Where to stop along I-80?
June 30, 2005 9:10 PM   Subscribe

What's worth seeing along I-80 between Joliet, IL and San Francisco, CA?

My boyfriend and I are doing the drive in two weeks and I'm wondering what's interesting to see along the way. (Last time I drove it, it was a blur of, well, nothing until construction in Salt Lake City and then tacky gambling in Reno.)

We enjoy outrageously campy (a la Biggest Ball of Twine) or genuinely cool. Classic movie houses, drive-in theaters or just a darn tasty place to grab a creme brulee, great ice cream or an all-beef hot dog are all worth a few miles of detour.

Thanks in advance.
posted by Gucky to Travel & Transportation (24 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I-80 is boring. I've driven its entire length way too many times. When it's in a metropolitan area, it tends to be wide and moving fast. When it's not, exits are few and far between.

Being an person of Iowan birth, I can tell you that Iowa City's got a relatively new mall, and Des Moines still has that lame excuse for a theme park ("Adventureland, where you can ride the Tornado, see a family show or watch a Rock-n-Roll band..." OH MY GOD.)
posted by thanotopsis at 9:15 PM on June 30, 2005

Iowa City is entirely swell, but avoid the mall (which is technically in Coralville).

You'll be traversing 2/3 of the country, so there's got to be LOTS of interesting things to see and places to stop. Were I you, I'd get cozy with a map and pick a mess of small towns to visit.
posted by aladfar at 9:18 PM on June 30, 2005

Best answer: We enjoy outrageously campy (a la Biggest Ball of Twine)

Do you know about Roadside America?
posted by LarryC at 9:31 PM on June 30, 2005

Best answer: Through Nebraska: If you can spare the time, leave 80 at Grand Island (a name with two lies in it!) and take Route 2 through the mesmerizing Sandhills to Alliance. There you'll see Carhenge (sounds like it's up your alley). Jog back down south when you want to rejoin the interstate.

The Sandhills are WAY better than I-80 through NE.
posted by tss at 9:38 PM on June 30, 2005 [1 favorite]

Between Salt Lake City, Utah and Wendover, Wyoming is the Tree of Utah. It's located just 25 miles before Wendover out in the middle of nowhere.

For those unfamiliar with the area this google map will look very surreal.
posted by monsta coty scott at 9:43 PM on June 30, 2005

Don't miss Thunder Mountain in Imlay, NV, a couple hours east of Reno. It's weird, creepy, kitschy, and cool - best around sunset.
posted by Mars Saxman at 9:58 PM on June 30, 2005

How much time do you have? If you've done 80 before and are bored with it, you *could* jog up to I-90 and take that some of the way.

I dunno how much longer it would take you. But you'd pass through Badlands and the associated Wall Drug -- truly a mecca of cheeseball americana, complete with giant dino-sour, a jackalope you can ride, and so on. Then you'd drive within 10 miles of Devil's Tower, visiting spot of many alien probulators. Then, if you didn't mind getting off of the interstate, you could drive right through Jellystone (Old Faithful is both a natural wonder and a big ball of twine) and the neighboring Grand Tetons. And then from there it wouldn't be hard to jog back down to 80 somewhere in NV.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 10:27 PM on June 30, 2005

Fuck -- I forgot Mitchell, SD, smack on 90. Mitchell, home of the Corn Palace. THE CORN PALACE, I tell you. Mitchell, where the manhole covers read "MITCHELL: CORN PALACE CITY OF THE WORLD"
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 10:30 PM on June 30, 2005

Don't miss Rawlins, Wyoming! K's Mini Store has great...uh...gas. And chips and whatnot.
posted by jacobsee at 11:32 PM on June 30, 2005

Well, there's always the world's largest truckstop. Worth a stop just to see the chrome shop :)
posted by pjern at 11:35 PM on June 30, 2005

I saw the Bonneville Salt Flats under a full moon and it was like seeing a snowy landscape, all bright and sparkly. You might also be interested in watching speed trials there, though I'm not sure why. Yeah, I-80 is boring.
posted by bendy at 11:51 PM on June 30, 2005

