Least-terrifying route from Washington, DC to Vancouver, BC?
December 8, 2010 7:27 AM   Subscribe

Least-terrifying route from Washington, DC to Vancouver, BC? Cross-country driving pros: your insights, please.

Moving to Canada! First we have to drive there, with a car and an SUV with a trailer and 2 not-very-happy cats. What route should we use, if we want to avoid mountains/twisty roads and bad weather as much as possible? I've driven most of I-80 W three times, but worry it dips too far south to be worth the extra time avoiding the unknown I-90/94 route. Is my "North=worse weather and icy roads" assumption a reasonable one?

Also interested in knowing which port of entry is least awful, or if they're pretty much the same w/ re: wait times and dickishness of the customs agents.

This is happening within the next 2 weeks.

Thanks in advance!
posted by wowbobwow to Travel & Transportation (18 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
You are right, I-80 goes too far south. The worst part of I-90 is in Washington state, so if you take I-80 until you are past that, you'll be in San Francisco (and it is a long drive from SF up to Seattle). I-90 is an interstate, so I don't think twisty is going to be an issue, but there may be bad weather. Carry chains, warm clothes, a shovel, and a headlamp. Most importantly, if the weather looks bad and you don't feel comfortable, wait it out. Realistically though, there is a lot of traffic on I-90 through the winter - it isn't a desolate mountain road or anything like that.

I wouldn't go out of your way to try a different border crossing. If you arrive at non-peak times, you'll be fine.
posted by ssg at 7:51 AM on December 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

Regardless of the route you take you are going to cross the Rockies and either the Cascades or the Sierras. In the worst of weather, these roads will be closed but on the plus side you are using all interstate roads so they will be cleared first.

Best advice is to allow slack in your schedule so that you can hold up overnight somewhere in case the weather turns awful. Also try to time the mountain pass crossings for daylight when you are most awake. As ssg says, these roads are mega important so they are going to get a lot of attention if the weather turns sour.
posted by mmascolino at 8:07 AM on December 8, 2010

One piece of advice is that you could take I-80 to I-25 in Wyoming, where the two intersect, and then take I-25 up to I-90. This way you'll be on the more southern I-80 for a greater distance and it's not too terribly far out of your way.

That being said, there is still plenty of bad weather to go around in western Nebraska and eastern Wyoming, so maybe this isn't an ideal solution. However, it's something to consider.

Like others have said, make sure you have plenty of warm clothing, some schedule flexibility, and ways to communicate with people should you run into trouble. A nice sleeping bag might be a good idea too in case you have to sleep in your car overnight for some horrible reason.
posted by elder18 at 8:13 AM on December 8, 2010

Ooh. Bad timing. When I did this, we drove across in April. It was warmer than usual that spring and we didn't have any issues going through the Rockies. But Yellowstone was still closed since, in a normal year, it still would have been pretty chancy to be traveling around there. Doing it at Christmastime? Wow. If you have to do it now, pay close attention to the weather forecasts, be prepared to hole up in some tiny motel in the middle of nowhere for a couple days to wait for clear patch, and be prepared for emergencies. And good luck.

Once you get there, you'll probably want to cross the border at the Blaine Peace Arch crossing. It's the obvious choice, and it's a good one. They have a separate crossing a couple miles east of there for trucks. Don't use that one. The Peace Arch crossing itself usually isn't that bad.

And the border folks are Canadian. Even when they try to be dickish, they just can't seem to pull it off.
posted by Naberius at 8:38 AM on December 8, 2010

Another possible route would be I-80 to I-84 out of Salt Lake City. When I took this route in late summer, it seemed to me one of the least up-and-down or twisty mountain routes through the Rockies. I thought Idaho would be pretty mountainous through there, but I-84 is mostly through flat wide valleys, and the only thing I would worry about is high winds (but that would be the case for Nebraska, eastern Wyoming and Montana as well). I was headed for Portland, though, and I can't speak to how I-82 would be through the Cascades. I-5 between Portland and Seattle isn't too bad in the winter, though, once you're on that side of the Cascades.
posted by aabbbiee at 8:51 AM on December 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

Even I-70 can end up closed due to bad weather, so heading south will probably not help that much. If you do take I-80 across, you'd have to take I-84 from Salt Lake City to Portland and then I-5 North. No reason to visit San Francisco, unless you want to.

I personally found I-80 a slog to drive through, really boring, and I-90 more interesting. However, I didn't have cats and could stop to see stuff on both trips. The other thing you could do is map out both routes and look at weather conditions when you reach the Chicago area and 80 and 90 merge together for a short while. This will require a bit of logistics on your end for being able to monitor weather, but it might just work.

