Should I take California or Utah to get to Texas?
March 26, 2012 4:11 AM   Subscribe

Oregon to Texas Roadtrip: which is the better route, down through California/AZ/NM or through Utah/NM?

My wife and I are moving from Portand, OR to Central Texas. We're planning on driving down the second week of April.

Google Maps suggests going through Utah and New Mexico. This route is a little faster and shorter, but more complicated.

AAA TripTik suggests going through California. This route is a little bit longer, but it seems to be easier. Instead of taking many smaller highways with lots of exchanges and exits, you basically take I-5 S and I-10 E for much of the trip.

Other factors:
* The Utah/NM route goes through Roswell, which appeals to me.

* AAA TripTik says there's a road advisory for the entire state of Arizona because "traffic laws are being enforced to an unusually strict degree by local and/or state law enforcement." This advisory is dated from "Feb 2009 to 'until further notice,'" so I don't know how accurate that information is.

* My wife and I are taking this trip with our 4 year old son and three cats in a Honda Fit loaded with luggage and possessions. We're not planning on doing a lot of sightseeing.

Does anyone have any experience driving either of these routes, or something similar to them? Is it worth the extra time/distance to drive through California?
posted by mokin to Travel & Transportation (15 answers total)
Also consider the frequency of pit stops. Though there are plenty of long stretches any way you go, I think the southern route offers more along the way. Hard to avoid the desolation of west Texas, but there seem to be more (large, well attended) truck stops along the interstate.

Too, for mountainous driving I strongly prefer the interstate routes. Since you're "not planning on doing a lot of sightseeing," then the Rocky Mountains could probably wait.

FWIW - I think the traffic enforcement advisory is still valid.

Good luck with the move!
posted by GPF at 4:25 AM on March 26, 2012

If you have the time to drive the Pacific Coast Hwy - I would do that.
It is a slow, winding scenic road - but it is amazing. Big Sur, Redwoods, Hearst Castle.
posted by Flood at 4:55 AM on March 26, 2012

Split the difference and take the 40 from Los Angeles area to Albuquerque, then follow the Utah/NM directions to hit Roswell. The 40 is the northern route vs the 10 and takes you past the Mojave and through the mountains of Flagstaff The Meteor Crater (quick must stop and look) and the Petrified Forrest instead of IMHO boring Phoenix and Tuscon AZ.
posted by zengargoyle at 5:16 AM on March 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

I have driven both the Google route and the AAA route. Unless there are weather-related issues (because sections of that route are more isolated and rugged), I would take the Google route every time. It is more beautiful, and it keeps you off the interstate so you do more of the scenery -- small town -- scenery rhythm, which is nicer than watching four lanes of traffic and wondering which exit you should stop at.
posted by Forktine at 5:46 AM on March 26, 2012

Seconding Forktine- I've driven from Albuquerque to Portland, and Austin to Albuquerque. Staying on the interstates will add at least a day to your trip. The route through Utah is really beautiful and well traveled. There are places to stop near Moab and Canyonlands that are breath takingly beautiful. And the route through eastern New Mexico is maintained by the department of energy for transporting nuclear waste. It is smooth and double laned, and therefore super fast.
posted by pickypicky at 7:17 AM on March 26, 2012

I would not discount the travel advisory in AZ. Not specific to AZ, but I've been pulled over in KS for looking like a Mexican, and I'm 3/4 Slav.

I know you said you're not planning to do a lot of sightseeing, but do the Google Maps route (through UT/NM). I've been on just about every section of that route at one point or another. I was specifically sightseeing, but the roads are all in great shape. There's a few places in Utah that are a bit desolate, but still well-travelled (in case you have a breakdown).

I might head south from SLC on 15 all the way to the US50 cutoff and then head east on I70, if I were you. The stretch of I70 that your indicated route bypasses is really gorgeous and, pretty quick.

Dunno how many days you're planning on taking, but if you can stand it, spend a little time in Moab, maybe see the Arches. The kid will enjoy it. The town of Moab is a good place to stop overnight, for sure.

If you have questions about specific legs of the journey, you can MeMail me.
posted by notsnot at 7:23 AM on March 26, 2012

I've driven something similar to that Google route. Absolutely do that, unless there's some freak April snowstorm that closes the roads around Idaho / Utah (very, very unlikely). It's a beautiful drive through a really remote and unknown part of the US, may be your only chance to easily see some of that territory. In fact, it's so remote that route somewhat breaks my usual "avoid interstates" rule: the interstate itself is quite pretty and, truthfully, there aren't many alternatives.

