Sometimes a great notion

Driving U.S. 50 coast to coast... or not.

We have always loved road trips.  As kids, those were our family vacations and even today, there's nothing quite like pointing the car in whatever direction, and following our noses. 

So for as long as we've been married, we have been saying how much fun it could be to drive U.S. Highway 50 from its beginning on the Maryland coast to its terminus in West Sacramento, California. We lived in Sacramento for a number of years and were very familiar with the stretch of U.S. 50 that runs from Sacramento to South Lake Tahoe, but other than that, nada. The road runs 3,073 miles in total, give or take a few, and we were intrigued.

Our plan was always to make the trip after we retired. We’re there, we've starting some serious planning ... and are having second thoughts.

U.S. 50 mileage sign in Ocean City, Maryland

U.S. 50 has been called "The Loneliest Road in America" and after a closer look, I understand why.

It starts in Ocean City, Maryland, which is a picturesque little town that its Chamber of Commerce calls “The East Coast’s Favorite Family Destination.” Being on the ocean has its undeniable charm no matter where, and Ocean City also offers a range of things to do and see, places to eat and events to attend.

From there, it’s less than a four-hour drive through Annapolis, Maryland to our nation’s Capital. In D.C., the highway passes within sight of the U.S. Capitol, takes motorists along the north side of the Capitol Mall, then along the south side of the Ellipse and its view of the White House. 

It passes the Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial, then crosses the Potomac River on the Theodore Roosevelt Bridge and heads into Virginia. We've been to the District many times and love it!

Before the highway turns west, visitors can take a side trip of less than two miles to see The Pentagon… or at least drive by it. U.S. 50 also passes Dulles International Airport and with another quick side trip, travelers can visit the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, one of the free Smithsonian Museums, telling the story of human flight with many actual aircraft and spacecraft including a full-size mock-up of the space shuttle. I’ve visited and it is indeed impressive!

Not far west, however, U.S. 50 goes from being a four-lane highway with a center divider to a two-lane road, which is what is remains for a large portion of its route.

A stretch of U.S. 50 in eastern Virginia

Once you’re out of the D.C. metro area, the scenery becomes predictable. As a friend once said, “One look will last you all day.” Speed limits can drop to 35 miles an hour as the “highway” passes through small towns. Each may have its charms and perhaps a winery or other attraction but the highway clearly traverses a lot of rural America.

The next big metropolitan area after Washington, DC is Cincinnati, Ohio, 500 miles and 9-1/2 hours away. One of the attractions on the way to Cincinnati is Serpant Mound, about 425 miles from Arilington. There, visitors can view two remnants of the Mound Builder people who lived in that part of what is Ohio today. That's a fairly reasonable side trip: only about 20 miles off U.S. 50.

Cincinnati is home to the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, with revealing stories of courage, cooperation and persevereance of escaping slaves fleeing to the northern U.S. and beyond.

St. Louis is 358 miles and seven hours west of Cincinnati. Home to the Gateway Arch, this engineering triumph serves to commemorate Thomas Jefferson, the Louisiana Purchase, and pioneers settleing the United States.  A tram ride to the top is a must-do -- the No. 1 Thing to Do in St. Louis according to -- but reservations are a must-have.  A St. Louis Cards game, a visit to Six Flags St. Louis and a visit to St. Louis Union Station - once one of the largest and busiest passenger rail terminal in the world -- are also options.

From there, it's 283 miles and 4-1/2 hours to Kansas City and its many museums and attractions. And of course, Kansas City barbecue in abundance.

Websites listing things to see and do along U.S. 50 include the Garden of Eden in Lucas, Kansas.  Howver, it's hardly "along the highway."  In fact, its cabin, quirky statues and off-beat story are 85 miles north of U.S. 50 meaning a side trip of 1-1/2 hours each way.

Other recommended sites include the Million Dollar Highway that wends through the San Juan Mountains, called the wildest and ruggedest peaks in the Colorado Rockies. Fine, but it's 47 miles and more than an hour off our primary road.

Royal Gorge is immediately off U.S. 50 about an hour west of Pueblo, Colorado. Royal Gorge is a six-mile long canyon of the Arkansas River located west of Cañon City. The canyon begins at the mouth of Grape Creek, about two miles west of central Cañon City, and continues in a west-northwesterly direction until ending near U.S. Route 50. A bridge traverses the canyon, and there are zip lines, gondolas, a playground and other attractions.

