Best (least treacherous) driving route over the Rockies?
February 26, 2015 7:45 AM   Subscribe

Driving from Cincinnati to Portland near the end of March. Bit concerned about the mountain passes in late winter. The basic options are I-80 to Salt Lake, then on to I-84. Or a more northern route through S. Dakota and Montana on I-90 into Washington before heading southwest. Both drives would be ~34-35 hours—any compelling reasons to choose one over the other?
posted by cramer to Travel & Transportation around Portland, OR (15 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I-80 to SLC is pretty tough between Cheyenne and Laramie, Wyoming. It goes over 8,000 feet and is sometimes shut down. It can also get serious near Rock Springs Wyoming, though much lower in elevation. I would take I-90.
posted by lawild at 7:55 AM on February 26, 2015

Any compelling reasons to choose one over the other?

Weather. Weather patterns are going to have a bigger impact than the condition/route that either path takes you. So my advice would be to take a look at the weather forecast just before you start your drive and decide which route looks drier and sunnier - they're far enough apart that a storm track is likely to favor one over the other. Then go the nicer route.
posted by craven_morhead at 7:55 AM on February 26, 2015 [3 favorites]

Do you have experience crossing the Rockies in winter? I've done the drive 10 or 12 times now and it can be a careful but easy drive or it can be really hellish, it's all about the weather and your preparedness.

Make sure you have proper winter tires and good supplies with you, take extra windshield washer fluid, I've crossed during a blizzard and went through gallons of washer fluid, don't assume you can just buy more along the way, if the weather is that bad everyone will be using that much for their own windshields and the gas stations along the route will be sold out (source: I worked one winter at the only station for a two hour gap on one Rocky mountain pass and we ran out during bad weather more than once).
posted by Cosine at 8:30 AM on February 26, 2015

To second what craven_morhead said, check the routes to see which is behaving best, I-80 is fastest unless there is a blizzard on top of it, in which case go to I-90 north or I-70 south of it.
posted by nickggully at 8:40 AM on February 26, 2015

I've never crossed the Rockies in winter, though I guess technically this would be very early spring (but that's a distinction without a difference). Do the higher elevations to the south I-70 route make it more likely to be snowed in?

Good tips, thanks.
posted by cramer at 8:44 AM on February 26, 2015

With these interstates, getting snowed in has basically nothing to do with the amount of snow that has accumulated over the past weeks or months, and everything to do with (1) what accumulated in the last 24 hours and (2) what is accumulating now and in the near future.
posted by craven_morhead at 8:56 AM on February 26, 2015

I don't think I-70 would buy you anything with your final destination being Portland. It's just as likely to be nasty and then you have to cut up the length of Utah to get back on track, which can have its own weather issues. Stick with your two choices and decide based on the weather predictions for both as suggested by others.
posted by cecic at 8:56 AM on February 26, 2015

It's been a while, but I used to drive between Colorado and Eugene, Oregon fairly often. As everyone else said, the most important thing is the weather on the days you're driving.

I would add I-70 to your list of possibilities. Even though it's through the mountains, it might have better weather than the other routes. Also, while I was living there, the DOT was good about keeping the road clear -- gotta keep those cars flowing to the ski resorts.

Don't be deceived by I-80 being relatively flat. It is notorious for strong winds and whiteout blizzards. It gets shut down often enough in winter that Wyoming went ahead and permanently installed closure gates on most of the entrance ramps.

Also, when deciding, check the weather for I-84 over the Blue Mountains (the section in Oregon east of Pendleton). That can also get bad in winter.
posted by penguinicity at 8:58 AM on February 26, 2015

I really can't recommend I-70. I live in Denver and it closes regularly west of here because of accidents, and if it's a good skiing day you will sit in traffic even if the road is accident-free.
posted by rachelpapers at 10:10 AM on February 26, 2015

I'll second the thought that you can't be assured of picking a route with no problems until you see the weather a few days from your trip. Truth be told any of the high mountain passes could close temporarily during a storm at the end of March. What you have going for you is that you would be traveling on big, popular, Interstate highways that will get the most and immediate attention during and after a storm.

What you can do to make this most pleasant is to make sure your travel schedule has some slack in it so you can effectively wait out a portion of a storm. You may also want to structure your travel such that the mountainous parts of your drive take place during the daylight.

A piece of Colorado I-70 specific advice is to try avoid traveling West of Denver during prime ski commuting times. This usually means morning rush hour and especially the weekend.
posted by mmascolino at 10:15 AM on February 26, 2015 [1 favorite]

Just for completeness, the other Interstate option is to go way the hell south to I-40 and through to Los Angeles. That's way longer, 3000 miles compared to about 2400 miles for the northern routes. If it were me I'd plan on going the shortest route and then checking weather once you get to the Rockies. Try to build in the ability to wait a couple of days if the weather is terrible.
posted by Nelson at 10:26 AM on February 26, 2015

What you can do to make this most pleasant is to make sure your travel schedule has some slack in it so you can effectively wait out a portion of a storm. You may also want to structure your travel such that the mountainous parts of your drive take place during the daylight.

