 2009

Best answer: It kind of depends what you are interested in, but here are some things to do in Lincoln that are all somewhat centrally located:

-The Nebraska State Capital Building.
Wonderful Art Deco is the tallest building in town. Look for it when you are driving in. Go wander around inside!
-Sheldon Museum of Art. They have an awesome permanent collection.
-Museum of Nebraska History. Very cool Edwardian era African American photography exhibit up right now. Lots of Plains Native American exhibits.
-University of Nebraska State Museum. Cool old Mastodon skeletons and a Darwin exhibit.
-International Quilt Studies Center. Brand new, state of the art quilt museum with some stunning quilts on exhibit.

There are some good restaurants down in the Haymarket district in downtown Lincoln. There's Indian food at The Oven, burgers and steaks and microbrews at Lazlo's, fresh local food at Maggie's Vegetarian Vittles or perhaps you would like to go over to Bread and Cup and try some homemade bread and a variety of artisan cheeses.

If you are going to be spending a little more time in Lincoln, I'd also suggest checking out some of the tallgrass prairie preserves, checking out a film at the local indie film theater and hitting some of the excellent thrift stores.

I'm a local, so if you need directions, addresses or info, send me a note through Mefi mail.
posted by pluckysparrow at 7:04 PM on June 9, 2009

Best answer: Take exit 426 between Lincoln and Omaha, NE..

Home to:
  • The Strategic Air and Space Museum which is INCREDIBLE.
  • Mahoney State Park - lovely cabins if you're wanting a place to stay. Also, a decent dining lodge, observation towers with a view of the Platte River, horseback rides, swimming, fishing, paddleboats, etc. A jewel of the state park system.
  • Simmons Wildlife Safari - neat drive-through animal park run by the Omaha Zoo. White bison and other neat animals.

    I would also recommend visiting the Omaha zoo - it's right before you cross on over into Iowa, right off I-80. Even if you just duck in to see the aquarium, butterfly house, desert dome and rainforest, it's worth it. All of those things are right at the front of the zoo with minimal walking. There's an Imax theater and an aerial tram too.

  • posted by Ostara at 7:04 PM on June 9, 2009

    Oh, and I second Lazlo's in Lincoln. Great food and great beer.
    posted by Ostara at 7:05 PM on June 9, 2009

    Stop and take in the Center for Land Use Interpretation's Wendover Complex at the Nevada/Utah border.
    posted by gum at 7:12 PM on June 9, 2009

    Best answer: Agreed about taking I70 after SLC. Wyoming/Nebraska is possibly the most boring drive in the universe. It's not that it's not beautiful, because it absolutely is, it's just that there's SO MUCH OF IT. And it goes on FOREVER. Also if you take I70 then you get to drive through Colorado and see Denver.

    Lake Tahoe is beautiful, although I prefer North Shore to South - but it's easier to loop through Carson City if you go south. Don't take 50 across Nevada, it's seriously desolate. SLC is amazing. Definitely stop and see the Temple and the lake itself. And talk to people cos everyone there is really really nice.
    posted by elsietheeel at 7:12 PM on June 9, 2009

    Best answer: The Star Restaurant in Elko, NV is an experience.
    posted by another zebra at 7:12 PM on June 9, 2009

    There is actually an entire book about things to do in Wyoming along I80. I cannot say that I have actually done any of them, since I am usually in "drive without stopping till you get there" mode when I'm on I80, but some of them might be worth checking out.
    posted by newrambler at 8:06 PM on June 9, 2009

    Best answer: If you're a meat eater and want something "rustic" I hugely enjoyed the Martin Hotel's restaurant in Winnemucca. It's Basque. You eat what they serve (usually lamb) on a big table with everyone else. It's right on the railroad tracks- so I doubt staying the night is a good idea (but I could be wrong- I don't know how used those tracks are). It's a real piece of history that, before I landed there, I had never known about.
    posted by small_ruminant at 8:20 PM on June 9, 2009

    Best answer: Assuming you're then taking I-29 south at Lincoln, you'll be driving along the southern end of the Loess Hills. Not a lot of exciting stuff to see/do, but it's worth a quick read to know what/why all those hills are suddenly there out of nowhere. Interesting geology.
    posted by webhund at 8:33 PM on June 9, 2009

    I second cosmac - I-70 through Glenwood Canyon in CO is the most breathtaking interstate stretch I've ever seen. Well worth the detour.

