Cross-country driving, the pleasant way!
August 7, 2014 11:20 AM   Subscribe

I've enjoyed the discussion on this post about America's worst highways, but I have a particular interest in seeing the other side of the coin - I'm going to be driving from DC to San Francisco in early October (in a minivan full of everything I own that is too delicate/bulky/valuable to send by mail--it's not much but it's not nothing) and I want to know: what route is the least maddening? At least, which parts have better options than others? I'm going to take about a week at it (hoping to not do more than 7-8 hours of driving a day). Bonus points for suggesting ideal places (not far from the interstate) to start the day with an ~hourlong bike ride.
posted by psoas to Travel & Transportation (9 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Personally, I'd take 180, except detour along I76 to I70 through Colorado. The first 2/5 of CO is boring plains - and it is on that list of the worst drives - but the payoff is worth it when you get to Denver.

October is a great time to drive through - the leaves will be changing at elevation and it should be really really pretty. There might be snow at the higher elevations, but usually not a whole lot by that point.

Nebraska is, of those states along that longitude, the best one to drive through. I vastly prefer it over Kansas, Texas or Oklahoma. It's an easy drive.

If you bring I70 through CO, you can bring I15 up to SLC. It's very scenic and there are lots and lots of diversions there that will be good to see at that time of year. It is a bit out of the way, yes. But I think it's a way better drive than I80 through Wyoming.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 11:33 AM on August 7, 2014

The only real choice you have is how you get from northwestern Maryland to I-80 in Iowa. I've done the drive on I-80 starting in Pittsburgh and managed to get away with only about 8 hours a day of driving, going Pittsburgh -> Champaign, IL -> Lincoln, NE -> Denver (which is out of your -- in your case I'd just stick on 80 to Cheyenne, WY) -> Salt Lake City -> Bay Area. The last day is without a doubt the worst of the trip, because a) most of it's in Nevada, and Nevada's boring as hell and b) it's a longer day than the others, but worth adding the extra time because you'll finally arrive in SF. If you wanted to make it a shorter day I'd stop in Reno and then do the 4-hour drive to the Bay Area the next day.
posted by asterix at 11:36 AM on August 7, 2014

Just some general suggestions: be cautious of taking too southernly a route in summer, and conversely a too northernly route in winter: consider the weather conditions.... Texas and Arizona are lovely places, but they can get amazingly hot in summer; the northern tier states, ex. Montana or North Dakota, can freeze your buns off.

And it's not just your own personal comfort you need to consider: can your car handle temperature extremes? Can your car handle mountain climbing, or do you need to find a route that won't go over the Great Divide? Remember your car's age, general condition and upkeep, plus how much additional weight you'll be packing will all make a difference.
posted by easily confused at 11:38 AM on August 7, 2014

What part of the country are you from? Being from New England, some of my favorite driving has been across boring plains and plateaus - I recommend getting through the countryside you're familiar with quickly and spending more time meandering across new geographies.
posted by maryr at 12:08 PM on August 7, 2014

If you can afford a little extra time and distance, consider taking I-70 up to I-80 at Youngstown, OH, and then 294 around Chicago to I-90 through Wisconsin, southern Minnesota, South Dakota, and Montana. I think it's a lot more interesting than following I-80 through the plains states and Rockies, and you could see the Wisconsin Dells (pretty, though touristy), the Corn Palace in Mitchell, SD; Wall Drug (5-cent coffee! The Jackalope!); the Badlands; the Black Hills; and Yellowstone, before then dropping down on I-86 to I-80.

As for cycling, a cool thing to do would be to decide approximately where you'll stop each night and then use Strava's Global Heat Map to find popular areas for cycling around there. The main caveat is that Strava users tend to be fast road cyclists who might prefer a busy road if it's flat and in good condition to a side road that might be hillier or less well maintained, so look for side roads. You could also post queries in or search for rides on
posted by brianogilvie at 12:08 PM on August 7, 2014 [2 favorites]

You can take I 80 across, it's 2820 miles. If you're willing to add 150 miles to your trip, I'd do an alternate route, and see some really cool stuff.

I'd do Washington to 40. This will take you through Virginia and West Virginia to Tennessee. I40 across the US is an easy route with lots of areas to stop, it's full of trees, and some GORGEOUS views across the way and avoiding southern deserts in the summertime. It goes through Nashville and Memphis, if you're inclined to do some touring on your journey. A lot of it is old Route 66, so you can check that out. You'll go through Albuquerque. You'll also go through Flagstaff, but a short detour and you can check out Sedona! It's straight through the Painted Desert which is magnificent! You're also skipping the bulk of'll THANK me.

You'll even see Lake Havasu City.

Connect from 40 to 5 and Bob's your uncle, there you are!

Here's the Mapquest, but you can play around with it.

IMHO, this would actually feel like a fun road trip, instead of an endurance trial.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 1:40 PM on August 7, 2014 [2 favorites]

I've driven across country three times and take I-90 (Northern Tier), I-80 (middle) and I-40 (southern tier). In order of preference, I-90 was the most interesting for reasons similar to what brianogilvie mentioned, followed by I-40 (stark desert landscapes), then I-80 (everything between Chicago and Colorado was farm, farm and more farms)

but if you're going to be on an interstate, you're going to have to expect it to be a bit soulless and boring. As a cyclist, if you have more time, you may want to consider getting one of Adventure Cycling's cross country maps and just drive the smaller country highways that form the bulk of the bike touring routes in the US. Or, even if you do stick with the interstates, then, as a cyclist, one thing you absolutely should do if you do I-90, is visit the Adventure Cycling HQ at Missoula. It's a neat office with a gallery of cross-country cyclists who've stopped there on their travels. The other thing I'd recommend to make it fun is to try and avoid chain restaurants for your meals. Resist the urge to just eat at a Burger King or Waffle House at a travel plaza (though perhaps one Waffle House if you haven't spent much time in the South) and always take the extra time to drive into a town to find a decent diner or local gem.
posted by bl1nk at 2:28 PM on August 7, 2014

If you do take I-70 over the Rockies and into Utah, I'd recommend taking US-6 to Salt Lake City rather than following I-70 all the way to where it meets I-15. Granted US-6 is a two lane road that runs through some slightly more alpine territory before you get to the Salt Lake basin, but it has passing lanes roughly every five miles and will for sure save you a good two hours, which is worth it in my book.
posted by invitapriore at 2:50 PM on August 7, 2014

The route I took (twice, even) from central VA (Charlottesville) was I-64 through West VA, Kentucky, Southern Indiana, Missouri, and Kansas. Then, in Topeka, you head southwest down 335 to Wichita. Then it gets fun. From Wichita you head out State Highway 400, which become Highway 54. This angles you down through some amazing scenery in Kansas, across the panhandle of Oklahoma, and just barely into the panhandle of Texas. Then you get to New Mexico, and get on I-40 across New Mexico, and across northern Arizona, through Flagstaff. Continue on I-40 through Nevada and if you are feeling adventurous, you can take Highway 58 from Barstow all the way to Bakersfield. From there, it's a straight shot from Bakersfield up the I-5 to San Francisco (or alternatively that Highway 99 for a little more scenery, but that's only if you want to see Fresno).

If you are really adventurous and you think your minivan can handle the extra mileage, you can take Highway 58 all the way to San Luis Obispo and then head north on Highway 101, which is something I hope to do eventually if I ever have the inclination to see southern California again (which is not very likely).
posted by daq at 4:32 PM on August 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

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