Driving Cross Country, NY to Cali
September 4, 2014 12:16 PM   Subscribe

We are considering driving across the country from NY to California via a southern route sometime between January - March. Have you ever done this?

What route did you take? What states did you go through? What memorable places did you stop at?

This is for a move so its a one-way trip. Would want to do it in a week, maybe even 4 -5 days?

Advice, suggestions, personal rants about things went wrong for you: all welcome.
posted by kmr to Travel & Transportation (17 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I have done it the opposite way, from west to east, in mid-February. I took I-40 straight through from California to North Carolina. Although it's the southern United States, the western part goes through high desert where the weather can be extremely wintery - people don't think of Arizona and New Mexico as being snowy places but they were when I was there, and we also encountered some pretty intense fog in various places. The interstates are generally safe, though, and if the weather is truly bad you can always hole up somewhere until it passes.

If you do I-40, the Painted Desert and Petrified Forest National Park are very close to the highway and worth a look. And, naturally, the Grand Canyon isn't too far, although it would be a definite detour.

4 days is pretty grueling. If you want to see anything of significance I would plan for a longer trip.
posted by something something at 12:24 PM on September 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

If I wanted to enjoy the trip, I'd double the expected time for it. Six hundred miles a day is not a lot of fun.
posted by jon1270 at 12:24 PM on September 4, 2014 [2 favorites]

If you want to do it in 4-5 days, you're not going to have time to worry about memorable places to stop or route to take, you're just going to want to take the fastest route. Once you factor in food breaks, pee breaks, finding the hotels and checking in each night, possibly running into snow or fog or rough mountain passes, other stuff is going to be rough. If you're up to 7 days, you might have some time.

My best advice, especially for winter driving, is capitalize on daylight. You don't want to be doing any driving at night if at all possible, and that's quadruply true if you're in the mountains or if there's any weather issues. Get out the door by 7am every day so that you can stop when it gets dark but still have made some progress.
posted by brainmouse at 12:25 PM on September 4, 2014 [2 favorites]

First, 5 days may be short unless you're driving in shifts in one car. My wife and I just moved, with two cars, from SoCal to Wisconsin in 5 days, and a couple of those days were rough with 7.5 hours of drive time. Not horrible, but if you're tacking on an extra 1K to our distance you won't have much time for stops. And, at that time of year, going much longer means driving in the dark.

Anyway, I've done I-40 west of Albuquerque in january, from SoCal out and back. Going out was easy, but a pretty heavy snow fell while we were in NM, so things got a little dicey on the way back around the Continental Divide, but it was generally clear of snow. The obvious attraction on that route is the Grand Canyon, but you won't have time to see it in 5 days.
posted by LionIndex at 12:33 PM on September 4, 2014

I can't speak to the whole trip, but I did Dallas-San Diego in late Feb (alone, stopping two nights) and then again in early April (with another driver and no stopping because 3 dogs) several years ago.

Doing it with two stops was fine. Leisurely. Doing it that second time with no rest (and I met him by plane in El Paso, so I hadn't been driving for 9 hours already) was brutal.

Texas is hard because it's basically one day big, and it depends on where you started the day before. If you're going to stop in New Orleans, you should probably stop next no later than Austin or San Antonio because there is almost nothing between there and El Paso, and El Paso is a long way from Austin. And boring, though Las Cruces is just an hour further on.

You want to leave Texas via El Paso and not Amarillo, nobody recommends the northern route (I-40) through NM-AZ in the winter. Stay on I-10 all the way through to Phoenix, there will be no snow. You do have to get over mountains to get into California, and even if you stay low on I-8 instead of cutting up to I-10 just outside Phoenix you risk snow into March. (Last day of February, I was on the 8 inside San Diego County when it started snowing, and then when it was 6" deep they closed the interstate, with all of us on it pulled over into one lane, to plow it.) Do not cross these mountains at night, is my advice.

