Where to stop on a cross country drive?
August 9, 2005 7:44 PM   Subscribe

Driving across the United States and looking for the hidden diamonds.

As you can see from my plan below, I have all of the major stops covered - the big cities, the major national parks... What I'm looking for (for example) is the cool places in the middle of Minnesota off route 90 to stop at when I need a break from driving.

Timeline: Early September through October (about 2 months)

The path: Starting in early September, I'll head out in a northwesterly direction from NJ towards Cleveland and Chicago. Then from there, through Wisconsin and Minnesota to South Dakota and the Badlands
From South Dakota, to Yellowstone in Wyoming then to Glacier NP in Montana. I'll roughly follow the US - Canadian border heading towards Seattle, Washington, Vancouver, British Columbia and the rest of the Pacific Northwest. From Seattle, I am southward bound, through Oregon (Or'gan) and California, hitting Yosemite and San Francisco. I will drive the Pacific Coast Highway as far as it goes through Cali. San Diego. Yes.
After San Diego things get a bit fuzzy, but I have to go to the Grand Canyon, re-visit some of Utah and Colorado, back down through New Mexico. Then we have the gigantumongous state of Texas. Not sure what route I'll take to traverse that... maybe follow the Rio Grande. Somewhere I will turn off and head for Austin and eventually New Orleans.
Being an east coast boy, I will skip much of the eastern seaboard and Florida, instead choosing to visit Memphis and Nashville. From there, I might visit a friend in DC and then make my way home.
posted by jur777 to Travel & Transportation (32 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Wall Drug of South Dakota, a legendary tourist trap but a fun place to stop. Don't worry about where exactly it is. You'll see plenty of signs on the way.
posted by sellout at 7:47 PM on August 9, 2005

There's a beach in Oregon (just south of Newport, OR) called Ona State Park. Its about as nice as beaches get.

Also, if you feel like taking a detour, go into the Willamette Valley, & head up Mary's Peak (its in the coast range, so you wouldn't have to go *all* the way into the valley). Mary's Peak is the highest point in the coast range, and you can see most of the valley & quite a bit of the range from it. Its all driving, with a 10-15 minute walk to get to the 'summit.'
posted by devilsbrigade at 8:12 PM on August 9, 2005

In west Texas / southern New Mexico, the Guadalupe Mountains are a very cool camping spot. (Carlsbad Caverns are inside this range in NM, but the GUMO national park is in TX.) In central New Mexico, the Rio Grande Gorge is also very impressive, albeit in the middle of fucking nowhere. Taos, immortailized by Ansel Adams' photography, is nearby, but now seems to be an obscenely commercialized tourist trap.
posted by ijoshua at 8:15 PM on August 9, 2005

Montana: Don't miss Little Bighorn Battlefield, a very moving spot. You might enjoy the drive over Lolo Pass, where Lewis and Clark crossed the continental divide.

Washington State: Route 20 across the North Cascades is breathtaking.

Indiana: New Harmony is a cool spot if you like 19th century utopian history. And who doesn't?

Oregon: The Tamastslikt Cultural Institute, the interpretive center for the Cayuse, Umatilla and Walla Walla Tribes, is one of the finest museums I have visited.
posted by LarryC at 8:34 PM on August 9, 2005

What parts of Utah--Southern?

Arches, Moab, Bryce Canyon--all stunning, in a "what planet am I on?" sort of way. Capitol reef gets less traffic and visitors. Try to get out early in the morning, because there will probably be killing heat. You will also run into lots of international tourists, which I thought was kinda fun.


Seal Rock on the Oregon coast is lovely.

