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April 27, 2008 6:23 PM   Subscribe

Driving Chicago to LA: Interstate or backroads?

Next week I'm setting off for my new life in Los Angeles. My relocation package said I could either ship my car and fly, or get mileage to drive. 50 cents for 2000 miles plus lodging, I'm driving. I'm leaving mid-day Thursday, and I'm supposed to be in LA for work on Monday. But, that can slide to Tuesday if I need it to. So that's 4.5 days max. How should I get there?

I've done the drive via Interstate before, taking the north out and the south route back. I liked the north route more, since I could live out my Smokey and the Bandit fantasies at the Coors Brewery. And, there's Vegas. South has the Grand Canyon, and I've already been there.

The only major new sight along the backroute would be Four Corners. Which I've always wanted to see. And I'll hit the Grand Canyon again. But is that, along with getting a little more culture, worth the extra 15 hours of driving? (Google says 30 hours for the north route, 45 for "avoid major highways"). That's quite a bit of extra time, and I'm not going to be able to stop in every little town and take in the experience. It'll be like I'm on the interstate, except going much more slowly. I've linked to the Gmap backroad trip, so if anybody knows of something absolutely worth seeing along that route, I'm all ears.
posted by hwyengr to Travel & Transportation (15 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
You're going through northern Kansas and southeastern Colorado? That's some boring country. The Four Corners is, well, this marker. And then you're off into Utah.

If it were me, I'd do some research and drive some of the old Route 66 alignment. There's a huge tourist industry wrapped around it, and it's (mostly) tasteful. So much of it is going away now, though.
posted by dw at 6:49 PM on April 27, 2008

I'd be nervous about taking 2000+ miles of backroads. Construction, poorly paved roads, roads with unclear markings/signage=lots of opportunities for something to go wrong.
posted by HotPatatta at 7:08 PM on April 27, 2008

I drove from Chicago to LA last year and took the interstates. For me, the major highlights of the trip were Zion National Park, Las Vegas, and a section of I-70 in Utah that's completely empty for nearly 100 miles, but is the most breathtakingly beautiful landscape I think I've ever seen.

As it happens, my friend and I wrote a travel blog about it, where whoever wasn't driving wrote a post every 100 miles and we uploaded them in batches as we got internet access. May be worth looking over for ideas.
posted by jacobm at 7:29 PM on April 27, 2008

I wouldn't be too worried about poorly paved roads if you're on any road that goes a decent distance. Construction and unclear signage won't be a problem if you have a GPS unit (if you don't have one, forget about taking the back roads).

I see two downsides to the back roads: 1. they're slower, so you'll have to spend more time in the car and less time doing fun things on the side of the road, and 2. with other cars whizzing by in the opposite direction just inches away, two-lane roads are not as safe as interstates.

Still, if it were me, I'd take the back roads. I'd rather gouge my eyes out than drive 2,000 miles on interstates in four days.
posted by Dec One at 7:33 PM on April 27, 2008

I've driven Route 66 to LA several times. There is a travel diary on my site.

4-5 days would be way too little time to do it justice and really enjoy it. If anything, make good time on the interstate, but jump off and take the Seligman to Oatman portion of old 66. Dammned gorgeous, and like stepping back in time.
posted by timsteil at 7:38 PM on April 27, 2008 [1 favorite]

You know, people used to get around quite well pre-gps using lines and symbols printed on paper...can't remember what they used to be called. Oh, right. Maps.

And, if you are taking the backroads anyway, what's the big deal with getting off-track on occassion? Might be the most interesting part of the journey.

With your schedule, however, I'd be tempted to cover some sections on interstate (mountain ranges, for example) but jump off to surface streets for specific sections.
posted by trinity8-director at 7:54 PM on April 27, 2008

You know, people used to get around quite well pre-gps using lines and symbols printed on paper...can't remember what they used to be called. Oh, right. Maps.

Most people don't take back roads long distances, and as a result, these roads are not nearly as well-signed as interstates. The Google Maps directions link in the OP has 120 turns. Making all of those without good signs and without a GPS would be very difficult.

And, if you are taking the backroads anyway, what's the big deal with getting off-track on occassion? Might be the most interesting part of the journey.