You can probably manage 14-16 hours a day with two people, but I'm still not sure you can do it in 4-5 days and still be speaking in the end.
posted by Lyn Never at 12:38 PM on September 4, 2014

It's a 40 hour drive, so if you want to do it in 5 days that means 8 hours of driving per day, which pretty much rules out sight-seeing unless you are really indefatigable. If you plot it on google maps, the southern route they recommend is pretty nice, going through the scenic regions of AZ and NM as noted above, but also passing through Columbus, Indianapolis and St. Louis, each of which have things to offer, especially St. Louis. You could also see Pittsburgh for a tiny (20 mile total) detour. There are plenty of other places to stop on that route. Why not take a little more time and enjoy yourselves?
posted by ubiquity at 12:45 PM on September 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

You're going to want more time. Plan at least a week. Why not first make your way to St. Louis, and then follow Route 66 the rest of the way?
posted by spilon at 12:51 PM on September 4, 2014 [2 favorites]

I did a cross-country road trip over three and a half weeks in July 2005. I looped across the country from Boston. I took kind of a central route that veered south on the way out to California, and then a northern route on the way back. My only regret is not taking longer to do the trip. A lot of times I'd arrive at tourist destinations after they closed, and I felt like I was spending way too long in the car.

My Boston-to-San Francisco route was (roughly) 90-88-86-90-80/90-80-55-70-29-IA/NE2-80-76-70-CO470-285-50-550-160-89-AZ64-40-93-95-15-CA58-CA99-CA120-205-580.

5 days for this was PUSHING it. A few of these were 12-14 hours a day of driving, and my companion regrettably did not know how to drive stick-shift, a limiting factor I wasn't counting on.

I had trouble finding hotels in Colorado and Arizona. In CO I was getting dangerously tired on 285 with nothing for miles. In AZ it seemed they all wanted to charge an arm and a leg.

I basically stuck with the touristy attractions. Missed both Four Corners and the Hoover Dam as I arrived at both after closing time (you'd think Four Corners wouldn't close, as it's merely a point on a map). I stopped a bit in Nebraska at some sort of Pony Express museum and also at some cowboy hat store, but that was it in terms of the unexpected.

I stopped in more places on the return leg of my journey, up the Pacific coast and then across the northern part of the country.
posted by tckma at 12:52 PM on September 4, 2014

I did this from New York. Drove south to Louisiana and took the I-10 all the way across to LA. My only suggestion is to wear sunscreen. When I finally arrived in California half my face was bright red.
posted by cazoo at 1:59 PM on September 4, 2014

I drove from LA to Miami. We went up to 40, went to Lake Havasu, Sedona, and at Albuquerque we went down to 10, hit Carlesbad Caverns. Then across Texas (for two days) then New Orleans. Tallahassee, Orlando and Miami. It took 3 weeks and it was a BLAST!

If you're doing it all in 4 days....Dude, unless you're in that car for 16 hours a day, it's going to be a haul.

To avoid snow, I might take 95 to 10 all the way to LA. But I'll warn you, we had Hothlanta/Snowpocalypse in January and February last year. 20 is more likely to get snow than 10, but it's WAY more miles on 10.

I will say, if you take 10, come hell or high water, see Carlsbad Caverns. You won't be sorry!
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 2:23 PM on September 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

I've driven from New Mexico to Boston on a one-way move. My then-girlfriend flew out to drive with me.

Texas: Midway Cafe, on the mid point of Route 66. The food sucked. The Cadillac Ranch!
Oklahoma: I remember nothing except maybe the world's tallest cross?
Arkansas: I felt really out of place here, and we got some stares. Eh. Wouldn't go back.
Tennessee: A full extra day devoted to Graceland. Wow, the Jungle room!
Kentucky: Camped at a KOA, saw some beautiful horses. Missed out on bourbon.
Ohio: Rock 'n Roll Hall of Fame.
New York: Dropped her off home in Ithaca and then just rode the gas pedal to Cambridge MA.

It was pretty fun - we didn't kill each other, got married a couple of years later, moved to Australia, etc.

Take a look at this book: Road Trip USA. We used the 2003? edition, and it was fantastic. I'd never have known to take the diversion to the Cadillac Ranch or stop at the Midway Cafe or notice the tallest cross otherwise, and those were perfect bits of road trip Americana.
posted by RedOrGreen at 3:26 PM on September 4, 2014 [2 favorites]

I love the Saguaro National Park (outside of Tucson). It is, in my opinion, a must-see. I love the whole drive on the 10.

