Road trip from California to Chicago in late December. Are we crazy?
October 23, 2012 11:20 AM   Subscribe

Is planning a late-December road trip from California to Chicago madness? Mr. Quince, our sweet pup, Lincoln, and I would like to take a road trip from Northern California to Chicago and back. We've done it several times taking I-80, but always during non-winter seasons. (more inside)

We're planning to drive in a compact car, so we'd like to avoid major snow driving. Time frame for leaving California is Dec 20 and returning from Chicago around New Years. Has anyone done this or a similar route in winter? How bad does I-80 get? Would it be better to take the southern route through Arizona, New Mexico, N. Texas, Oklahoma and Missouri? I know that there are mountain passes and snow in those states also, but is it milder? I lived in Chicago for many years, so some snow driving is not a giant problem. I'd like to avoid chains, though.
posted by quince to Travel & Transportation (13 answers total)
I think you can avoid having to put on chains on I-80 over the Sierras in California if you have some leeway in your departure time so you can account for weather. But Interstate 80 reaches over 8,000 feet elevation in Wyoming where it seems that snow would also be a definite possibility and driving conditions could get a little sketchy and of course it also crosses mountains in Utah and Colorado. More discussion here. Since you want to avoid major snow driving and don't have tons of extra time to wait out the weather, you might want to go around to the south.

Also, see this question.
posted by exogenous at 11:37 AM on October 23, 2012

The snow can be every bit as bad in December/January in New Mexico and Oklahoma as it is further north (and at 7000-8000 feet elevation in Wyoming, the snow can get bad there indeed).

I personally wouldn't plan on a December road trip between Northern CA and Chicago, regardless of the route (and I say this as someone who spent most of my life in the Mountain West/Midwest, so am not unaccustomed to heavy winter driving in the region). It's just too unpredictable.
posted by scody at 11:39 AM on October 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

I would take the southern route.

I've lived through one very memorable Wyoming Winter in which I-80 was frequently closed due to bad driving conditions. Like, they close the highway and nobody moves for days. It's a nightmare. I think that's one of the few reasons people move TO Wyoming: they try to drive across it in the winter and just get stuck there. Beware!!!!
posted by Elly Vortex at 11:41 AM on October 23, 2012 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Did this exact route at this exact time of year, and asked a very similar question. I considered the southern route, but at the time I traveled there were severe storms pounding that part of the country with snow and ice (even New Mexico and Arizona, I seem to recall, especially high elevations), and the northern route was more clear. This may have been seasonally abnormal, but it is enough to say that there is no guarantee of good weather. I had to delay my departure by a day due to a heavy storm in the Sierras, but in the end I drove straight from SF to Chicago with only minor flurries in Wyoming.

Now, with that said, I was monitoring the long-term national outlook and watching the various storms moving around the country for a week while I planned my trip and I got really lucky with a big high pressure system right in the middle that made a window for me. I could easily have been held up due to snow at many points along the route if the weather had turned, and there were many places in the western states (Nevada, Utah, Wyoming) where chains would have been unavoidable if that happened. I would make my route decision depending on the current weather outlook immediately before departure.

If this is supposed to be a relaxing fun vacation, I would suggest flying instead. The drive was stressful even in good weather due to the uncertainty of it. Plus, much less daylight in winter, so a lot more night-time driving. Though I did encounter a stunningly beautiful full moon over snow-covered Nebraska followed by a brilliant frozen sunrise that I will never forget.
posted by PercussivePaul at 11:45 AM on October 23, 2012 [2 favorites]

I've driven from Northern California to Madison, Wisconsin via the southern route in late December, and it was lovely. I didn't need chains. But when I say the southern route I really mean the southern route, I-10 through Tucson, El Paso, and Houston, not I-40.
posted by escabeche at 12:06 PM on October 23, 2012 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Mr. erst and I have driven from Southern California to Chicago several times in December and January. We only chanced it on I-70 once, and narrowly missed getting snowed out of our route twice on that trip (hooray for snowplows going through an hour before we did).

A family member of mine once tried the I-80 route in December (in a 4WD SUV) and wound up snow/icebound on the side of a Wyoming freeway overnight, and then stuck in a small town for three days until the weather improved. There are very, very long stretches of I-80 with nothing at all nearby; I'd be extremely hesitant to take that route in winter if I didn't absolutely have to.

We've taken the southern route (I-40 to I-44 to I-55) the rest of the times we've gone and only had a problem once (had to drop down to I-10 in New Mexico due to a snowstorm shutting down I-40 and we had to get home).
posted by erst at 12:07 PM on October 23, 2012 [2 favorites]

So...I have done I80 and I90 in the winter months and I am going to say that it is madness. I80 wasn't quite as bad, but it can get very bad, and it's unpredictable. The times I have done this were horribly anxiety producing and I vowed never again. It will not be fun, it will be dangerous, and, especially in a compact car, it is no recommended. Snow driving in Wyoming is not the same as getting to the grocery store in a Midwestern winter, as I discovered.
posted by Lutoslawski at 2:09 PM on October 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

I have gone from Arizona to Michigan and back in late December a few times and I agree with PercussivePaul, watch the weather and stay flexible. More Southern routes may be the most clear but you can't know. Take the major freeways that look good at the time.

Have a smartphone (and/or US Atlas and an Exit Guide) ready and keep in mind that the trip may take longer than expected.
posted by mountmccabe at 3:02 PM on October 23, 2012

I don't have much to add to what's been said, other than to point out that while 80 is seldom closed in CA, NV, UT, IA and IL, it is frequently closed in WY and NE. You will no doubt recall, from your own trips, seeing the permanent gates at intervals in both of those states for closing the road in bad conditions.

I've driven that route at least three times in the winter, at times when the forecasts were favorable, and still managed to get delayed by closed roads a couple of times. The worst part of being on that road in bad conditions, though, is the other drivers, many of whom have either never driven in snow before (no, Dick, you can't go 60 with chains on) or think that AWD means they can't lose traction.
posted by bricoleur at 3:04 PM on October 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

Snow driving may be a piece of cake for you but for nearly every other driver in the Sierras on the road with you, it's not. In my experience as a native midwesterner living in Northern California, everyone FREAKS OUT so it doesn't matter if you're comfortable with the conditions, everybody around you will be moving at a snail's pace or sliding off the road in misplaced self-confidence. It's a total disaster. And they do make you put on chains even if you explain that you've driven in snow all your life without chains and never had a problem. Everyone I know from the Midwest who moves out here is totally baffled by the obsession with chains here.
posted by otherwordlyglow at 4:04 PM on October 23, 2012

The real Q, it seems to me, is how important your Chicago destination is. If it's the essential element in your trip -- family, etc -- go the S route, or fly and leave Lincoln behind.
If not -- take the road and enjoy whatever happens. Judging by his pic, I guarantee Lincoln will.
I guess we have to assume Chicago is essential.
posted by LonnieK at 5:56 PM on October 23, 2012

Amtrak? The California Zephyr.

I did this drive (Chicago to SF) in early March and had snow and ice issues.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 8:26 AM on October 24, 2012

Response by poster: Thanks for all of the answers - they've all been very helpful. Especially thanks for linking to the past questions I hadn't managed to find in my own searches. I think we'll keep an eye on storms and weather patterns and plan for a southern route unless it gets crazy looking. We're not quite ready to resettle in Wyoming...
posted by quince at 3:37 PM on October 24, 2012

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