Roswell is not a bad town, but other than the UFO stuff there's nothing particular to distinguish it except that it's an actual town in a very sparse part of the country. The UFO museum there is good for a visit, though. That route also goes through Carlsbad; Carlsbad Caverns is totally awesome if you have half a day+ to visit. You'll also be driving near Arches and Canyonlands on the way through Moab, beautiful places, although they take a full day to appreciate. You can get a flavour just driving through though, it's really pretty.

That route through California is dullsville.
posted by Nelson at 8:02 AM on March 26, 2012

I've done both of these. Do the Utah/NM drive. Weather won't be a huge issue past Southern Oregon, and the Utah/NM drive is breathtaking, even from the car.

Moab is one of the most glorious places in this country. You would be remiss not to spend a day there. It's gorgeous this time of year. Really. No, really.

On your way through Southern Idaho and Utah past SLC, make sure to gas up frequently.
posted by Lutoslawski at 10:08 AM on March 26, 2012

If you have the time to drive the Pacific Coast Hwy - I would do that.

I love PCH, but I'd warn anybody that driving it will *significantly* increase travel time -- it can be 3 or even 4 times slower than other routes.

If you do want to see some of the ocean or otherwise avoid the dullness of 5 in central California, pop over to the 101 at some point (maybe via CA 152, or perhaps Interstate 505/80/680 if you can hit outside of peak traffic times). It's probably a trade off of an additional 3 hours of travel for some nicer scenery.

I've done all of the CA/AZ/NM route and most of the ID/UT/NM route. Here's how I'd compare them:

* Expediency - on terms of distance and speed, they're really not that different. The interstate-only route adds ~200 miles, but you'll travel somewhat more quickly, enough to make up the difference. At least, without considering potential delays.

* Delays:
  • a 5/10 route will take you through some really busy metro areas. LA being the biggest, but Phoenix is nothing to sneeze at and even Sacramento can be a problem at rush hour. You can mostly skirt this if you time things right -- don't hit the metro areas between 7-10am or 4-7pm. For LA, you might consider taking the 210 to the 10 instead of riding 5 into the downtown snarl (or if you were to include a 101 segment I mentioned above on your trip, take 134/210/10, and also, beware Santa Barbara at rush hour as well. I don't know much about winter/spring weather on 5 in south Oregon and Northern Cal, but I'd bet snow can be serious business there at the wrong time.
  • If you're going before May or after September, the ID/UT/NM route carries some significant weather risks. Even in May there could be a solid snowstorm (last year it dumped more in May than December). You'd need to keep a close eye on forecasts through Farmington or Albuquerque and be ready to adapt. Be particularly wary of and careful on Route 6 in Utah between Spanish Fork and Price. Salt Lake City has rush hour traffic, but more important, right now I-15 is an utter under-construction mess about a half hour south of SLC (Lehi through Spanish Fork). Don't hit that stretch in the late afternoon.
* Scenery:
  • on the 5/10 route, I think Portland to Redding is pretty great. Between there and Sacramento, it 5 starts to fall into a boring open flat valley without a lot of features, and then once you're south of Stockton, there's just about nothing until you hit some not-particularly-inspiring-but-monotony-breaking hills a bit south of Bakersfield (if you choose instead to jog over to 101 in central CA, the hills are scenic, there's some Steinbeck country, you'll get to see some ocean in San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, and Ventura county, and there are some good beaches you could even stop at). Then there's 2-3 hours of the LA metro area/Inland Empire. After that, I don't remember a lot beyond long stretches of desert with the occasionally interesting feature until some hills in central texas.
  • ID/UT/NM... there's some flat uninspiring planes in east Oregon and southwest Idaho, and a few boring desert bits elsewhere, but beyond that... wow. You're leaving through the Columbia River Gorge, passing through a national forest or two in Oregon, skirting another in Idaho, passing some magnificent mountains there and in Utah, and travelling some world-famous desert scenery in Utah -- you'd be able to see some of Arches from the road, and a half-hour detour would put you in the park. Rural 191/491 is also really pretty in the spring. Don't know too much about Farmington to 40, and then you're back to the New Mexico/West Texas desert.
My personal choice would be the ID/UT/NM route for the fantastic scenery if it's not winter, *particularly* in the spring (roughly mid-April through mid-June). In the winter, the extra potential hassle/hazard would probably push me over to the California route -- and to anybody who really wants a taste of California and maybe a stop at the ocean, I'd tell them to take 5/101/10. It's not that much extra time for the drive you're making.

