Driving from Houston to Los Angeles: What's the best route?
September 22, 2018 2:10 PM   Subscribe

There's a strong possibility I'm going to be driving from Houston, TX to Los Angeles, CA the weekend of 9/28. I'm trying to do the whole drive by myself that weekend. I'm curious if anyone has any route advice.

Google Maps suggests either driving west across Texas on the 10 to El Paso, then through Las Cruces, Tucson and Phoenix. Or, it says, there's a slightly longer route where you head north through Dallas, Amarillo, and then west across the upper half of New Mexico and Arizona on the 40 passing through Flagstaff.

Not knowing any better I'm inclined to just take the fastest possible route, but if there are other tradeoffs of either way, or there are scenic detours along either route that you think are worth the extra time, I'd appreciate the tip.
posted by jeb to Travel & Transportation (17 answers total)
I've done both routes. They're pretty similar. I-10 takes you very close to the border so if there are any questions about immigration the northern route is safer in that way.

Making this solo drive in 2 days does not leave a lot of time for scenic detours. If you wanted to stop at the Grand Canyon that is about an hour off I-40 one way. Or off I-10 there is White Sands national monument.
posted by muddgirl at 2:18 PM on September 22, 2018

To be a little more clear, there likely will be at least one immigration checkpoint on I-10. I don't think I've seen a checkpoint on I-40 - apparently there CAN be checkpoints on I-40 but it is less likely.
posted by muddgirl at 2:20 PM on September 22, 2018

I had a friend who did this drive several times in college and would take I-10. From that I gather that West Texas is really empty and not somewhere really want to break down.

You will possibly encounter immigration checkpoints on the I-10 route (I think there's one near El Paso, but eastbound).
posted by hoyland at 2:21 PM on September 22, 2018

The immigration checkpoint is eastbound (or at least it was in 2012) - I-10 hugs the border east of El Paso (so close that my phone thought I was in Mexico at one point). The checkpoint is after it leaves the border.

West Texas is phenomenally boring and there is nowhere to eat. On a drive from San Francisco to southwestern Arkansas (via Los Angeles, for Reasons - the route via I-40 would have been a bit shorter) we asked at the aforementioned immigration checkpoint where we should eat, since we passed through about lunchtime, and the answer was basically "you probably should have eaten in El Paso". Keep that in mind, although My wife (who has done that drive a few times) would basically call everyone she knew while driving across West Texas to keep from losing her mind. There is also nothing good on the radio.

Eight hundred miles is a long day and you're planning to do two of them back to back.
posted by madcaptenor at 2:39 PM on September 22, 2018 [1 favorite]

I-40 effectively replaced Route 66 through OK, TX, NM, and AZ so there will be roadside attractions. Whether that is worth driving several hours out of the way just to eventually end up back on I-10 into Los Angeles is up to you.

Bonus to make West Texas a little easier, the speed limit bumps up to 80mph west of San Antonio to El Paso.
posted by hwyengr at 2:48 PM on September 22, 2018 [1 favorite]

Having driven both routes, I'd just take I-10 straight across. I'd also try to split it into three days if at all possible, stopping in El Paso and Phoenix.
posted by bradf at 3:02 PM on September 22, 2018 [2 favorites]

Get a tune up and make sure all your car fluids are topped up. Keep your gas tank topped up, maybe some spare on hand too. And pick up a giant thing of bottled water on your way out (for you or your car). It's *empty*. At one point I went five hours without passing a gas station and was really glad I had topped up!

I've done both - I think the northern route is much prettier through Arizona and New Mexico. I think it goes through the painted desert and part of the Navajo reservation.

Two days is do-able, three is easier (and safer) and a detour to the Grand Canyon is highly recommended. I stopped in February and there were no people, light snow, and all the lodges had fires burning and cocoa on offer. It was lovely.

Nth spotty radio - bring back up. And coffee. Lots of coffee....
posted by jrobin276 at 4:14 PM on September 22, 2018 [3 favorites]

I did this from Dallas to San Diego, in February so I did the southern route, stopping overnight in El Paso and Yuma, which I cannot recommend but I needed to be in San Diego to pick up keys around lunchtime and wanted to give myself a head start; Phoenix would be preferable.

Plot your gas stations in advance to top up well before you're out, it's trivially easy to figure out with Google Maps and just set Waze to take you to the next one when you leave one. Also, plan your pees if you do not have an iron bladder; in some cases the next bathroom IS the next gas station but my car can drive several more hours than my bladder can.

The two-night route does give you evening rest and wandering time, or just grant yourself a reprieve from doing anything stressful and go to a movie or have a swim at your hotel to stretch your legs. But if you're able, if you can make it to maybe Las Cruces your first night (because El Paso is real industrial and very well-lit), have a nice dinner and let the sun get good and down and then go to the edge of town. Just drive out half an hour on the interstate, if you can't find a scenic restaurant or something out in the far-flung. Then look up.
posted by Lyn Never at 4:46 PM on September 22, 2018 [2 favorites]

I've done Austin-LA a few times, via I-10. It is brutally boring, especially by yourself, but definitely the fastest. Once you get past Junction, towns are spaced about 70 miles apart, so bear that in mind.

