If you have been reading my first three blog posts about driving from California to New York and back again – then you are “up to speed”. As for those readers who are stumbling upon this article before reading the others – you may want to circle back and start with Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3 to help give you context.
The final stretch and then back home we go!
Hubby met me in Chicago where we made our way to New York and later New Jersey. I loved visiting family and friends who live thousands of miles from our home in California. Catching up after being in quarantine for a year was amazing. We laughed. We ate a ton of calories (I am a sucker for black and white cookies – a New York speciality!) We looked at old photos and even had three generations working online to fill in gaps for our family tree via Ancestry.com.
After a week of east coast driving it was time to hit the interstates and backroads from New York through Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana and finally Illinois to reconnect with driving partner and friend, Marj. We both had sons in Chicago and I jumped at the chance to see my second born and his “gal” twice on this trip and have more time in this beautiful city. Lucky for us it was DINE BROADWAY. An event where restaurants along Broadway Avenue in the Lakeview district set up on the streets and offer the best from their menus. Trust me – I have a new found love for cheese curds and grilled Caesar salad. If you haven’t tried either you are truly missing out. Thanks to one of my new Chicago favorites – WILDE for not one, but two great dining experiences during this trip! I’ll entice you to visit with the photos below.
Hint: Do your due diligence on the return trip!
Before starting out we gave “Phoebe”, my car, a “once over”. We checked the tires, added coolant before we hit the highways, and refilled the invaluable windshield wiper fluid. Unlike our trip from west to east, this time we would cross the country along the northern plains and some southwest states. Through Iowa, Nebraska, Colorado, Utah, a few miles in Arizona, and Nevada we would drive before arriving in California. I was excited to step foot in Iowa and Nebraska – two states I have never visited.
Illinois has endless tolls.
I love Chicago. And, parts of Illinois are truly charming. But, the toll roads were too much! Like Indiana, Illinois was filled with tolls and more tolls. Plus, there is signage that confused us! How many college degrees do you need to know where to drive in Illinois? Sadly, our collective number wasn’t enough as we ended up driving much longer in Illinois than we had anticipated. Enough said.
Iowa – flat but fluffy!
Finally, for what seemed like an eternity – we left Illinois and arrived in Des Moines. I am pretty sure we stopped at a Cracker Barrel. But, honestly after the 6th one or so, you stop counting.
Iowa is flat, but the low clouds on the horizon gave it a sense of “fluffiness” that day. Marj and I decided to keep the “pedal to the metal” and make it to Nebraska before dusk. And, we did. I don’t have much to say about Iowa except that I get to check it off my “50 states visited” list. Oh – also we crossed the Mississippi River!
The weather turned on us once we hit Nebraska. Fluffy clouds became rain clouds and the pretty vistas were – bleh. We stopped along the way to eat in Lincoln, Nebraska. I learned to play Keno in a honky tonk bar that was open for an early dinner. We finally quit driving after nearly 9 or more hours to sleep at a hotel located on the state border of Nebraska and Colorado. I was very disappointed that the Nebraska Souvenir Shop was closed before we could get there and opened after we left. I would have liked to see what was considered “local to Nebraska”.
Colorado started off as a fun state. We visited the Overland Trail Museum for a while. That was an interesting place and I loved the doll collection they housed. They had a fair amount of quilts, vintage clothing, and relics from old ranches and farms. School children were visiting and that was lovely to see. Kind of made me think Covid was soon to be in the “rear view mirror”. Let’s just say this early morning stop was the best part of the day.
I will take a moment to digress. There are very few times in my life where I truly have been a nervous wreck driving. I have hit major fog in Salt Lake City trying to get to an airport and snow that was coming down in buckets on back roads of Pennsylvania. I have driven the Redwood Forest area of Northern California where I was overwhelmed by the enormity of the trucks carrying huge loads of trees being brought to sawmills. They traveled on roads that seemed way too narrow for one, let alone two, vehicles – but the weather was clear and the skies were blue – so I learned to “share the road”. Note: All of these experiences TOGETHER do not add up to the what we would encounter in Colorado on Interstate 70.
First, let’s talk altitude. Keep in mind I live at SEA LEVEL. So, my idea of “altitude” is a few thousand feet, not 10 thousand feet and higher. When you are afraid your snack bags and soda cans will burst – you know it is HIGH!
Driving through this part of the country is like playing weather roulette. One minute it is 62 degrees and light rain, the next torrential rain, then the temperature falls 25 degrees in five minutes and the roads nearly become a skating rink. Compound all this “fun” with changes in barometric pressure coupled with altitude adjustments and you have one throbbing headache. Both Marj and I felt the need to stop before Vail, Colorado to get our bearings. Good move as we had no other viable rest stop for quite some time. Bad move because we both really felt the altitude change – and not in a good way. In fact, many of the people who were at this rest stop looked a bit weary and ill. After downing a ton of water we got back on the road and ended up in Glenwood Springs, Colorado. Other people stopped here too due to a truck that flipped and closed both sides of the highway.