I've traveled from joliet to iowa a number of times, there isn't a whole lot along the way. If you like nature, Starved Rock State Park is quite a pretty area, stop by St. Louis Canyon and admire the waterfall. Also as solopist said, there is the giant truckstop in Iowa, I haven't visited because I usually got off 80 before then.
posted by borkencode at 2:10 AM on July 1, 2005

Being a person of Nevadan extraction who's lived in Iowa for 20-odd years now, I've done 80 too many times. It is pretty monotonous in parts; those are the parts where you get your meditating done. But there are a few things worth stopping for, among them:
  • Iowa City's nice, but I doubt it'll rock you if you're coming from Chicagoland. If you must stop, I'd take the first Iowa City exit, take the long drive into town, hang a right on Market, and visit John's Grocery. A few blocks away there's the somewhat famous Prairie Lights bookstore.
  • Des Moines has a good Living History Farm.
  • Omaha's zoo is pretty cool. There's a walk-through shark tunnel and a baby gorilla, er, display or whatever you'd call it—a window into the nursery.
  • Most of Nebraska's meditation, but it's worth stopping at Cabela's in Sidney if you like over-the-top stuffed animal displays and/or sporting goods.
  • Cheyenne has some very nice Western wear shops downtown, and a good bookstore (can't remember the name, but downtown isn't big; you'll find it).
  • Laramie, a college town, has a tiny "old downtown" at one end of its main drag with good bookstores, coffeehouses, and restaurants. It also has a surprisingly progressive art museum on campus.
  • Speaking of surprising museums, the Northeastern Nevada Museum in Elko, NV, is an amazingly well-done museum.
  • DO NOT pass Winnemucca, NV, without stopping for a meal at the Martin Hotel. Authentic Basque food; try a Picon Punch while you're waiting in the bar. Railroad and Melarkey Streets.
  • As you're approaching Reno, cast your eyes about for the sign for Mustang (NSFW, audio), site of a good bit of Nevada's legal prostitution.
OK, that's it for me.
posted by bricoleur at 3:25 AM on July 1, 2005

If you find yourself hungry around Grand Island Nebraska, there's a quaint little lunch counter called "Coney Island" in downtown GI that serves great little coney island style dogs and thick milk shakes. The place has been around since the 1930s (I think), and it's still owned and run by the same family. They gave up serving their soda in glass bottles only a few years ago when it started getting to be impossible to find a bottler who could supply them.

Another interesting foodie stop to make is Graziano Bros. in Des Moines. It's a little hole in the wall Italian deli with an amazing selection of Italian specialties. They make the best Italian sausage you've ever tasted there. It's a little hard to find, but worth the trip if you are into Italian food. Very reasonable prices too.

I second the recommendation on the Omaha Zoo. It's one of the best in the US, and has some really unique displays. There's a huge rain forest, desert dome, and a nocturnal animal display that are all pretty recent.
posted by ensign_ricky at 5:57 AM on July 1, 2005

Take a look at Roadfood for interesting places to eat.
posted by brujita at 6:31 AM on July 1, 2005

Through Nebraska: If you can spare the time, leave 80 at Grand Island (a name with two lies in it!) and take Route 2 through the mesmerizing Sandhills to Alliance. There you'll see Carhenge (sounds like it's up your alley). Jog back down south when you want to rejoin the interstate.

The Sandhills are WAY better than I-80 through NE.

YES YES YES YES YES! I have driven across the country 5 times, on interstates and on "blue highways," and gone up and down both coasts, and the Nebraska sand hills are hands down my favorite drive, period.

It's the largest vegetated sand dune in this hemisphere-- 20,000 square miles of rolling sand dunes stabilized with prairie grass. It's like being in the middle of the ocean, only not at all. As TSS points out, Carhenge is at the western terminus of that drive, which definitely fills your "World's Largest Ball of Twine" requirements, and on the way are a number of interesting attractions: both Mullen (pop. around 550 or so) and Thedford (pop. around, I think, about 200 or so) have surprisingly cool historical museums. The one in Thedford has, among other things, an incredible collection of barbed-wire samples (which used to be on loan to the University of Nebraska museum), and the one in Mullen is a really cool old converted railroad hotel, in which each room now represents a different era of Sandhills history.