Also, you might want to read Neil Gaiman's _American Gods_ for a look at a number of strange, out of the way places.
posted by mecran01 at 8:41 PM on August 9, 2005

If you're driving 40 west out of southern California, and it's still hot in the desert (it was for us late last august, 110-120 degrees), you should jump into the Colorado river, which I'm pretty sure forms the border between AZ and CA. You'll cross a bridge over the colorado, and to your right will be a railroad bridge. 100 yards after the bridge there's a turn off on your left, park there, hike down to the river, climb the railroad bridge and either swing off the rope swing, or climb up onto the tressle and take the 30 ft (give or take) jump into the river.

If you think racism is funny (because it's ridiculous, natch) take note of the mispelled and generally idiotic graffiti all over the bridge.
posted by youthenrage at 8:56 PM on August 9, 2005

I also second mecran01's recommendation of Utah national parks, these places are AWESOME. Also - the only recorded bubonic plague break outs in the last 50 or so years occured in them.
posted by youthenrage at 8:57 PM on August 9, 2005

Two words: Butte. Montana.

If you have even a passing interest in urban decay, mining & labor history, even just plain ol' humanity!!!, then Butte is the place to see.

What was once a bustling working-class cosmopolis with Irish, Finn, Slav, Italian neighborhoods is now a quasi-ghost town and has been for several decades. It was a booming copper-mining town with over 100K people at its zenith; then the mine went under in the late 70s(ish?), and the sudden nature of the economic downturn in Butte has allowed it to be almost perfectly preserved in a sort of seedy urban agar. The strangest thing in Butte is the aural sensation you get there. The streets are lined with tall brick buildings, but there's almost nobody around, so you can hear the reverberations of people talking at a conversational level like three blocks away. It's very eerie.

Of course another very noticeable thing about Butte is that, unlike most historic districts, none of it has really ever been restored. Most of it is in a steady state of decrepitation, not tarted up for nostalgic value or tourist enjoyment whatsoever; none of those yuppie gewgaw shops like you'd find in Woodstock or whatever. And you walk by these incredibly ornate buildings, these architectural wonders with all these amazing flourishes and they're falling apart— it reminded me of the stereotypical derelict movie star who had her heyday in the 1940s, and now she wanders the streets hopped up on Demerol and Boone's Farm, with eyeliner smeared all over her face and rambling lines from her old films.

You will also see some incredibly fucked-up looking people wandering around Butte. I kept seeing these two dudes darting in and out of the alleyways; they both looked like Irish peasants from about 1880. One of them had this exaggerated strut that comes from a life spent walking the streets. Every ten steps or so he'd turn his torso starboard and forcefully blow a loogey to the ground at maximal velocity.

Be careful not to be discouraged by the latter-day purple-n-neon-yellow pawn shop detritus that characterizes the vantage of Butte from the freeway. Exit Harrison St. and head straight up the hill. You'll know it when you get there.

Butte is also the hometown of Evel Knievel and Barbara Ehrenreich, and was described as "the prettiest place I've ever seen" by no one less than Jim "Shit Magnet" Goad

Amazing place.

My hometown of Missoula, just two hours up the road on I-90, is also a really great place, albeit in more of a Boulder/Santa Cruz/Burlington/Ithaca kind of way. Bozeman's not bad either (lived there in the early 70s), although I often get the feeling there nowadays that I just stepped into a J. Crew catalog.
posted by yalestar at 9:04 PM on August 9, 2005

You're not driving across the US. You're circumnavigating it. Did you notice that you're skipping the entire midwest? Your vague mention of Colorado is about as much of an indication you give that you're not trying to stay as far away from Kansas as possible the entire time.
posted by bingo at 9:10 PM on August 9, 2005

Ona and Seal Rock are both really great recommendations, but I rather favor Neptune, just south of Yachats. I'm also rather partial to Patterson Beach. For bonus points, walk toward the beach along the park's north fence and you'll see the house where I spent a few happy childhood years (last one before you hit beach).

I hear the sushi joint in Seal Rock is pretty good, though. They put that in after I moved away, so I can't give a firsthand account. And both Newport and Waldport are nifty little towns in and of themselves, too.