Just for informational purposes here is what I found about this little “scenic” drive that we survived:
Connecting Grand Junction to Denver is Interstate 70 that passes over the continental divide via Loveland Pass at an altitude of 11,990 ft. This is the highest point anywhere in the U.S. interstate highway system. The route is known for stretches of steep grades, twisting turns and treacherous winter conditions. The specter of altitude sickness going over the numerous passes poses a hazard as well. Add in heavy traffic laden with out-of-state drivers all headed to the ski resorts and it’s easy to see why car accidents are common. As the main access from Denver to the famed resorts like Vail and Aspen, this route is notorious for large-scale congestion during the ski season. A route that is 90 minutes in summer can turn into a frustrating 3-4 hours snarled in bumper to bumper traffic. In 2008 alone over 1,900 accidents were reported in the corridor. It has gotten so bad the locals have a saying, “Friends don’t let friends drive I-70.”Source: The Five Most Dangerous Roads in Colorado
I believe if the circumstances were different this would have been a fun stop with a chance to sight-see. The town seemed enchanting and a bit quirky. There are hot springs and also a cable car ride to the mountain top. But, once in the hotel I wasn’t going anywhere until the next day or when the weather cleared. What a shame as I love quirky.
I HEART Utah. Bryce Canyon – Zion Canyon
Of all the states we visited, I was most excited to spend time in Utah. So was Marj. So we set out early and drove and drove and drove until we finally reached Salina, Utah for lunch. Here we dined at Mom’s Diner. Thanks to the “cowboy” who sat next to us and gave us great advice, we made our way to Bryce Canyon. A “short 110 miles” he told us. Yep – it was a 110 miles, short it was not. But, the ride to the canyon was worth it to see the Natural Bridge and the amazing circle of rocks at the last stop. Marj had read up on hints about visiting Bryce. So, we decided it was best to start at the back of the canyon and work to the front. We also hit the park later in the day when many were leaving and it was less crowded. That was quite helpful on many accounts. First, there was construction to get in and out of the park. Later in the day resulted in less waiting. Secondly, there was something magical about late afternoon sunshine bouncing off the rocks.
Zion National Park
Our trip from Bryce through Zion was the highlight of our trip. Sure, we had seen beautiful landscapes across the country – but NOTHING compared to these two national parks and the gateway between them. We made it to Zion National Park after eating a lovely dinner a bit outside their northeast gate. It was on some kind of a farm to table family “resort”. At first we thought that driving through the park would be a “bummer” as it had a hefty price tag at $35 per car. But, as our luck would have it – we drove in to the park just as the sun was about to set and the guard let us in for FREE.
This drive can’t be accurately described. There are simply not enough adjectives. Yet, I will try. Through the narrow and windy switchback roads we drove from the top to the bottom of Zion. Almost a full hour from end to end and worth every second. Through tunnels that were pitch black except for the lights from vehicles and across narrow bridges that seemed to hug the rock walls. Each twist and turn unfolded an amazing array of colors and rock formations. As the sun became further down the horizon the rocks changed color and the park took on so many different hues – it was stunning. Sadly, both my iPhone and Marj’s were dead and for some reason we couldn’t get them to charge quick enough to take photos. I guess that means we will need to return and do it again. Gladly.
Nevada – Mesquite
We spent our last night in a so-so hotel in Mesquite, Nevada. We would have gone to Primm or Las Vegas but the day was long and we were tired. Frankly to do it again, I would have taken a quick nap, drank a large coffee, and pressed on. This was the low point of our trip and I barely slept due to the room being less than stellar and more likely the cause of my humongous allergy attack.
There is no place like home.
After almost a month on the road, countless tanks of gas, and a slew of adventures to chat about for years – we were home. I am grateful for the experience. I would do it again in a heartbeat – but slower. I would plan more stops and really get to know each area. Marj and I both agreed that this was a very special trip – worth repeating.
I encourage you to dare to venture beyond your town, your state, your region, and explore the United State to really appreciate how vast and amazing it is.
Final Tips for Driving Across the United States
- Keep a journal with notes about what you saw and where you stopped. Add some stories from the local people you met. Add some anecdotes that you would like to share, too.
- Take a lot of photos.
- Write a blog to share with others using your journal notes and photos. 🙂
Our West – East Route
Our East to West Route (Chicago to LA)