This. This. This. You'll be fine, just take your time and pay attention to the weather. Don't rush. Every new town with a motel you get to in Wyoming or Montana (on either route) you should stop and check the weather forecast. If its sketchy, hunker down for a day.

Be careful on the stretch of 84 between baker city and about Pendelton can be a really fucking hellish strip with nothing in the way of civilization there. I once hit some insanely foggy conditions there and was stuck for a a couple of hours.
posted by furnace.heart at 12:01 PM on February 26, 2015

I-80 across southern Wyoming can be scary as fuck in the winter...or it can be boring. Really boring. It all depends on the weather. You must check the weather three days before, two days before, one day before, and while you are actively ON the road. Weather in that part of the country can change in an hour.

I cannot stress checking the weather enough. Every. Single. Rest. Stop. on I-80: pull over and look at the weather map. I was once caught in a freak snowstorm between Cheyenne and Laramie on Memorial Day weekend. I'd been in Pueblo with friends - temps in the 80's - and was wearing nothing but jeans, a tank top, and some flip-flops. My car was the last one to get onto I-80 before the crossbars went down to shut down the highway. I should have stayed in Cheyenne but I was stubborn. I wound up in the median by Vedauwoo when the car in front of me spun out and flipped over several times before landing on its roof. I ran through the snow in my flip-flops and helped him out of his car and into mine. The flip-over driver and I were saved by a long-haul trucker coming the other direction, who called for an ambulance and waited while a road crew pulled my car out of the ditch so that I could keep going. The trucker gave me a sweater and some huge gloves and a blanket. If it had not been for him, I imagine I would have lost some digits to the cold and the other guy would have...I don't know. He was pretty banged up and probably had a concussion, at least.

I hope I scared the hell out of you. Stop at the rest areas and check the weather!!! And for the love of god, bring an emergency kit and some blankets/warm clothes. I never drive without an emergency kit now.
posted by Elly Vortex at 1:35 PM on February 26, 2015 [4 favorites]

Driving from Cincinnati to Portland near the end of March.

I'd really suggest you fly.
posted by ethnomethodologist at 8:28 AM on February 27, 2015

Coming in late with a few practical tips:

- Checking the weather has been covered well above and is indeed critical (omg so critical) but it's important to remember that at this time of year and at these elevations weather is ridiculously changeable and extreme. You can hit ten different kinds of weather, from dry roads and blue skies, to freezing sleet and black ice, to complete whiteout, in an hour or across fifty miles. No joke. WYDOT's road conditions page is a must-use resource at every stop and along the way; they give detailed conditions of every road and highway in 15-20 mile stretches, updated several times an hour. CODOT has a similar page at And try out the InRoute app; it can be helpful to show routes based on weather along the way. Plus there's always the AM radio bands with travel advisories; signs for them are frequent and they are useful. I used all three on a recent trip from Denver to Jackson Hole and it kept me much saner than if I hadnt known what was coming every few miles.

- understand and follow chain laws in each state; travel is often restricted to vehicles with chains, AWD, snow tires, or all three. Stay on top of what's restricted via the state DOT pages and stay off the road until things clear if you don't meet the requirements.

- no joke about carrying washer fluid. I used three gallons in 600 WY miles last weekend. Other things to keep in your car just in case: A small snow shovel, a flashlight, dense stable food like dried fruit, water, warm layers. Know what to do if you get stuck in a blizzard - STAY IN YOUR CAR, start the engine and run the heat ten minutes every hour, crack a downwind window, keep the tailpipe clear of snow, keep your dome light on.

- snow tires make a world of difference, but neither they nor AWD can defy physics if you lose traction or hit a curve going too fast. Slow down in bad conditions. Keep both hands on the wheel. Pay attention to how the road feels at all times, especially because the surface can change from mile to mile.

- on I-80 vs I-70: I tend to think it's a toss-up, honestly. I-70 is much more traveled but as such has more inexperienced snow drivers - and I tend to think other vehicles are your biggest hazards in bad conditions. It also has more tunnels and other if-there's-an-accident-you're-screwed situations. On the other hand, in bad weather the only traffic on I-80 is made up of truckers and other hardcore drivers, and hoping a truck doing 75mph will see you doing 55 in time to slow down or pass is its own kind of terror in snow. And you'll be a problem if you're going any slower than the recommended speed limit for those conditions, which is stressful. But I-80 has more consistent shoulders even over the mountain passes than I-70 does, which is at least mentally helpful. And highway closures on I-80 tend to happen because the weather outpaced the clearing - they're lifted as soon as they've run plows and salted - and not because the road is literally impassable as it is with I-70. Finally - both roads have long stretches without services or cell phone coverage, but I-80's are longer.

All of this assumes that you have AWD, snow tires, flexible timing, and confident weather driving skills, which I consider absolute prerequisites no matter which route you take. Of course it's entirely possible to hit zero weather along the entire route, especially at that time of year - but you absolutely must be prepared in case you do. All that said - I'd choose I-80 for this drive unless there was a big predicted blizzard along it and then I'd take 90. I'd take 70 last (and I live in Denver!)
posted by peachfuzz at 4:47 PM on February 28, 2015

« Older Non-Khaki-Scouts Seek Aquatic Outdoor Adventure   |   Books like Jan Karon or James Herriot Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.