    As for heading on 50 to Tahoe - keep in mind that once you get to South Lake Tahoe, its a much longer trip up either side of the lake or 395 back to Reno - so if you are trying to make some time, this will add a couple of hours to your trip. But, Tahoe is gorgeous (I'm more surprised that you are in SF and haven't been!)

    Once you are east of Reno, its kind of like, um, well... I hope your iPod is full. The quirkiness of truckstops is about all the entertainment you'll find. Elko and Winnemucca Nevada have some good sports to eat.

    SLC is gorgeous- a really beautiful and clean city.

    KC, I don't ever remember, except the time we stayed near the Royals stadium, went to a ball game, and saw Bo Jackson hit a home run.

    Have a good trip!
    posted by Chuck Cheeze at 8:46 PM on June 9, 2009

    Best answer: Nebraskan author Willa Cather writes: "The only thing very noticeable about Nebraska was that it was still, all day long, Nebraska." Your route includes 72 miles of perfectly straight, uncurving, linear road. That's because there is no notable obstacle or attraction around which to bend.

    You'll go crazy if you don't break up the drive, but there's not many ways to do so. You might want to check out the archway near Kearney, which is a museum actually located above the interstate. It's kind of cheesy, but it's something to do. If you don't want to go inside, it's a good place to pull over and walk down to the Platte River, which is a beautiful place with lots of wildlife. If you go at the right time of year, there are thousands of sandhill cranes hanging out by the archway.

    Ostara has good recommendations for Omaha attractions. But if you want to save time, consider taking US-75 and bypassing the city.

    Nebraska has its own fast food franchise called Runza. They're littered all along I-80. If you need a quick place to eat, drive up and order a Runza - with or without cheese. It's fast food, which is usually blasphemy, but Runza is local and way better quality than the national chains.

    I love my state, but you might want to do the I-70 idea so you can see the mountains. You'll miss the Wyoming and Nebraska capitals, but you'll hit the Colorado and Kansas capitals. The drive through Kansas is pretty bad too, though.
    posted by Sfving at 11:39 PM on June 9, 2009 [1 favorite]

    Best answer: "... Nebraska is the worst of all. Put on some Bruce Springsteen (Nebraska) and get in the mood for the state. It's slow, boring, and monotonous, and you won't even be hitting Omaha on your trip, which is the only thing there that's worth seeing. ..."
    posted by crapples at 9:34 PM on June 9

    That's an incredibly ill-informed "stoner's" view of the Great Plains, particularly Western Nebraska. Permit me, a native Cornhusker, to disagree.

    "... That's because there is no notable obstacle or attraction around which to bend. ..." posted by Sfving at 2:39 AM on June 10

    Again, permit to respectfully disagree with Sfving, almost entirely, as one who has cruised hundreds of miles of Western Nebraska's roads in a pickup, with a good dog, as recently as 4 years ago. There's a majesty about that landscape that deserves some stopping, and walking about, and letting the wind whistle through your hair, as the huge skies pull your eyes up to prairie weather, and perhaps cranes or other migratory fowl circling overhead. Although your trip is too late in the year for the spring sandhill crane migration, there are a number of Platte River parks at locations that parallel I-80, many only a few miles off the Interstate. I-80 actually follows the the Platte River valley, very closely, for more than 120 miles from Ogallala to near Grand Island, and it would be a shame not to take an hour or two to stretch your legs along its banks on a nice summer day, when there are plenty of places to do so. The Platte is an interesting landscape, known for being "a mile wide and inch deep," but this broad, gentle, sometimes seasonal waterway remains unique in its topography in North America, and has never been seriously polluted; it's literally a "river of life" through the Great Plains that those who whoosh along I-80 at the speed limit miss entirely, simply for lack of noticing.

    Even if you can't spare a few hours for "off I-80" Nebraska, like Willa Cather's home in Red Cloud, you can still take a few minutes at Interstate rest stops, to get up close and personal with the landscape of the Cornhusker State. As Skving observes rightly, don't miss the Great Platte River Road Archway Monument, near Kearney, which actually straddles I-80. And outside Lincoln, at mile marker 425.5 eastbound, and mile marker 404 westbound, are rest stops with views of the Lincoln skyline in the distance, along with markers explaining the geography of the salt pan Lincoln sits in, and a few acres of "restored prairie" which are plots of grassland, supervised by the state agricultural service, that have been encouraged to revert to what the original landscape was, before the introduction of modern agricultural practices. It's simply amazing to walk quietly and slowly along the borders of these acres, getting used to a landscape scaled to 4 feet of vertical height, and 2000 species of plants, insects and animals, living in dense micro-environment that once covered 1/3 of North America. Again, something you miss, entirely, whizzing by at 70 mph, with Springsteen your only "touchpoint."