The immigration checkpoint is in Sierra Blanca, which is an armpit of a town. Van Horn actually has one or two interesting entries in Atlas Obscura IIRC, and a couple of OK restaurants. There are more interesting places out there just off your route—the McDonald Observatory, Alpine, Marfa, the Davis Mountains (including a state park)—and you could take a detour onto US90, which would take you through Marfa and Alpine. The drive to the McDonald Observatory is mountainous and dramatic.
posted by adamrice at 5:24 PM on September 22, 2018 [1 favorite]

(thanks for all the tips so far, just to clarify im planning on leaving friday evening, hopefully knock off six hours or so then, so i hopefully wont have two 800 mile days in a row. I don't relish back to back 800 mile days by myself.)
posted by jeb at 8:03 PM on September 22, 2018

I think people are being a bit dramatic about the I-10 through Texas. Gas stations are an hour apart. This is unusually long, but not so long you need to carry any extra fuel or should feel in danger. But by all means fill up and stretch your legs if you see the option and you have less than half a tank. The CBP will not bother you going west.

I haven't taken the northern route, nor have I taken the second half of the southern route, but here's how I'd break up/spice up the southen route if that's your preference.

I'd do Houston to Junction on the 10 by the most direct route on Friday night (or a town or two further along 10 if you're comfortable night driving). If you change your plans and do this segment in the daytime, see some hill country and some history and go via Johnson City and Fredericksburg.

On Saturday, I'd do 500-600 miles: head along I-10 until you reach Fort Stockton. At this point the dramatic scale of the interstate through west Texas will be starting to wear thin. So add 30 minutes to your drive (plus a very pleasant lunch stop) by leaving I-10 at Fort Stockton and going south to Marfa via Alpine. Alpine is a nice enough town. Marfa is a pretty big deal in the art world and has good food on the weekend. At a minimum have lunch here. Check Marfalist to see what's open. Then drive back to I-10 via Fort Davis and the McDonald Observatory for a windy, ridiculously scenic additional 60 minute diversion (with the option to mooch around the Observatory visitor center and gift shop), or take the more direct route through Valentine (and past Prada Marfa). You should fill up in Marfa if you're taking the Valentine route (this is the longest and quietest stretch of highway without gas on this trip).

Then head to White Sands NM which you should reach in plenty of time for sunset at this time of year (not least because the time zone change before El Paso works in your favour, but keep an eye on the clock if you're going in winter!). White Sands is the one thing you should definitely not miss on this route, and sunrise/sunset are the times to see it. Then eat and spend the night in Las Cruces (or again, further along the 10 if you've got the energy and you're comfortable night driving).

That leaves you with an 750 mile drive across NM, Arizona and California the next day. I've never done most this segment, so I can't speak to it, but if you run out of steam with a couple of hours to go, stop in Joshua Tree or Palm Springs.
posted by caek at 8:45 PM on September 22, 2018 [3 favorites]

Depending on where you're headed in LA, you may want to time your arrival to avoid traffic. It would suck to grind out the last day and then have to crawl across town for another couple hours during rush hour. Google maps' traffic forecasts/estimates aren't perfect but they're close enough for this.
posted by snuffleupagus at 8:51 PM on September 22, 2018 [1 favorite]

Curate yourself a nice long queue of podcasts and audiobooks. I-10 will go like a breeze. I'm honestly a bit jealous. Think of a couple of books that you've just been too distracted to sit down and read!

(Do have your fluids changed and carry some water though; it's not the surface of the moon but breaking down in west Texas or New Mexico is no bueno.)
posted by MattD at 1:21 AM on September 23, 2018 [1 favorite]

I've done both as well... +1 on everything MattD said, including the jealousy

* Stop and look at the night sky in east TX. You've probably not seen stars like that.
* I'm honestly not sure this can be done safely in two days. Leaving on Friday sounds like a good plan. You'll still have less time for scenic detours than you'd like
* I had more trouble finding gas on I-40... at some point 3 gas stations in a row were boarded up and I almost got stranded
* Inflating your tires to the highest rated pressure can save you a bunch of money
* Part of I-40 is high altitude, with lots of mountains. Prettier, also harder on your car and worse gas mileage
* On I-10, yeah, definitely count on at least one immigration checkpoint.
* Whatever you do, don't forget your phone charger or run out of audiobooks
* Plan ahead on where you're going to stop for the night. If you start looking at 10pm, you'll end up sleeping in your car
posted by kleinsteradikaleminderheit at 2:21 AM on September 23, 2018 [1 favorite]

> Stop and look at the night sky in east TX. You've probably not seen stars like that.

West! I meant to say west Texas. The MacDonald Observatory is not a huge detour, and they have star parties on Friday and Saturday nights.
posted by kleinsteradikaleminderheit at 2:34 AM on September 23, 2018

Six hours up to I-40 gets you to Vernon, TX (Google maps), which looks to have a few hotels. Unfortunately, then you're at 8 or 10 hours to the next hotel, either in Gallup, NM or Chandler, AZ, respectively. If you get all the way to Chandler, then you can take a detour into Petrified Forest, either in the park itself, or just into the welcome center and adjacent courtyard for shorter distraction.

Otherwise, you're headed to Ozona, TX on I-10 for your first night, because that's 5 and a half hours out from Houston, where Fort Stockton is 7 hours from Houston. Then it's 9 hours from Ozona to Tucson, AZ, and under 7 hours to LA from Tucson, traffic willing.

Sadly, I'd side with keeping the rest breaks short, instead of full-blown detours, given how long you'll already be on the road. Anything more than a rest area or a road-side plaque will likely add 30 minutes to an hour to your trip, which might not be too bad, or you might just want to get to your next destination. And I said sadly because there are interesting detours along both routes.

Depending on which way you go through New Mexico, I can rattle off some food suggestions, if you have an idea of how long you'll go between meals.
posted by filthy light thief at 11:55 AM on September 23, 2018

There's a border checkpoint west of Las Cruces NM I-10 NM and you can see a Rest Area a few miles on, then comes Akela Flats (where I worked at a huge souvenir store with gas), and then Deming, which has restaurants, gas, etc.
posted by MovableBookLady at 9:52 PM on September 23, 2018

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