I used to live in Phoenix and drove home for the holidays. One year there was a snowstorm in west Texas/New Mexico on I-40. You really have to watch the weather if you go this route. There are no snowplows or state troopers. It took me 14 hours to get from Amarillo to Gallup, NM, and they closed the highway shortly after I had got on it. I followed a truck the whole way, don't think I would have been able to do it otherwise.

And it is a 40 hour drive. Give yourself at least a week to 10 days if you want to see things.
posted by bolognius maximus at 3:40 PM on September 4, 2014

I have driven NY to SF on route 80. While I would not recommend it as a winter route, I can say that it took 4 very long days to do it. The only thing I wanted to visit each day was the motel hot tub. I looked for motels with a pool. I would hit the road each morning by 6:30am and find a hotel about 10.5 to 13 hours later.

One thing I did appreciate was the parts of the west where speed limits were either high or non existent. Seeing how long you can keep up at around 95+ mph was fun in a terrifying sort of way. I add that this was before satellite radio. I listened to Grateful Dead bootleg tapes and CDs the entire 4 day trip.
posted by 724A at 4:06 PM on September 4, 2014

I have driven cross country in three days, which was dangerous. Four to five days is safe but you won't have time for much beyond stopping for good food you've read reviews about online and having some relaxation time in the evenings. For sight seeing you need more time than that.
posted by Dip Flash at 4:35 PM on September 4, 2014

We just did Philadelphia to LA in four days with one driver, using mostly 1-70. It was not fun, and the first part of I-70 is tremendously monotonous. The scenery was much better once in Colorado, and Utah is flat-out gorgeous, but since you're planning on going in the depths of winter...well, part of your route will depend on what part of California you want to end up in, but if you're heading to northern California at all, and if you're driving a moving-heavy car or a van, I would be very careful to plot out a route that's safe in the snow, and add in at least two or three extra days in case of a winter storm. You do not want to be caught in a snowstorm fifty miles from the last truck stop in the Midwest. (This does not apply as much if you're going a very southern route.)

If you want to plan in sightseeing and more stops, definitely add in at least another day or two on top of that.
posted by jetlagaddict at 4:51 PM on September 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

Are you thinking of cutting across Utah and heading into SF on 80, or heading through TX/NM/AZ?

If when going across NM you end up going through the Navajo reservation/painted desert make sure you have a full tank of gas (and maybe extra)... There was *nothing* for 5 or 6 hours. This isn't bad advice for West TX either.

I did this in Feb - there wasn't much snow along the highways, but it increased significantly and quickly if I detoured into the mountains at all (outside Albuquerque, Flagstaff/Grand Canyon). The Grand Canyon in winter is beautiful... You can't really go hiking, but it's a nice 1 day break if you want to walk around and look at the view and have cocoa by a hotel fireplace.

If you take 80 over Donner pass, keep an eye on the weather and carry chains (or be prepared to stop for a day).
posted by jrobin276 at 5:11 PM on September 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

Yes, I have done this.

My route, roughly, by sleeping place:
Burlington, VT -> Washington, DC -> ATL -> New Orleans -> Houston -> Carlsbad Caverns, NM -> loop up to White Sands, then back down to Lordsberg, NM -> Tuscon/Phoenix, AZ -> Grand Canyon and then back down to rt 66/Williams, AZ -> along 66, up through Las Vegas to outside Death Valley, CA -> through Death Valley to Berkeley, CA

My favorite parts: visiting a Civil War battlefield. eating lunch on the porch of an old plantation house with no one around. driving into New Orleans at sunset. the San Antonio missions. driving through West Texas. long dark southwestern roads. Carlsbad Caverns! White Sands. the Hoover Dam. Death Valley. CA rt 178.

My least favorite parts: pretty much everything on the East Coast. southern drivers. underheated southwestern hotel rooms. rushing through Las Vegas. I-5 in CA.

Let me know if you have any follow up questions - I'd be happy to say more. We didn't have time to do as much tourism or hiking as I might have liked, but I loved my cross country trip, it might be the best vacation I've ever taken.
posted by maryr at 8:15 PM on October 15, 2014

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