Last week over spring break, my husband John and I drove from Davis, CA to Solon, OH. Driving across the country had been a lifelong dream of mine, and having to get his car from California to Ohio ended up being the perfect excuse to finally do it. The drive took five days, and it gave us a new appreciation for the size and diversity of our country. Of course, we made the trip with camera in hand!
It isn't often that I include snapshot images in my posts, but to do this trip justice, I feel they are necessary. The truth is, it's hard to take selfies with a 3 pound DSLR, and sometimes to get a picture of a sign, you only have time to pull out your iPhone. The best camera is the one that you have with you. So that being said, here is the day-by-day of our trip east from Cali, with a few snapshots thrown in!
Day 1: Davis, CA to Twin Falls, ID
We left Davis at about 7:00am and made a quick stop for gas before beginning our trip. It was beautiful to drive through Sacramento at daybreak, and soon after that we found ourselves in Tahoe National Forest making our way into Donner Pass. Luckily, there was just a small amount of rain and snow, so we made it over Donner Summit without incident. We arrived in Reno just in time for breakfast at Mel's Diner in the Sands Regency Casino. We then explored the city, which feels a bit stuck in the era of 1950s motels and rock n' roll.
We left Reno around 11:00am, and after just a few minutes on the freeway, we were already in the Nevada desert. We drove for hours past more distant mountains, dust storms, and tumbleweed than there were people. Finally, we arrived in Elko, NV to switch driving and get some gas. From there, it was just a few hours northeast to the Idaho state line.
As soon as we got to Idaho, the scenery changed and started feeling a lot less deserted. As John said, Idaho seemed very rural, whereas Nevada felt like the moon. :) In Twin Falls, we made a quick visit to Shoshone Falls, but it was unfortunately turned off for repairs during off season. For dinner though, we went to Elevation 486, which overlooks the Snake River and had delicious steak!
Day 2: Twin Falls, ID to Riverton, WY
We left Twin Falls early going northeast towards Idaho Falls. We made a quick stop in Pocatello to see the Fort Hall Replica, modeled after the 19th century fort along the Oregon Trail. After that, we continued east with a few scenic stops along the Snake River. Soon, we found ourselves in the mountains of the Targhee National Forest. The forest was beautiful, but with up to 10% grades, Teton Pass was one of the more exciting driving points of the trip. Thankfully, the weather wasn't bad and the roads were generally well plowed.
After Targhee National Forest, we crossed the state line into Wyoming and soon arrived in Jackson Hole, WY. Yellowstone National Park is closed in March for plowing, so instead we visited the National Elk Refuge in Jackson and then drove through Grand Teton National Park. We stopped by Jackson Lake before turning east into Shoshone National Forest. We passed the Continental Divide at 9,584 feet before starting to descend towards Debois. The scenery was beautiful as we got out of the forest and into the plateau. We arrived in Riverton, WY in the evening.
Day 3: Riverton, WY to
Kearney, NE Mitchell, SD
We woke up in Riverton to about an inch of snow. This didn't faze us much at first (c'mon, I'm from Ohio), but we quickly found out that Wyoming has a different way of dealing with snow. Being a huge, cold, and sparsely populated state, highways are not salted and they are barely plowed. Thus, huge swaths of roads are literally closed when it snows. We had downloaded the WYDOT app in case of weather, and using it saw that virtually every way out of Wyoming was closed off, including I-80. We had been planning on following the Oregon Trail to Kearney, Nebraska, stopping at various pioneer landmarks along the way, but that was no longer feasible.
Using the app, we drove northeast through Casper, WY and Wright, WY, navigating barely-plowed country highways through towns with populations in the double digits. We drove for 5, 10, 20 minutes without seeing another car or another sign of civilization aside from fence after fence that seemed to arbitrarily gate off the softly undulating snow-covered prairie. (We did see a sign for Wall Drug, though- it's never too soon.)
After hours of this, we finally found ourselves at the end of the Wyoming plateau, and the snow stopped instantly. We stopped for a quick lunch in Newcastle, WY, before crossing the state line into South Dakota. Since we were so close, we took a detour into the Black Hills to visit Mount Rushmore National Monument. It was nearly empty in the winter, and some rocky mountain goats were even munching on grass in the parking lot!
After Mount Rushmore, we got on I-90 in Rapid City and headed east towards Badlands National Park. No trip to the Badlands (or South Dakota, for that matter) would be complete without a stop at Wall Drug. (After seeing signs for hours, how can you not give in to a Jackalope-filled drugstore in the middle of a prairie town with a population of 876?) After Wall, we continued through the Badlands, where we passed Bighorn Sheep, Mule Deer, and dramatic landscapes. After that, we drove east on the almost deserted I-90, stopping to sleep in Mitchell, SD, about an hour and a half before Sioux Falls.
Kearney, NE Mitchell, SD to Iowa City, IA
From Mitchell, we headed east through Sioux Falls. There was more snow, and the plowing and salting wasn't great in South Dakota, either. After Sioux Falls, we headed south and crossed the state line into Iowa (the Midwest at last!), where the roads started getting much better. We headed south and crossed the Missouri River into Omaha, and were finally back on our original planned route. We went to the Old Market where we got lunch at Omaha Spaghetti Works. After that, we headed back across the river into Iowa.
In Iowa, things started feeling much more like home. We drove through farmland and small towns, though everything was definitely more spread out than in the more eastern Midwestern states. We stopped in Des Moines for about an hour to see the State Capitol and home of the Iowa Caucuses. The Statehouse was beautiful, covered in colorful tile looking up to a gilded dome. The Law Library inside was also gorgeous, and would make an amazing set for an engagement session. :)
After Des Moines, we continued east on I-80 to Iowa City, home of the University of Iowa. It was frigid so we didn't explore campus much, but we had a delicious dinner at Iowa Chop House before turning in for the night.
Day 5: Iowa City, IA to Solon, OH
After four days of more than eight hours of driving per day, it was a bit harder to get started on our last day. We managed to hit the road around 9:00, however, and within an hour were in Davenport, IA, our last stop on the western side of the Mississippi River. We made a quick stop to see the river, which was so high it was almost overflowing its banks, and then crossed into Illinois.
A few hours into Illinois, we made a stop at Starved Rock Nature Preserve, which is just south of I-80 near Oglesby, IL. The park is one of the state's top landmarks, and it was fun to do something in Illinois that wasn't in Chicago. We took a few hours to hike along the Illinois River to the LaSalle Canyon waterfall, then got back on I-80 east into Chicago traffic. Since we were behind schedule with our late morning stop, we decided to skip the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore and a tempting detour through Michigan so that we would arrive earlier. We crossed the Ohio state line around 6:00pm, got dinner at the SBarro rest stop that I used to always stop at driving to Ann Arbor, and arrived in Solon at about 9:15.
10 states, 5 days, and 2,841 miles! I kind of want to do this again. (Credit to Google for map images.)