USA Road Trip: Chicago to California on I-80

Road Tripping I-80 |

Two months ago, I spontaneously relocated to California for a job opportunity. A month before the move, I’d never even considered living in San Francisco. It sounded expensive, and filled with traffic. While it certainly is both of those, I wasn’t about to pass up my dream job (and I have an affinity for reinventing myself life completely every year, apparently). So here I am!

Once my cross-country move was confirmed, I got excited: it was time to road trip across the U.S.! I’d never gone on a “real” American road trip before, where the journey took more than one day’s drive. How had I been to Morocco and Ecuador, but not explored the heart of my own country?!

There are several routes you can take between Chicago and San Francisco. But since we only had around five days to make the trip, we took the most direct: the I-80 road trip. Yes, that’s one road for 30+ hours. When you get on the highway, your GPS will say: “continue on I-80 for 2,000-something miles.” Pretty insane!

With limited time until the new job started, I planned the trip carefully and made the most of the opportunities to stop along the way. But despite careful planning and research, one of my favorite pit stops ended up being somewhere that wasn’t even on my radar before pulling off the highway. Funny how that works out, isn’t it?

Let’s take it state by state:

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Iowa: A Great Place to Gain a Pound

Iowa is what you’d expect Iowa to be: mostly farm land. I’d never been to the state before and didn’t spend much time there. But we did make one pit stop recommended by an Iowa-born Chicago friend at Zombie Burger in Iowa City. Here, you can stuff yourself with a tasty burger situated between two grilled cheese sandwiches. How American is that?

Zombie Burger, Iowa City - I-80 Road Trip Chicago to California |

You’ll probably keep eating for the rest of the trip (what’s a road trip without snacks?) – but you won’t need to. If you ever find yourself driving through Iowa, I highly recommend it.

Oh, and the Iowa sunsets are pretty rad too.

Sunset in Iowa

Nebraska: A Place That Will Make You Miss Iowa

I’m not going to lie. While driving through Iowa, I thought to myself in a snobby, northeasterner way: yowza, this state is boring. It’s flat, consists mostly of farm land, and the “city” of Iowa City looked suspiciously like a suburb.

But the next day, I took it all back. I missed Iowa every one of the 455 miles I spent in Nebraska.

If you live in Nebraska, I’m sorry to hate on your state. I’m sure there are some cool things there, but the drive along I-80 isn’t one of them.

It’s basically this for around six hours:

Nebraska I-80

There was one thing that impressed me in Nebraska. The city of Sidney, where outdoor retailer Cabela’s is headquartered, has the coolest Subway location in America. It’s in a log cabin-like building, next to a Union Pacific caboose.

Sidney, Nebraska |

So if you ever find yourself driving through Nebraska, craving a $5 footlong (are they $6 now?), pull over in Sidney.


After driving through Illinois, Iowa, and Nebraska, nothing is more exciting than a varied landscape. I felt like a sailor spotting land for the first time in months when I saw a mountain rising up in the distance.

Elk Mountain, Wyoming |

Pronghorns, Wyoming |

I also started to see herds of pronghorn, animals that look similar to antelopes. They were everywhere!

Pronghorns, Wyoming |

After stopping to snap pictures of some pronghorn near Elk Mountain, we spent the night in Rock Springs, a small city with plenty of lodging options. The best bet is a motel right off the highway with a great Mexican restaurant (Santa Fe Southwest Grill) attached. There’s nothing like being able to roll right into bed after an oversized portion of enchiladas and a margarita.

The reason for stopping in Rock Springs was that I wanted to check out Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area, located half in Wyoming and half in Utah. Made up of red canyons and the Ashley National Forest, with a reservoir in the center, Flaming Gorge is, well, gorge!

Ok please forgive me for using the word “gorge” in such a cheesy manner. I just couldn’t help it.

It took about half a day to circle the Flaming Gorge reservoir in the car, stopping along the way to snap photos of the amazing views.

Flaming Gorge, Utah, I-80 Road Trip |

There were more pronghorns, especially in the Wyoming half, and if we’d had more time, it would have been great to camp out along the reservoir and have the chance to see more wildlife early in the morning.