When you hit San Francisco definitely take the 49 Mile Drive -- it'll be almost impossible to miss the signs, since the route covers most of the city. The Drive itself is not too hidden, but you might uncover something along the way.

By the time you hit Carmel, make sure to stop off just north of Point Lobos and tramp around a bit. Be careful, though: there is a herd of wild boar on the loose! There's also a terrific gourmet pizza place in the little shopping area at the crossroads of Highway 1 and Rio Road. The adjacent Holiday Inn is pretty reasonably priced, too, and the clam chowder at the tiny fish store across the street from there is amazing.

The best food in the Monterey/Carmel area is at Fishwife, though. I've driven down there (a trip of about two hours each way) just for dinner then turned around and driven back.
posted by majick at 9:16 PM on August 9, 2005

majick - Neptune looks amazing. I'm definitely going to check it out the next time we head over to the coast.
posted by devilsbrigade at 9:26 PM on August 9, 2005

If you take the lolo pass,Jeremiah Johnson hot springs are a treat.short hike,some of them are along the river ,some are up in the trees.You cross the river on a foot bridge.Near Eugene Or'gan is the cougar hot springs. Call for reservations, when you are in Big Sur, for a massage at Esalen unbelevable hot spring there. Near Zion N.P.,pah tempe hot springs are just off the virgin river bridge in Hurricane Utah hot water flows out a cave next to the river,it's Utah so wear your bathers.If you find yourself in the San Luis Valley the lithium laced waters of Valley view hot springs are Colorados finest. Can you tell that I like to bathe while traveling?
posted by hortense at 10:01 PM on August 9, 2005

After Nashville, you can head east on I-40 (or take the mountain backroads) to Asheville-without-the-N, then up the Blue Ridge Parkway towards DC. By early October, it should be well into leaf season, but well outside the main tourist season.

That's not necessarily 'hidden', but it's easily overlooked. And you can find all sorts of everything within a few miles either side.
posted by holgate at 3:23 AM on August 10, 2005

I did that trip last summer with my (then) fiancee. Took us six weeks.

Do not miss The House on the Rock in Wisconsin (flickr). It's a weird place, completely unlike anything I've ever seen before.

We enjoyed Badlands National Park more than the Grand Canyon. YMMV.

Mount Rushmore and Devils Tower are within driving distance of one another, and you can do them both in a day. They are both worth it.

Yellowstone NP and Glacier NP; don't miss them. Walk loudly when you're hiking in Yellowstone so as to keep the bears away (we had a close encounter with a black bear there).

If you're camping and looking for a place to stay on the Oregon coast, check out the Rock Creek Campground. Very quiet, very peaceful. One of the nicest places we camped.

Crater Lake is worth going out of your way for.

Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park (particularly Stout Grove; ask about it at the ranger station) was the best place (in our opinion) to see the redwoods. Muir Woods is also worth stopping for.

Give yourself plenty of time to drive the PCH. There are some seriously bare knuckle turns, and if you're losing light (like we were), it's more stressful than fun. Also make sure you have plenty of fuel in your car before getting off the 101 to go to the PCH (we almost ran out; it's a long way to the next gas station).

If you're driving through New Mexico, consider Chaco Culture National Historical Park. It's kind of a bitch to get to, but worth it. At night, lay in your tent with a flap open and watch satellites pass.

If you're undecided about a route through Texas, and you've never been to San Antonio, go. Spend a night (or two) on the Riverwalk. Eat at Mi Tierra.

I didn't particularly care for New Orleans, but if you go there, be sure to eat a few beignets at Cafe Du Monde.

See Rock City.

If you have any other questions, feel free to email me.
posted by schustafa at 6:06 AM on August 10, 2005

Crater of Diamonds State Park, of course.
posted by mbd1mbd1 at 6:25 AM on August 10, 2005

Unfortunately, for MN, you're mostly driving right through farm country, while hard-working, isn't very scenic. Where I90 enters the state, however, you can find Great River Bluffs state park, which is very beautiful.

