What should I see/do on a car trip from Northern Virginia to Seattle?
June 22, 2016 8:42 AM   Subscribe

I'm moving from NoVA to Seattle, and only taking things that will fit in my car. Im expecting the trip to take 6-10 days. I don't have much experience with road trips so would appreciate any recommendations on places to stop/see and trip tips in general. I'm hoping to experience parts of the country I haven't seen in a long time :).

The only thing I'm certain of is I'll be stopping in Indiana since I have a friend to visit there.
posted by Javed_Ahamed to Travel & Transportation (13 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Will you be traveling along I-90 most of the way or do you want to wander more. There's a lot of beautiful scenery and parks along the way. Traveling along similar routes I've enjoyed stops in The Badlands, Mount Rushmore, Glacier National Park, Devil's Peak. If you go further North you can stop by Teddy Roosevelt's ranch.

Definitely check out the programming calendar to see if the parks are hosting any cool events. I know that Badlands has an evening in the middle of the summer where an astronomer comes to teach people about the night sky in a place without light pollution.
posted by brookeb at 9:12 AM on June 22, 2016

Response by poster: Yeah I think I'll be traveling along I-90 most of the way. Mostly going to be driving a direct route and wandering off if there are cool sites to see. I'll check out the programming calendar for some of the parks along the way. That astronomer event would be pretty cool to check out. I have some backpacking gear as well so I was thinking I wouldn't have to stay in a hotel every night if there were some good campgrounds along the way where I could just pitch up a tent. Thanks!
posted by Javed_Ahamed at 9:20 AM on June 22, 2016

Best answer: Roadside america for the all of the weird stuff you can find along your route. Road food for the great hidden dining spots. KOA for camping spaces if you can't find what you want at a national park.
posted by cabingirl at 9:24 AM on June 22, 2016 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Also, as you get further west, things are further apart and the road gets kind of boring. I-90 between Sioux Falls and Rapid City is pretty dull in my experience (except for Wall Drug of course). So, plan for those long stretches without much to look at or stop for, which will come after you've already driven halfway across the country of course. Maybe save a few choice podcasts or a new audiobook so you have something fun to look forward to when you know you'll be hitting a dead stretch.
posted by cabingirl at 9:28 AM on June 22, 2016 [1 favorite]

Best answer: As a precaution in our digital-centric age, if you're driving with all of your data in a single place on hard drives, ensure that a complete backup is made (and tested!) and either stored online or on an external drive that can be mailed to you once you arrive. It would be a shame to lose all your data if the car gets stolen or broken into or in a bad accident. Unless you're absolutely certain that you're going to carry your computer(s) with you at all times, make sure that you've turned on disk encryption before you go (if it's off, it'll take a bit of time to apply it). There are thieves that specifically look for people doing what you're doing.

Stock up on audiobooks and/or podcasts. Something with some personal inspiration for you can be a good match for driving through beautiful but desolate landscapes.

If you're straying off the beaten path, make sure you have at least two gallons of water and some food with you in case you break down. Some toilet paper and hand sanitizer too. If you don't have AAA or the like, you might consider signing up for it. If you're going into sparsely populated areas, pay attention to how much gas you have left and when you're likely to be able to get more. Bring sunscreen and sun glasses, also a small but high efficiency cooler. Keep at least $100 in cash in case you stop someplace where you can't use credit. If you're stopping in the desert at night, it can get chilly, so bring a light jacket that you can get to easily. Don't assume you'll have a data (or even cell) signal the entire way.

If you have the funds, you might get a pocket sized camera with a wide angle capable (~18-24mm equivalent) camera. In addition to the landscapes, you might be able to get some nice shots of the stars with a tripod.

If you can afford the time, try not to drive more than four to five hours in a single stretch and then a solid break. On crowded roads, I prefer to drive an 8-midnight stint, as I'd rather be sharing the roads with truckers than stressed out families with kids screaming in the back. YMMV.

If it's at night and you find yourself getting too sleepy to drive, stop at the next hotel or campround - saving $100 is not worth risking your life or someone else's by falling asleep at the wheel. But do bring some form of caffeine that you can consume even if it's warm.

This map shows a path that you could pick up from Indiana that would take you through some very pretty areas and takes you to Washington.
posted by Candleman at 9:39 AM on June 22, 2016 [3 favorites]

Get all your car's fluids and the tires checked and make sure your spare tire is in good condition and that you have a jack and all the tools you need to change it.
posted by Candleman at 9:41 AM on June 22, 2016 [1 favorite]

If you're not in a hurry I like getting off I-90 in northeastern Wyoming and taking a detour across the northern part of the state on US-14, going through the Bighorn Mountains and Yellowstone National Park before diverting north again to rejoin I-90 near Bozeman.

The Bighorns are lovely and I like to stop and admire the Medicine Wheel. Yellowstone, of course, should not be missed.. The Buffalo Bill museum in Cody is worth a stop if the timing is convenient.
posted by Nerd of the North at 9:46 AM on June 22, 2016

In the second half of the drive you'll be in Lewis & Clark country, so if you are even a little interested in what they got up to, you can plan your route to visit some of places they traversed and explored. I recommend picking up the audiobook of "Undaunted Courage," a book about the expedition by popular historian Stephen Ambrose. You'll drive with them as far as the Snake River, I think, at which point you'll be on I-90 if you weren't before. There are various online resources for driving the Lewis & Clark trail.