I've never done the drive in the winter, so I don't know, I will echo the statement that I-5 is fine in the winter from Portland up to the Canada border.

Also, I suggest you figure out which places you're staying at allow pets. Many do not and leaving the cats out overnight may not be the best idea in the winter. (I didn't allow for this on a 14 hour drive from Ohio to Boston once- I ended up napping at rest stops as all the motels along the way told me I couldn't take my cat in and that they'd be checking- said after they saw the cat in the car.)
posted by Hactar at 9:01 AM on December 8, 2010

Best answer: I've done most of these routes. Here's my preferred route given the plethora of interstates:

I-70 out of DC, up to the Penna Turnpike. Better winter maintenance than I-68. When I-70 splits off at Breezewood, take the split to I-70. Stay on it through WV, OH, IN until Indianapolis. If you hit Columbus, OH at a non-rush hour time, go straight through, skip the bypass.

In Indianapolis switch to I-74. South bypass (I-465) is probably easiest. I-74 across the rest of IN, IL. You have now successfully avoided all of Chicago by over 100 miles. Catch I-80 in Quad Cities, IA/IL.

I-80 through almost all of IA. It's boring. Stop at the Iowa-80 truck stop, a tiny piece of trucker heaven with everything in one stop. When you are on the west side of Iowa, catch I-29. I-29 north into SD.

Catch I-90 west. I-90 west until Seattle, then I-405 to I-5 north to the border, Highway 99 to Vancouver. I-90 tends to be the easiest for a couple of reasons. I-94 gets brutally cold, and really is out of the way unless you go through Chicago, which you don't want to do. I-80 to I-84 requires going across Wyoming instead of Montana. Wyoming has a higher frequency of closures from my experience. Also, I-80 requires going over the Uinta's, followed by I-84 going through the Blue Mountains/Deadman's Pass/Cabbage Hill. I-84 has frequent intense fogs in eastern Oregon, and it is scary. The bad parts of I-90 seem to be "less worse." If Livingston Pass in Montana acts up, they'll send you through town to avoid the winds. Crossing the divide is a bit easier, and is near a major town, Butte. Idaho tends to do a good job of keeping the panhandle clear. The last pass, Snoqualmie in WA does close in the worst of storms, but usually stays open.

All other routes such as I-80 through NV/CA, I-70 through CO/UT are too far south and don't provide benefits. I-70 sends you through the highest part of the Rockies. I-80 sends you through Tahoe/Donner Pass, then I-5 goes over the Siskiyou Summit on the OR/CA border, which snows in frequently as well. The additional miles/time result in no gain regarding the passes.

The only route I haven't done is the TCH. I imagine it's cold across Manitoba and Saskatchewan. No clue on the passes. Gas is more expensive in Canada, too. Lastly: Consider getting snow chains. They may be required, especially because you have a trailer over some of the passes if you do hit the worst of the snows.

Port of Entry: Unless you take the TCH for the majority of your journey, you wind up going through at Blaine, WA. Check the wait times to see if the Peace Arch or Truck Crossing are faster.
posted by Mister Fabulous at 10:09 AM on December 8, 2010 [4 favorites]

You could consider crossing the border into Manitoba and getting on to the Trans-Canada at Winnipeg. The drive from there to Calgary is virtually a straight line and should take a day if the weather is clear. Calgary to Vancouver will usually be another ten or twelve hours, but it gets a little dicier through the mountains. It will most likely be colder through the Canadian prairies, but the odds of a highway closure due to snow will be much lower than in some states that, although not as cold, definitely get more snow.
posted by fso at 10:39 AM on December 8, 2010

Mister Fabulous has, well, fabulous advice. We've done I-90 from SD to WA towing a trailer in November (albeit of a not very bad winter, which I can tell you is NOT what this winter is shaping up to be) and it wasn't too terribly bad, and after hearing anecdata from others, were pretty sure it was the right path to take.

Also--having moved from the east coast where everything is relatively close together, please don't underestimate either the time or the distance it will take you to get places, especially in the winter. Pack food and water, sleeping bags, and flares--cell reception isn't that great in some areas and you might be waiting for a while if anything happens. Take seriously any road closings/chains required/pass closed signs you see. Maybe see if you can get a cheap CB radio to hear road conditions from truck drivers?

Good luck and if you can, have fun! There's a lot of great stuff to see along that route if you have the time.
posted by stellaluna at 10:45 AM on December 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks everyone! When I showed these latest comments to my travel-mate, many uses were made of CAPS LOCK to express his elation.

Now as to how a loyal Capitals fan will acclimate to Canucks country, that can wait for another day. /dork
posted by wowbobwow at 11:07 AM on December 8, 2010

You don't need a CB radio to hear the road conditions -- everywhere will have an AM station broadcasting it, just look for the sign that says what it is.