Canyonlands and Arches National Parks in Utah are well worth seeing but are not "along the road."  Turn off the highway about 82 miles west of Grand Junction, then drive for another 60+ miles and 1-1/2 hours to get to Arches National Park. 

Continuing westward, travelers will experience the stretch of road that was actually named "The Lonliest Road in America" by Life Magazine in 1986 - the 300+ miles of 50 in Nevada.

In addition to saddling it with that rather depressing name, the publication warned those who chose to drive it of the dangers that come with the desert climate. Even today, one website recommends motorists "fill up your tank at every gas station you find, maybe even storing a few extra cans in the truck just in case," and notes that the AAA once said, "We warn all motorists not to drive there unless they're confident of their survival skills."

That may be overstating things, but it was enough to give my wife pause. 

Entering Nevada along 50 takes motorists past the Border Inn Casino with its 2-star hotel, restaurant, and gas station. It would seem prudent to heed the advice about filling up at every opportunity.

Continuing west after filling up, motorist can expect ... more Nevada desert. 

It's about an hour to Ely, then another 1:15 to Eureka, which one website says is the friendliest town on the Nevada portion of the highway.  From there, it's 1:11 to Austin and another 1:40 to Fallon. Things to see along the Nevada stretch include the Nevada Northern Railway Museum, Ely Elk Viewing Area, and Ward Mining District (Silver Ore); Nevada Historical Market 53 in Hamilton, Pinto Summit, Stoke's Castle, and The Shoe Tree (yup, a tree onto which people throw shoes and which other people drive hours to see).

After Fallon, it's two hours to South Lake Tahoe, which is a great place to enjoy the mountain air, scenery, a meal, a visit to a casino, and maybe get a hotel room for your last night on the road, because the end of your 3,073 mile journey is only 106 miles and two hours away!

Mileage sign in West Sacramento

The way we road-trip

According to Google Maps, the total time to drive the whole of U.S. 50 is just over 56 hours, 15 minutes. And that, of course, is driving time. It doesn’t count rest stops, meal breaks, or any time to see anything. 

We like to plan on four hours a day driving at a maximum, which allows time to investigate whatever catches our attention. That would normally translate into about 14 days or two weeks for this jaunt. For this trip with many stretches well beyond our target time behind the wheel, it could take less time overall, but could also mean finding accommodations in small towns like Clarksburg, West Virginia.

These days, most national chains have hotels wherever you want to name, but if quality is important … well, let’s just say the highest-rated hotel in Clarksburg on is a Holiday Inn Express. 
Perhaps we'd been lured by the lore around Route 66 which, in its heyday, had quite a lot to offer as it ran from Chicago to Los Angeles and through major cities including Springfield, Illinois; Tulsa and Oklahoma City, Oklahoma; Santa Fe and Albuquerque, New Mexico; Winslow and Flagstaff, Arizona; and on through Needles, Barstow and San Bernardino, California before ending at L.A.

Mural on a building along Route 66 in Albuquerque

Or perhaps I'd bought too heavily into a quote by the host of CBS News "On the Road with Charles Kuralt" segment. Kuralt famously said, "Thanks to the Interstate Highway system, it is now possible to travel across the country from coast to coast without seeing ANYTHING." While that certainly can be true, it can also be overcome simply by keeping one's eyes open. 

In 2010, we drove from our previous home of Indianapolis to Seattle, mostly on Interstate highways.  On one day, we visited Tampico, Illinois and the birthplace of Ronald Reagan as well as the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum. Reagan's birthplace of Tampico, Illinois was a short jaunt off Interstate 88 while Hoover's library in West Branch, Iowa was just north of I-80. Both were marked by the brown and white highway signs that denote places of historic interest.

As already noted, many of the sights "along U.S. 50" recommended by others included many that were far off the highway. Many were National parks which, while definitely American treasures, aren't what we were hoping to see on this trip. Things like The Shoe Tree and historial markers are good for about five minutes to stretch our legs. All in all, very few recommended sights were actually within about an hour of our route, which is what we'd consider a reasonable side trip. 

That is not to say we might not find some other things along U.S. 50 that are worth seeing but it definitely does not seem like a target-rich environment and does seem to have more than its share of wide-open spaces to be endured.

I think we'll pass.

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