Did you read the OP? He has 4.5 days to go 2,000 miles. Getting off-track too often could be very stressful.
posted by Dec One at 8:02 PM on April 27, 2008

Seriously I went to four corners with my dad a couple years ago and we thought it would be all cool. It a granite thing with lines in it and a bunch of Native Americans selling souvenirs.
posted by DJWeezy at 8:04 PM on April 27, 2008

Four days to go 2000 miles? I'd take the interstate, maybe detouring for a couple of things I wanted to see. But even without detours, that's 500 miles/day, which is about as long as you want to be driving day after day. I've found that after you account for gas, pee, food, and rest stops, plus the random stop for sightseeing, it's hard to average much more than 50-55 mph over the entire day on the interstate. (Back roads are slower, because speeds are lower, more towns to slow things down, and the occasional missed turn.)
posted by Forktine at 8:15 PM on April 27, 2008 [1 favorite]

Yeah, I know there's not much at 4 Corners, but I'm an engineer and map geek, so it means more to me than just seeing the monument. Come on, you're in 4 states at once!

I don't have GPS, but that's not a deterrent for me. I'm very directionally stable, and I'll have the individual maps for each state I pass through, so getting off track isn't much of a worry for me. And i'll be in a Mini Cooper, so according to their advertisements, I shouldn't have maps at all.

I once followed the old 66 alignment from Chicago to St. Louis. I wasn't that impressed, since most of it was frontage road to the Interstate. So I was doing 55 on the frontage, watching everybody fly past me on the highway. And the southern Interstate route roughly covers the old 66, and I've done that. If I had a week or two, though, I'd definitely try to do the whole thing right.

And that's my issue, I don't have much time. I want to be able to say I've done the backroad trip, but I don't think I'm going to get more out of it than that. Interstate-wise, I'll go Chicago-Denver-Vegas and be in LA early the next day. I can't even guess where I'll stay the night on the backroads, and a lot of the trip needs to be done in daylight to even get anything out of it.
posted by hwyengr at 8:27 PM on April 27, 2008

4.5 days is not enough time to enjoy a drive. I'd just go the Interstate, the fast route. If you are really adventurous I'd take the Interstate as fast as you could manage the first couple of days, then go slower between (roughly) Denver and Las Vegas. That's the part of the country where backroads driving is likely to be most beautiful.

The actual spot of Four Corners itself is dull, but the countryside 300 miles every direction is absolutely beautiful.
posted by Nelson at 8:44 PM on April 27, 2008

Damn! You're going to drive all the way from Chicago to LA and then plan on WORKING the next day?!? I think you've already bit off more than you can chew, I'd save the side trips for another time.
posted by The Light Fantastic at 9:36 PM on April 27, 2008

part of that stretch in colorado is absolutely beautiful, but you have got about 40 miles in there that is pretty twisty. Not a hard drive and good roads, but you won't be flying through there, especially if you get behind a trailer or something. At the top of Wolf Creek pass there is still a bunch of snow on the ground - they just closed the ski area last weekend. It is great drive, but i would take interstates to 160, make the drive through the pass and make my way back down to 40.
posted by domino at 6:30 AM on April 28, 2008

I can't comment on your route, since google maps isn't loading for me today, but you won't have time to stop and see much with your time limitations.

I see you're excited about being in four states at once ... do you go to a lot of points where 3 states meet? Do you stop when the road goes to a new state and take a picture of the sign? Is that fun for you? If so, I guess you might get a kick out of being in four states at once. Check the hours the place is open, they close pretty early. If what you really get a kick out of is being under the jurisdiction of 4 different state governments at once, you'll be disapointed as the entire area is part of the Navajo reservation.

Personally, I think that the 4 corners monument is a tourist trap, you pay to go in, they have little booths selling stuff, and there's a small concrete area that shows the state boundaries, with elevated platforms off to the side so your travel companion can take a picture of you looking excited to be in four states at once! four states at once! I've never been interested in going, was traveling with someone who insisted on visiting. I'm into maps, but 4 corners is about as exciting as crossing a county line.
posted by yohko at 10:06 AM on April 28, 2008

i've done Duluth to LA all on backroads. (and alone.) wonderful. awesome. very cool. i hate the interstate--avoid it at all costs. i generally plan road vacations to give enough time to go "the long way." and i love driving.

however, in 4.5 days? you're really cutting it close. if you don't mind getting up early and driving late, you'll make it. but some of those roads are scary at night with the semis coming straight at you--that could diminish your pleasure quite a bit.
posted by RedEmma at 4:59 PM on April 28, 2008

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