Especially around the time that you'll be there.
posted by unixrat at 7:21 AM on August 10, 2005

I'd add Crazy Horse Memorial to the list of S.Dakota stops. And although I've never been yet, the Mammoth site in Hot Springs.
posted by cass at 7:30 AM on August 10, 2005

Northeastern New Mexico is beautiful. I went to school at the Armand Hammer United World College, just outside Las Vegas, NM. They've recently restored the historic Montezuma Castle, and it's open for tours on certain days. Las Vegas is also the home of the Teddy Roosevelt Rough Riders Museum, and was the shooting location for Red Dawn. Between Las Vegas and Santa Fe, there are a lot of outdoor activities and wilderness areas - in Pecos, for example.
posted by candyland at 7:41 AM on August 10, 2005

The food and music in Lafayette are great. Of course, I also recommend paddling in the Atchafalaya Basin.
posted by atchafalaya at 8:07 AM on August 10, 2005

If you like old cars stop in Murdo SD. It doesn't look like much from the interstate, but I was surprised when a driving partner made me stop, hundreds and hundreds of cars just about any old car you can think of. It gets a bit numbing after awhile.

I'd avoid Wal-Drug, mostly a big knick knack shop.

Badlands are amazing

In SW Minnesota is Pipestone, perhaps an hour or so out of the way, but a nice place to check out.

The highway that goes past Custer battlefield is a nice drive, better then the interstate.

If you stay in Cody Wy. avoid the Econolodge, very expensive for what it is.

Beartooth highway north of Cody is nice.

In Wy take Highway 16 across the Bighorn Mountains instead of 14, less traffic, just as fast and pretty.
posted by edgeways at 8:16 AM on August 10, 2005

It's probably on your list already, but just in case: After Nashville and before DC, be sure to drive through Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
posted by soiled cowboy at 8:46 AM on August 10, 2005

Some great roads:

After you exit Badlands take 40 through the Black Hills. Going to the Sun Road in Glacier NP. Beartooth Highway in Yellowstone. The road connecting Capitol Reef to Zion in Utah, winds through Grand Staircase Escalante - Wow! (hwy 12 iirc) SF to Big Sur in Cali. Skyline Drive in Virginia. Flaming Gorge Byway in Northern Utah. A drive through Gary, Indiana is breath-taking for completely opposite reasons, it seemed like a slideshow of urban blight and was one of the most memorable thing I have seen on my many cross-country trips.

Finally, I see you are headed south after Seattle, but I'd like to endorse a ferry-ride over to the Western side of Puget Sound where you can then visit the Olympic Peninsula. Among the highlights: The largest and most undisturbed wilderness coastline in the contiguous US, the largest old-growth and temperate rainforests, the Strait of Juan De Fuca overlooking Canada, and Glacier-capped mountains.
posted by sigbigups at 9:22 AM on August 10, 2005

Glad that someone mentioned Chaco Canyon, but don't forget Monument Valley (in the middle of the Navajo Reservation), and the Hopi Reservation - the Hopi are the only indigenous people who were never re-located from their ancestral lands. They also successfully resisted the Spanish, unlike the remainder of the Pueblo peoples. Of course, they live in one of the more god-forsaken spots on the planet.
Also in NM is the wonderful, out of the way El Morro National Monument. South (quite a ways south) of El Morro is the neat little town of Silver City - great birding in and around there.
The western slope of Colorado is home to Colorado National Monument (just outside the vastly-underrated town of Grand Junction), and Mesa Verde.
Waaay south in Arizona are the Chiricahua Mountains, and Chiricahua National Park. This is a very weird and wonderful place - wet and green in the middle of a very large desert.
I also happen to love the plains/prairies of eastern Colorado and western Kansas, but that's cuz I grew up on the Front Range and love that open sky.
Try to go through some of the heartland on your way back - but eschew the Interstates for the "blue highways" and you'll get a better view and a truer vision of Middle America.
posted by dbmcd at 9:51 AM on August 10, 2005

I used to live in Newport OR years ago, and had forgotten about Ona Beach, but I second the recommendation. Also, stop at Rogue Ales for a brewery tour and some beer to go.