Get a squeegee thing for cleaning your windscreen, and have a couple rolls of paper towels. My parents made the same drive through the northern midwest and their car was so bug-smashed through South Dakota that they had to replace their (admittedly marginal) wipers along the way-- they went through several bottles of wiper fluid just to keep the car navigable. (I had the same experience in the southern route, Norfolk VA to Seattle via Florida, New Orleans, OKC, and Denver to see friends, and I took had major bug encounters-- Lovebugs in Florida and all the bugs of the swamps under I-10.)

My dad's advice served me well: every day at around 6PM or dinner time, break out the map, look ahead at where you'd like to be in a few hours when you wrap up the day's driving, and call ahead and book a room/campsite somewhere. You never know which little town is having a car show or a Jimmy Buffett concert that's going to sell out every room in the county, and it's a lot easier to deal with that stuff when there's still a few hours of daylight and more flexibility in where you decide to stop-- either stop short or go long as your time and endurance allow. You can take the same time to check in by phone or online to let people know where you are, where you think you'll be staying, and how you and the car are doing.

You'll also want to time your passage through major cities around rush hours, and drive around (which is generally easily done with planning) if you have no need to go there. You might think "Smaller city = smaller rush hour," but smaller city also = smaller roadworks, generally. My one and only car trip through the not-at-all-small Dallas hit the evening rush, and I didn't take advantage of ring-roads, so it was a serious delay.
posted by Sunburnt at 10:13 AM on June 22, 2016 [2 favorites]

As you travel more west, you'll go quite a while between stops. When we were driving through South Dakota, we passed by a city with restaurants when my husband assured me there would be something in an hour or so. Two hours later, we ate at one of the sketchiest places I've ever been to. :-)

I really enjoyed stopping at the Minuteman Missile National Park, which is on the same exit at Badlands NP on I-90. We had a lovely couple of hours visiting both parks (we were on a time crunch, and we could have easily spent the day).
posted by heathrowga at 11:17 AM on June 22, 2016

We did this three years ago (moving from Maryland, but much the same route). We used Roadside America and Roadtrippers to plot out a few interesting stops (like the cemetery in Night of the Living Dead, and the exterior house from A Christmas Story). Going just a bit out of our way to stop at Devils Tower in the late afternoon was well worth the time — I’d only ever seen it in movies, so it was kind of crazy to actually stand in front of this bizarre thing jutting out of the desert hills.

Stopping a night in Chicago and getting some local pizza was also a good choice.

Maybe we missed some attraction because of the heavy rains when we were there, but Wall Drug seemed like just a load of junk they wanted to sell you, and not really worth stopping unless you like cheap printed promotional items. I wish we had taken a drive through the Badlands instead.

For hotels, we would look at the coupon books that were often at rest stops and call ahead late in the afternoon to reserve a spot for the night. If you have a smartphone, apps like Hotel Tonight or the Hotels.com app can come in handy for finding a last-minute deal.
posted by mboszko at 5:27 PM on June 22, 2016 [1 favorite]


Seconding Sunburnt, South Dakota was the grossest bug-ridden windshield state. We had to stop once an hour in the evening to wash the windshield because the wipers weren't cutting it.

We took a GoPro suction-cup-mounted to the windshield to make a time-lapse video of the trip. I personally found it interesting to review, but there's a lot of boring road out west. Montana, especially, seems like it takes forever to get through. The better idea would probably be to visit more parks and monuments and take photos there. We stopped at Mount Rushmore and the Crazy Horse Memorial, and those were cool to see. They're still building the Crazy Horse statue by blasting rock out of the mountain, so see if you might be coming through when they're doing a blast event!

I'll also second the podcasts/audiobook idea (we listened to a ton of Radiolab back episodes, and Steve Martin’s Born Standing Up), and likewise the advice about backing up your digital life to the cloud or to a drive that gets shipped separately.
posted by mboszko at 5:44 PM on June 22, 2016 [1 favorite]

Consider crossing Montana on 212/12, or 87 or even hiway 2. 90 is a slab, lovely country but truckers and folks who come to montana just to race along at 90mph are a drag. you've given yourself enough time to be leisurely, so you might as well see some interesting country at a better pace (you can still fly along those roads, it is Montana after all).

Taking the northern route across the state also brings you more directly to Glacier NP, so you can drive the Going to the Sun road east to west, one of the great drives anywhere. continue along 2 to sandpoint idaho and then you can decide whether to cross Wa. staying on 2 or dropping down to 90 for the last blast into Seattle. I do this drive (across Wa.) a few times a year and almost always use 2 unless I really have to haul the mail.

State routes also give you better food options, as most interstate exits offer the same ol same ol. small towns mean the local diner for breakfast, which is a great way to start a long day of driving.
posted by OHenryPacey at 8:56 AM on June 23, 2016

Response by poster: @Candleman wow that map is pretty useful. Will definitely try to make my route go through most of those places. Thanks!
posted by Javed_Ahamed at 1:41 PM on June 23, 2016

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