I took I-90 around Christmas a few years ago and at least once the radio was saying "chain requirements have been lifted" while all the signs were saying "chains required 5 miles ahead... 3 miles ahead..." and all sorts of people were pulled over putting on chains, but when you actually got to that point, lo and behold the radio was right and there were no chains required. Saved me some trouble (and $75, as I was able to return the chains in the spring).

But if you don't have them, definitely buy chains before you go, preferably from somewhere you will be able to return them on the other side if you don't end up needing to use them.
posted by brainmouse at 12:37 PM on December 8, 2010

When you get close, you can check which border crossing to use. (Or if you can't get online to check right then, the statistics on that page should help too.) Good luck!
posted by Margalo Epps at 1:43 PM on December 8, 2010

I have driven all of these routes (some many times) and I agree with everything MisterFabulous says. All I would add is that you should bookmark on your laptop (and write down the tollfree numbers for) each state's mountain pass information. (Example)

Check each one three or so days before arriving, and again the night before, and if the weather is particularly brutal either hunker down in a motel for an extra night or just route yourself around. So for example if Snoqualmie pass will be shut, you can almost always get around by cutting south through the Columbia Gorge on I-84, and then heading north up I-5. All of the passes have work arounds like that, but only if you are looking a day ahead -- once you get close, you are committed.
posted by Forktine at 4:48 PM on December 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

Two points about Canadian immigration:
Depending on your immigration category, they may want you to have a list of everything you're bringing in (eg "six boxes kitchen supplies: pots, pans, etc") with a dollar value for each (can be approximate). Find out if they want this, before you pack up the car, so you can put together an inventory list as you're loading.

If you are "importing" your car (as opposed to bringing it in temporarily on a temporary visa) you may have to do special things to transfer it across. One thing I recall was bringing the title(?) to the border a day in advance so they could look over the title - I can't remember details of this, or which category it applied to, but worth looking into to be sure you know exactly what your situation with the car is.
posted by LobsterMitten at 11:25 PM on December 8, 2010

Response by poster: How long does it take to get through the border and customs, if I've got all my paperwork in good order (apart from just waiting in line)? Will they want to look through my stuff, or would that only done if I seem sketchy?
posted by wowbobwow at 7:48 AM on December 10, 2010

When you are crossing for a short tourist visit, the waiting-in-line part can take forever if it is a big travel weekend, but the talking to the border agent takes only a few seconds unless you are the lucky winner of a secondary screening.

But if you are instead crossing in some other status -- like immigration -- I don't think you can assume it will be that fast. The people I've known who did this ended up spending quite a bit of time sitting in an office talking to the officers, but they all had minor paperwork complications -- that might not be necessary if the paperwork was super straightforward. And this is purely anecdotal, but they all had their stuff glanced at (not torn apart all over the parking lot, but not waved through, either).
posted by Forktine at 8:09 AM on December 10, 2010

Seconded: unpredictable.

If you're coming through as a tourist, the actual talking-with-an-agent is quick (Citizenship of everyone in the vehicle? Where are you coming from? How long were you in the US? What's your destination in Canada, what's the street address? Are you bringing in any alcohol, tobacco, weapons?) unless they decide to pull you aside. I've been pulled aside a couple of times, and once had my car looked through very thoroughly -- not pulling out the seat cushions, but two officers going through all my little baggies of loose change, cd case, other small junk I keep in the back-of-seat pockets. If you have a trailer they will ask you about, where your vehicles are registered etc.

If you're coming through to stay, you will tell the first agent that ("what's the purpose of your visit to Canada?" "I am coming to get a [whatever] status") and they will flag you over to a parking lot. You'll park and go into a building where you will wait in a bare DMV-like waiting room for an undetermined amount of time. Bring snacks and a crossword and all your paperwork. You'll be called up to a window and talk to an agent there, give them your documents. The agent will ask you various questions about your docs. The indoor agents (IME) are the most brusque of all public service people I have met in Canada; bring your patience and calmness. This could take an hour, or it could take 4 or 5 hours, maybe more depending how many other people there are.
posted by LobsterMitten at 10:10 AM on December 10, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Mr Fabulous' route worked like a charm! Getting through customs & imm. was much faster than I expected (the interview process; not the waiting in line).

It was snowing in the WA mountain passes, so I stopped in Clu Elum and got some snow chains that I didn't end up needing (but was glad I had, just in case).

Montana, Wyoming & S Dakota so beautiful, even just to drive through. Saw a good number of hawks, pronghorn antelope, and such. Good times! Thanks for making my trip easier.
posted by wowbobwow at 5:39 PM on December 26, 2010

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