I wouldn't worry about the extra complexity of the ID/UT/NM route... you'll have to watch for your turns every couple hundred miles, but signage and a road atlas will keep you straight.

I would be extra wary of law enforcement in AZ right now because of the recent politics and power expansion, but myself, I haven't received more tickets there than other places.
posted by weston at 10:16 AM on March 26, 2012 [2 favorites]

In AZ, on some holiday (July 4th?) they have in the past set up automated traffic cam vans every 10 miles on I-10 and generated an incredible amount of cash from tickets that people racked up mile after mile.

I'd recommend heading east and then south on major highways: OR->ID->UT->WY->CO->KS->TX. I assumed "Austin" as central TX; this routing adds only 2 hrs over Google's default route, and will be easy to drive in the dark.

This way you stay on major highways and prettier terrain, then plunge south and avoid the desolation of west Texas. This keeps you northerly (cooler, for kitty comfort) for longer as well. Plus, your 4-year-old (and maybe you) can rack up some new states!
posted by bookdragoness at 12:28 PM on March 26, 2012

I've done the Utah route from Pendleton OR to Cortez CO -- at which point I turned off to head for Durango, Pagosa Springs, Santa Fe, and Amarillo.

I did not enjoy it much -- but I have not tried the CA version.

Bright spots:
* I-84 from Portland to the Dalles is great.
* Boise is a truly awesome city with surprisingly good food and hotels. I go there as much as I can. It's also your logical first hotel stop.
* In and Out Burger in SLC (SLC is not terribly interesting otherwise).
* US-6 east of Salt Lake is unbelievably gorgeous... for awhile.
* Southern CO and northern NM is way more interesting than driving on an interstate across AZ. It's also very pretty and if you stick to the backroads, is pleasantly rural and scenic, especially as you head into the desert. (I drove on US-160 and US-64 though, which aren't a big part of your proposed route.)

Terrible parts:
* I-84 from the Dalles to Ontario OR is very boring, except the occasional mountain.
* Everything between Boise and approximately the UT state line is incredibly boring.
* From the I-15/I-84 junction to SLC is quite ugly, despite the beautiful terrain, because the whole area has thoughtfully been built up with car dealerships for about 100 miles.
* The area near Green River UT is a hotel desert. Green River is a hellhole. Staying in Green River itself was borderline hellish, and I would recommend STRONGLY that you stay in one of the other cities, such as Moab, which cannot possibly be worse. This requires some trip planning due to the huge distances between towns. You can see I was traumatized.

You could do the Santa Fe detour, like I did, and end up with an identical travel time to what you have now. Probably more interesting than Albuquerque and Farmington. The backroads in CO, UT, and NM have very high speed limits. Durango is sort of cool, in a yuppie-ish Colorado way.

Phew! I could go on.
posted by zvs at 12:44 PM on March 26, 2012

(Pit stop-wise, both routes are almost certainly fine. There's no shortage of rest areas and truck stops along the rural route.)
posted by zvs at 12:46 PM on March 26, 2012

Third comment: After reviewing the AAA route more closely, that route will probably suck. I-210 in LA will be horrible. I-10 will numb your mind. There will be tons of traffic through Sacramento, LA, Phoenix, Tucson, El Paso, high mountain passes in southern OR... bleh. I retract my ambivalence. Go through ID and UT.
posted by zvs at 12:51 PM on March 26, 2012

I've driven from Oklahoma City to Portland and back. Twice. I went north into Kansas, then west through Colorado, then north again, then west again, etc. It's a great drive.

I think my total drive time was around 27 hours. If you don't like the "southerly" routes, that's always an option.
posted by tacodave at 2:47 PM on March 26, 2012

We ended up going through Utah and New Mexico. It wasn't very complicated, although we did miss a turn at one point. Roswell was boring, and not really worth it. Thanks for all the advice!
posted by mokin at 8:17 AM on December 31, 2012

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