Pipestone, MN, is worth popping into for a look at all the wind turbines in the area, and lunch at Lange's
posted by nickmark at 10:02 AM on August 10, 2005

After Nashville, you can head east on I-40 (or take the mountain back roads) to Asheville-without-the-N, then up the Blue Ridge Parkway towards DC. By early October, it should be well into leaf season, but well outside the main tourist season.

My suggestion is similar. Head from Nash-Vegas to Chatta-boogie (Chattanooga), preferably off the beaten path over the Cumberland Plateau and then up the Okoee and Nantahala Rivers, through the mountains to Asheville.
posted by Pollomacho at 10:26 AM on August 10, 2005

In Texas, I'll (highly) recommend Enchanted Rock, between Llano and Fredricksburg. Stay in Fredricksburg, hike the day at Enchanted Rock, then head to San Antonio or Austin.

If you go to Austin, stay at the Austin Motel on South Congress. See the bats under the Congress Ave. Bridge. Swim at Barton Springs or jog around Town Lake. Or rent a bike for the day at the Bicycle Sportshop on South Lamar.

Eat at Guerro's or Chuy's, or if you've got the cash and want to treat yourself, at Vespaio's. Or if you want dinner and a movie, try one of the Alamo Drafthouse cinemas.

Booze it up and listen to live music on Sixth Street, or in the Warehouse district. Take in some jazz at The Elephant Room. Pick up a free copy of the Austin Chronicle to find out what else is going on in town that week.

Have a great trip.
posted by zueod at 11:14 AM on August 10, 2005

If you stop in Murdo, S.D., for the car museum--or even if you don't visit the car museum--eat at the Star Family Restaurant. It's a very simple family diner-style place with a suprisingly, refreshingly good menu, especially for the area.

I can heartily endorse Devil's Lake (Wisconsin). Madison might make a nice stop-over. Teddy Roosevelt NP, Custer SP and the Badlands NP are fantastic, as is Devil's Tower (I've climbed to the top!), Yellowstone, the Bear Tooth Highway (though it's closed through Oct. 15 for mudslides) and Red Lodge, Montana.

Stay away from Wall Drug.
posted by handful of rain at 12:53 PM on August 10, 2005

If you're going to Crater Lake (and you should), take highway 138 between Crater Lake and Roseburg on the way in and/or out. It's a beautiful drive (Roseburg kinda sucks, though. Don't plan to linger there).
Smith Rock in the Redmond/Terrebonne area is pretty cool. Actually, so is Fort Rock, which is in the middle-of-fuckin-nowhere area sorta southeast of Bend. Hell, Bend itself is pretty cool. I grew up there and I barely recognize the place (most of the changes are actually for the better, as nearly as I can tell. Except the crowding, I guess). Ohhhh, you should go whitewater rafting in Maupin, OR. Good times.
On the Oregon coast, Oswald West State Park is lovely (and apparently a decent place for surfing), plus it's named after the dude who made sure Oregon beaches were free and open to the public. Gotta respect that.
posted by willpie at 1:37 PM on August 10, 2005

Uh, all that stuff is in Oregon, FYI.
posted by willpie at 1:38 PM on August 10, 2005

Okay, when you're heading south down the west coast, you MUST stop at this tiny little cafe/bakery called Heaven On Earth. It's in the middle (vertically) of Oregon, Exit 86 off of I-5. I am not exaggerating in the least when I say they serve cinnamon rolls that are the size of your head.

