Finding a way home to deck the Christmas Cactus
September 12, 2020 12:23 PM   Subscribe

I am planning to drive from Seattle to Tucson for Christmas, to see my family. Please help me plan a route optimized for natural beauty, safer winter driving, and good stopping points to camp each night.

I have 4WD, but I'm of the opinion (based on past experience) that the real risk in bad weather is always other drivers... and since I'm trying to avoid shopping at grocery stores or staying in any hotels, I also don't want to get stuck for days when some mountain pass closes for a snowstorm.

Is it possible to plan a route from Seattle to Tucson that's fairly resistant to bad winter weather? I can leave as early as Dec. 11th and I'd like to be back by January 5th. A friend recommended U.S. Route 395 as particularly pretty -- will it be reasonable to plan on driving this route in winter? What other routes should I consider?

I'd love to stop at Malheur Wildlife Refuge and Joshua Tree if I can. What are some other beautiful places to camp, hike, or drive through along the way? Also, in lieu of beautiful places, what are some convenient places to stop where I could camp, cook food, and sleep in a tent (or in my enclosed truck bed) without being bothered?

I'd like to drive no more than 10 hours per day, with the whole trip taking 3-4 days (which will help me avoid contact with grocery stores etc).
posted by cnidaria to Travel & Transportation around California (5 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
It's going to be difficult to predict weather conditions in December from today. In general, without going far, far out of your way, you have four paths

I-93 through Eastern Oregon into Idaho, then down Eastern Nevada to Las Vegas, and onward to Tucson
i-95 through Central Oregon and Central Nevada, down to Las Vegas and onward
I-84 through Eastern Oregon, Idaho, Utah, Arizona, to Phoenix and onward to Tucson.
I-5 down to California then I-10 eastwards from the Los Angeles area, and onward.

Of the four, I-84 is the most likely to be severly impacted by weather. From the Arizona border through Flagstaff can get heavy snow. Eastern Oregon, Idaho, and Utah aren't any easier.

Malheur Wildlife Refuge is out of the way for any reasonable path to Tucson; count on adding a half-day or more if you add it. I wouldn't predict the road conditions in that area.

Joshua Tree isn't too too far out of the way of I-10, so you _could_ take I-5 south to I-210 just north of Los Angeles, then I-210 to I-10, then to SR62. I don't know if Joshua Tree will be open in the winter. The I-5/I-10 path will be the most heavily travelled, and the most likely to be quickly cleared of snow over the passes. Eastern Oregon and Eastern Nevada could offer substantial delays due to weather.

It would probably take you three days of straight driving, assuming no bad weather, no matter which path you take.

Many of the possible campsites will be closed for the winter, and unpleasant without substantial preparation.

Good luck!
posted by blob at 7:49 PM on September 12, 2020

Okay, also looking at a potential coastal route, because I am ocean-oriented anyway and it might keep the weather issues at bay. I haven't confirmed if all these places will have open campsites in winter, and to hit the nice spots it would be a 5-day trip, but I think that's acceptable -- maybe I could hit different locations on the way back?

Thoughts welcome on this route, too. Times are unadjusted Google Maps time estimates, I plan to be a bit slower:

Seattle to Beverley Beach OR (5 hours)
-> Arcata, CA (6.5 hours)
-> Pfeiffer Big Sur (7 hours)
-> Joshua Tree (8 hours)
-> Tucson (6 hours)
posted by cnidaria at 8:00 PM on September 12, 2020

And on the way back, thinking perhaps a less leisurely trip, maybe:

Tucson -> somewhere in California???
-> near Ashland, OR
-> home to Seattle

Thoughts on where in CA or southern OR would be a good stops for the return journey?
posted by cnidaria at 8:30 PM on September 12, 2020

To me, this trip is a classic "pick two" from three criteria "Safe, Scenic, and low potential to be closed." Unfortunately, most of what we consider to be scenic is going to be less reliable in the winter.

Your 2nd itinerary seems more realistic if you're trying to avoid snow/ice for the bulk of the trip. I like the coast, it tends to be pretty even if its storming...but that said, you're not so much going to see lots of snow, as you are a shit-fuck-ton of rain and that can slow you way down. Even in decent weather I would put that timetable at a conservative estimate between Beverley Beach and Arcata. There are also some fires down there, and even in a normal winter there's the chance of slides and roads closing because of deterioration, those fires will possibly cause hiccups there.

It's hard to answer this kind of question this far out. I would have two or three major routes planned, each with a couple contingencies that you use if weather gets shitty. I don't know where you fall under the 'camping' umbrella, but I would be pretty fucking prepared.

If I were you and doing this, in addition to your scenic routes, I would have a direct route planned (ie, the normal, fastest, most traveled route, which appears to be largely taking I95) It isn't as pretty, but is probably the least likely to be tanked by weather for long.

A couple days before the trip, you firm your plans up and check on route closure and possible inbound weather and make your decision then.
posted by furnace.heart at 8:12 AM on September 13, 2020 [2 favorites]

I've done the coastal route in January / February and it's lovely. There are lots and lots of places to stay. What it is not, however, is fast. Like, it would take me about 3 - 4 hours to get to Beverly Beach from here: Astoria, Oregon. Which is to say, that's a lot further from Seattle. And Beverly to Arcata is more like 10 hours. Route 101 / Route 1 is slow. Ignore Google maps. They think you'll be driving the speed limit. You won't. Arcata to Big Sur? You have to get through SF and that can take literally hours. Even if you get lucky the whole route is most definitely going to be more than 7 hours. If you can possibly add another day or two to your travel time, though, you're golden and it's just an amazingly beautiful drive. DM me if you want specific campground recommendations!
posted by mygothlaundry at 12:11 PM on September 13, 2020 [1 favorite]

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