Flaming Gorge, Utah, I-80 Road Trip |

Flaming Gorge was surprisingly uncrowded. There were no other cars on the road, and few people in sight.

Utah: More Mountains!!

Utah was by far the most beautiful state on this road trip. As soon as you cross the border, I-80 starts twisting and turning through snow-capped mountains.

Big Cottonwood Canyon Hiking in Utah |

I was determined to finally stretch my legs and get some exercise in Utah, which is why I chose adventure destination Park City as a stopping point. Little did I know that late May is the “muddy season” in this region with all the snow melting on the hiking trails. Whoops!

Luckily, the front desk at Park City Peaks hotel suggested Big Cottonwood Canyon for some hiking that wouldn’t be too wet. Just like the rest of Utah, it was pretty beautiful!

Big Cottonwood Canyon Hiking in Utah |

I-80 Road Trip Chicago to California |

Not wanting to miss anything, we also made a quick stop in Salt Lake City. Seriously it was a quick stop – only about 15-20 minutes to walk around downtown and snap some photos.

Salt Lake City, Utah |

Salt Lake City, Utah |

Nevada: Surprisingly Awesome

I’ve never dreamed about visiting Nevada. I associate the state with brutally hot deserts and Las Vegas, a place I’m avoiding until a work conference or bachelorette inevitably forces me there.

But Nevada ended up having one of my favorite places during the I-80 road trip.

I’d originally planned to stop in Elko, the biggest town along the highway and the #1 place that pops up when you Google “places to stop along I-80 in Nevada.” But wanting to make more progress, we pushed onward until a place called Winnemucca.

Beyond it’s pretty cool name, Winnemucca was great. First of all, the surrounding area smells delicious thanks to all the sage growing.

Winnemucca, Nevada Road Trip |

Second, it offers some pretty sweet views if you drive off into the mountains around sunset time.

I-80 Road Trip Chicago to California |

I-80 Road Trip Chicago to California |

Third, Winnemucca has drinks to go, a novelty for someone born in puritanical Massachusetts!

Frontier Motel in Winnemucca, NV |

Frontier Motel in Winnemucca, NV |

The evening started at a Mexican restaurant across the street from the Frontier Motel – the night’s accommodations. Once I found out that the margaritas the size of my head were available¬†to go, it was all over. There’s something about drinks to go that makes drinking more exciting. It’s like I’m under 21 all over again!

I-80 Road Trip Chicago to California |

I proceeded to have my first casino gambling experience in Winnemucca. It was mediocre and I lost $20, but it was everything I imagined a casino to be. Check!

Winnemucca was the last pit stop on the way to California, and it was certainly one of the most memorable.

I-80 Road Trip Complete: California, I Made It!

So what did we do when we made it to California? While there will be many posts about California – seriously, this place is a weekend getaway gold mine – all you need to know is that I made a beeline for In-n-Out Burger.

Stay tuned for more California adventures to come!

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7 Comments on "USA Road Trip: Chicago to California on I-80"

  1. I remember stopping at the Cabela’s in Nebraska Its kinda in the middle of nowhere at least it was when we were there. Great post.
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  2. great post ! I can’t wait to take a cross country trip from NC – Cali this year. I’m torn between planning out every stop and letting fate take the wheel. I know either way it will be a great adventure!

  3. Sarah J Jackson | May 23, 2018 at 12:26 pm |

    Cross country from Chicago to San Francisco in August!
    This thread was very helpful

    • theweekendjetsetter | August 12, 2018 at 3:41 pm |

      Thanks Sarah!

    • If anyone is traveling WEDTBOUND from the Midwest to Los Angeles there is a hidden (sort of) gem in Colorado called HANGING LAKE. It is about a one-hour hike and roughly 1,000 feet in elevation oh, and you can only get to it going west but it is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen and so worth it

  4. Great post! I actually happen to be from Morocco and I’m moving to SF for the same reason you did. This post was very helpful in planning my trip. Thanks!

  5. Thanks for sharing your experiences and great photos. Glad you had a fun time, minus the I-80 Nebraska drive. Iowa is all green rolling hills, nothing flat about Iowa. Iowa City is a suburban college town. I suspect you drove around the city Des Moines when traveling on I-80. The navigator does that. That’s the city to stop at for a meal.

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