And Highway 20 through the Cascades is amazing. You'll pass through Winthrop on the east side, which is the Old West equivalent of Leavenworth. Both are the ne plus ultra of cheesiness. On the west side, Diablo Lake is a nice place to camp. If you can figure out some way to ping-pong between the Olympic Peninsula and the side with Seattle/I-5, I'd recommend it. The rainforest, the San Juans, Lake Quinault...it's worth the time spent. But stop off in Seattle and do some of the dopey tourist stuff, like the Space Needle (don't eat at the revolving restaurant) and Pike Place Market. Marvel at the ugliness of the Experience Music Project.

Ooh! Since western Canada is included in your route, the Butchart Gardens (Victoria) are pretty nifty.

Should you decide to visit Crater Lake (and you should!), stop off at the Stonehenge replica, a WWI monument overlooking the Columbia Gorge.

Has anyone mentioned Joshua Tree yet? It's not as mind-bending as Bryce or the Grand Canyon, but it is pretty much on the way to Zion, which is right next to Bryce and the GC (relatively speaking) anyway. If you do Vegas and will be there on a weekend, CALL AHEAD to book a room. Ignore this at your peril!
posted by Vervain at 1:44 PM on August 10, 2005

I-90 in minnesota has a few cool places. The area around Winona is absolutely beautiful -- one of the few hilly areas of Minnesota not entirely swept over by glaciers. In fact, you might want to take some time just walking through the state parks from that area to south-central minnesota -- the trees in Fall make the whole area pretty beautiful. (Forestville/Mystery Cave State Park has a cave you can check out too)

Beyond that, you might want to check out the Spam Museum in Austin (MN), and see what a town where over 10000 pigs are slaughtered each day looks like (not as bad as you'd think, or as smelly).

Be sure to check out the Jolly Green Giant in Blue Earth -- it's also the home of the Ice Cream Sandwich, although lord knows if you can find one.

If you take 14 from Rochester instead of continuing on I-90 you can check out the National Farmers Bank by Louis Sullivan in Owatonna which is a great local example of the Prairie School of Archetecture if you're into that thing.

West of Blue Earth it's a bit less culturally great. St James is about 20 miles north of I-90 -- I've always thought its a really picturesque little town (and curiously one of the most Hispanic cities in all of Minnesota) and they've got a good bakery.

Eat at Gigglebees when you're in Sioux Falls. Trust me, it's an adventure in fun.
posted by Theiform at 7:05 PM on August 10, 2005

One caveat about Yellowstone is that, given your itinerary and departure dates, you might be running close to the early onset of winter. We did a similar trip but in reverse (start in Vancouver, Canada then drive to Boston). We got to Yellowstone in the second week of October and found that half of the park had been closed off due to heavy snowfall. We were hoping to head east out to Cody Wyoming, and wound up spending two hours driving through desolate, empty (but utterly gorgeous) parkland before having to turn around and backtrack out of Mammoth Hot Springs because the road to Cody had been closed due to weather. Call into the local park office at Yellowstone a day or two before you arrive to assess conditions and plan contingencies.

Ditto on the recommendation for the car museum in Murdo; as well as the Badlands and Devil's Tower. I would skip Rushmore, personally, but a drive through the Black Hills is pretty nice. Deadwood has some kitsch value, but it's kind of like a Disneyland \ Vegas bastard child in the middle of the Great Plains.

There's a tasty, surprisingly posh restaurant in Livingston, MO called Chatham's Bar and Grill. Good place to check out if you need a break from diners and road food. Also, while you're in Memphis, grab some barbecue at the Hawkins Grill if you can. I was lead to that restaurant by a barbecue travelogue, Smokestack Lightning, which is a generally awesome guidebook for hunting down pulled pork and barbacoa between Texas and the Carolinas.

When in Cleveland, if you've got a free evening, and can drive for a few hours, get a half-price night time ticket to Cedar Point and ride the tallest, fastest roller coaster in the world.
posted by bl1nk at 12:03 PM on August 11, 2005

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