10 Stops To Make On An I-80 Cross-Country Road Trip


Nicole Hansen, Writer

Running from San Francisco, California, across 2,901 miles to Teaneck, New Jersey, Interstate 80 is familiar to many cross-country travelers looking for a smooth long-distance trip. With large stretches of flat, even landscape through the deserts and plains, it’s easy to write I-80 off as a boring, function-based road. Those with a little time on their hands to explore the route, however, will quickly realize how much is waiting to be discovered.

I-80 is filled with scenic drives through California, Nevada, Utah, Wyoming, Nebraska, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey, with enough big cities and state parks to keep even the most restless travelers excited to hit the road.

San Francisco, California

San Francisco is both a major stop and the westernmost point of Interstate 80. As the start or end of a cross-country journey (depending on direction), the vibrant coastal city of San Francisco is definitely worth some time. Unique restaurants and shops line the streets and piers. Taking the time to hit hotspots like Chinatown and Pier 39 could easily fill a couple of days between beach visits, and those who time it right might catch seasonal attractions like Tulipmania, which runs for a few weeks each Spring.

Related: Safety In San Francisco: Tips For First-Time Visitors

Reno, Nevada

Reno, the first major city to the east of the Sierra Nevadas along I-80, offers not only a break from the more intensive mountain driving but a variety of indoor and outdoor activities. Similar to its sister city in the south, Las Vegas, Reno has a number of casino and nightlife options. For those more interested in stretching their legs outside, Reno is also a great hub for whitewater Rafting, rockhounding, or swimming. Paired with unique museums highlighting everything from modern art to vintage vehicles, it won’t take long to get hooked on this often unassuming stop.

Salt Lake City, Utah

As the capital of the state of Utah, Salt Lake City has a bit of everything. Numerous historical sites delve into the history of the pioneer travelers who settled in the area. Modern science and art museums such as The Leonardo and the free Utah Museum of Contemporary Art give an urban feel to the area and provide an afternoon escape for those venturing coast-to-coast. Those with a few days to explore the area can explore the surrounding areas, such as Park City, famous for its winter sports and summer festivals, or take a drive or hike around Antelope Island to see the bison, bighorn sheep, and antelope up close. With hikes, museums, and good food at every turn, Salt Lake is the perfect place to pause and explore.

Related: 10 Unique Things To Do In Salt Lake City

Bear River State Park, Wyoming

Those without time to venture off-route to Antelope Island can still enjoy all the wildlife that the plains of the Midwest have to offer. Bear River State Park is a free park that is open year-round and hosts all the wildlife travelers could hope to see. The visitors center has a number of mounted specimens, a way to preserve some of the most beloved large wildlife that has called the 324 acres home over the years. After visiting the stuffed versions and getting the full history of the area, guests can explore the paved and gravel roads to see the herds of bison elk that currently roam the lands. Guests can either return to the road or reserve a camping location if more time is needed in these wide open spaces.

Lexington, Nebraska

After enjoying the wide expanses of the plains, Lexington offers a return to the city stops and sites. As part of the historic Pony Express, Lexington has gone to great efforts to preserve the significance of the area, including restoring one of the stations that were once used. Those looking for a more recent display can visit the Robert Henri Art Museum, which stands as just one of a number of museums in the city limits. With the Dawson County Historical Museum and Heartland Museum of Military Vehicles, antique shops, and even a winery and brewery to venture through, Lexington offers each traveler something to add to their must-see list.

Omaha, Nebraska

The biggest city in Nebraska, Omaha, has all the hallmarks of a big city. Major attractions such as the Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium are a sight for all ages to enjoy for hours. Like Lexington, Omaha is proud of its history and gives travelers the opportunity to experience what their predecessors went through to cross the state. Visitors to the Mormon Trail Center can try pulling a handcart, while guests at the Durham Museum can climb aboard a steam train and enjoy the art deco theme of the old train station. Those hoping to enjoy a less structured wander around town can walk along the 3,000-foot Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge or go tubing along the Elkhorn River. After exploring the wineries, Wildlife Safari and Conservation Park, and four lakes that also exist within the city bounds, some travelers may be tempted to end their journey here and enjoy the wide variety of activities Omaha offers.

Des Moines, Iowa

Another capital city along the 2,900 miles of driving along I-80, Des Moines is a hub of unique attractions. The capitol building itself is a site worth exploring, and nearby the State Historical Museum, Des Moines Civic Center, and Des Moines Art Center offer a complex deep-dive into the culture and history of the area. Outside, the Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden, Pappajohn Sculpture Park, and Gray’s Lake Park offer great views of the city and surrounding area. As a major city, Des Moines is also home to more specialized museums, like the World Food Prize Hall of Laureates, which explores the importance of food security and offers free tours throughout the day by appointment. After restocking at the local farmer’s market, travelers will be physically and mentally prepped for the last few states of the drive.

Cuyahoga Valley National Park, Ohio

After several big city stops, Cuyahoga Valley National Park offers a total escape from rush hours and long lines. Not far from Cleveland, Cuyahoga is a combination of forests, farms, and rolling hills. The park offers a number of ways to enjoy the sites, including hiking paths, horseback riding, biking trails, and even a scenic train ride. The lakes and rivers are perfect for paddling and picnicking, and with over 200 species of birds known to frequent the park, guests won’t have to strain to enjoy the natural wildlife. Those looking to spend the night in the great outdoor can reserve a camping spot. The park’s trails offer picture-perfect views even at night, with clear nights offering miles of the night sky to enjoy. Whether an afternoon stop or a multi-day break from the drive and the world, this park is a must.

Freedom Falls, Pennsylvania

I-80 acts as a major highway through the state of Pennsylvania, but the roadside attractions definitely give these 311 miles their own scenic feel. Multiple waterfalls can be found within a few miles of the interstate, including Freedom Falls in Venango County. This 20-foot waterfall is popular with Pennsylvanians but is less known by those just passing through. The Falls themselves are named for the long-gone town of Freedom, whose 1832 Rockland Furnace still stands near the waterfall. After enjoying the waterfall, guests can explore the Rockland Tunnel or Allegheny River Rail Trail before wandering back to the highway for the home stretch of the trip.

Related: 10 Awesome Things That You Can Do In Pennsylvania

Teaneck, New Jersey

Nearly 3,000 miles from the bustling city of San Francisco, Interstate 80 ends in the much quieter township of Teaneck, New Jersey. Here, guests can finish their road trip by exploring the multiple religious sites in the area, including the Jewish Center of Teaneck, or get back outdoors at one of several local parks. The Teaneck Creek Conservancy, in particular, offers a unique look at the environmental, cultural, and historical story of the town. This dog-friendly non-profit gives guests a chance to walk through local plant and animal life while also exploring one-of-a-kind eco-art, like intricately decorated rain barrels or the Turtle Peace Labyrinth. The site also offers a look at the history of the area, dating back to the Native Americans who originally called the Teaneck wetlands home. Having explored a multitude of historically, culturally, and geographically significant stops along the way, the little town of Teaneck is the perfect finale to bring it all together.