    If you get off I-80 in Lincoln, and head south to Kansas along US 77, you'll drop below the NE/KS state line near Marysville, KS, and that is worth doing to vist Pony Express Station No. 1, which is now a museum. But as you drive south along US 77, you're bound to see some of the last family farmers on the Great Plains working their farms, to your right and left, on land that generally gets enough regular rain to make small section farming still economic. You may see old farm trucks driven by kerchief wearing farm women, although this is a lot more likely in the fall, as whole families still turn out to make the harvest. But don't miss the Koester House Museum while you're in Marysville. Head out of Marysville east on US 36, and you'll be following the very dust of Pony Express rider's hoof beats, on a road that is unbelievably, incredibly as straight as an arrow to the east, 60 miles or more to Hiawatha, up and down the rolling hills of Northeast Kansas, towards St. Joesph, MO. That the Pony Express riders did the leg from St. Joesph to Marysville in 4 to 6 hours on horseback, which you do, now on nicely paved roads, behind a gasoline engine, in 2 or so hours, ought to give you considerable material for reflection, once you've at least ridden their road in air-conditioned comfort.

    At St. Joesph, you can drop straight south to KC on I-29, no worse for wear from two lane America. In KC, be sure to get some Barbeque, and walk around the Country Club Plaza.
    posted by paulsc at 12:50 AM on June 10, 2009

    As someone who's done the drive on both I-70 and I-80, I agree that I-70 is about 500x more scenic. Stop at one of the ski resorts along the way that's offering scenic rides (Vail?) and take the chair to the top. The view from 12000ft is really breathtaking if you've never been that high before. If you do decide to stay on I-80, drive up Little Cottonwood Canyon in SLC to get your mountain fix and ride the tram at Snowbird.
    posted by rachelv at 6:31 AM on June 10, 2009

    Best answer: just to emphasize . . . the great salt lake is an AMAZING sight. you don't want to miss it. and if you can stop, and maybe even take a dip (do they let you do that anymore?) it will blow your mind.

    and the salt flats are amazing too. don't miss them . . .
    posted by deejay jaydee at 9:42 AM on June 10, 2009

    Best answer: I've driven various parts of I-80 lots of times over the years, but recently reading Annals of the Former World by John McPhee put it all in a whole new light. It's a geological history of the world based on McPhee's decades' long travels along I-80 with various geologists.

    It's altogether rather long but the sort of a thing you can skip around and read piece by piece, not necessarily in order. For instance I would start by reading about the sections you will be traveling.

    What reading the book will do is help you see the whole countryside along the entire route with a new set of eyes--everything from the basin & range territory of Nevada & Utah to the incessange winds of Wyoming to the 'gangplank' that I-80 and the railroad follow in eastern Wyoming.
    posted by flug at 10:38 AM on June 10, 2009

    Best answer: Wow. Love to see all the Nebraskans chiming in.

    Pluckysparrow is right on about many of the great things to see and places to eat in Lincoln. Although I would also add The Blue Orchid if you like Thai food and Misty's if you are looking for steak, both are located in downtown Lincoln.

    Also if you should definitely check out the Stuhr Museum, a living history museum of prairie pioneering life. It is in Grand Island, NE just about 5 miles off I-80.
    posted by ephemerista at 12:05 PM on June 10, 2009

    Response by poster: Thanks to everyone! This is great. I'll be sure to check back in after the trip and let y'all know how it turned out.
    posted by donajo at 2:14 PM on June 10, 2009

    Wow. Love to see all the Nebraskans chiming in.

    Heh... no other Wyomingites besides me?

    Forgot to mention -- if you do actually feel like stopping in Laramie and spending a few hours, check out the Laramie Plains Museum. Depending on exactly when your trip happens, you might also be there for Jubilee Days, during which you could check out the rodeo or other various events to get a feel of how life is still lived in the (semi-)Wild West.
    posted by scody at 3:07 PM on June 10, 2009

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