Plus, you'll pass by Nebraska National Forest, which is the only man-made National Forest in the country. Definitely worth a side trip to climb the fire tower.

Don't be surprised that everyone you pass on Hwy. 2 will wave to you. It's sort of a sandhills thing-- one or two fingers lifted off the steering wheel is customary.

The best part is, your actual drive time across the state will only really be increased by about 2 or 3 hours, but your enjoyment will be increased a thousandfold, since I-80 itself is one of the most boring stretches of interstate in the country.
posted by dersins at 7:20 AM on July 1, 2005

One of the oddest things I've seen is located between Cheyenne and Laramie in Wyoming on I-80. It's called Ames Monument. It's basically a giant, stone pyramid rising from the high plains meant to commemorate the Ames brothers (who financed much of the railroad). You can't see it from the Interstate, so hardly anyone actually knows it's there. (I went to school in Laramie, and hardly anyone who lived there even knew it existed.) But, watch for the signs, take the exit, and you'll be in for a strange sight. (For added effect, visit at night under a full moon.)
posted by split atom at 8:05 AM on July 1, 2005

There is a sod house museum in Nebraska off of I-80 but I'm not sure exactly where.
posted by yodelingisfun at 9:00 AM on July 1, 2005

There's a tree growing out of the rock in the median of I-80 between Cheyenne and Laramie. It's a left hand exit to the little viewing area.

It's something to check out for a couple minutes while you stretch.
posted by dbolll at 10:35 AM on July 1, 2005

Iowa's Capitol is in Des Moines, though technically on I-235. It's one of the nicest in the country.
posted by kc0dxh at 10:56 AM on July 1, 2005

I'd xth the recommendation to see the Sandhills. My favorite BRAN rides were the ones going through the Sandhills. It really is awe inspiring in a quiet and understated way—especially if you happen across one of the tremendous storm cells that develop out there. Then again, I'd recommend avoiding the interstate altogether and take highways if you're interested in making the journey part of the vacation. It takes a little more time but the return on investment is repaid a thousandfold in terms of experiencing Americana. The odd tourist sites and diners of the pre-interstate days are still mostly there albeit slightly run down and mainly frequented by the local crowd. US6 & 34 are good in that they mirror much of I-80 but get you a bit closer to the local scene. Not to mention, US34 in eastern Nebraska is the longest stretch of straight highway in the world (barring a slight engineering correction at 27th & "0" in Lincoln). Besides, it is the Lincoln Highway, the first coast-to-coast highway and links DC with San Fran. Sure makes getting to San Francisco easy since once you get on Ogden Avenue in Chicago you just keep following the US34 signs. I'd also add that the scenic highway route through the Rockies is a mind-bender and blows the doors off what you experience on the interstate.
posted by Fezboy! at 11:08 AM on July 1, 2005

erm, sorry. I conflated US 30 and US 34. US 30 is the Lincoln Highway. Still, US 34 is an improvement over I-80 even if it lacks the historical moniker.
posted by Fezboy! at 11:27 AM on July 1, 2005

I think yodelingisfun is talking about the Pioneer Village in Minden NE ("Just a short drive off I-80"). My dad and I stopped there years ago, and I remember being charmed by it.

From the website (www.pioneervillage.org): "For thousands of years man lived quite simply. Then like a sleeping giant our world was awakened. In a mere hundred and twenty years of eternal time man progressed from open hearth, grease lamps and ox carts to television, super sonic speed, and atomic power. We have endeavored to show you the actual development of this astounding progress as it was unfolded by our forefathers and by ourselves. -- Howard Warp, Founder."

Basically it's a collection of objects useful to life on the American Plains ca. 1850-1950: farm equipment, furniture, textiles, etc., including a reproduction sod hut. If you have any feeling at all for history, it's definitely worth a trip.
posted by ottereroticist at 3:56 PM on July 1, 2005

Independence Rock is just north of I-80 past Laramie. It was a major landmark of the Emigrant trail. Not campy or cool, but maybe your relatives passed by 150 years ago......
posted by pgoes at 4:04 PM on July 1, 2005

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