The Interstate 80 Road Trip Guide
Other cross-country routes are more famous, but Interstate 80 is one of our most vital east-west arteries.
As a matter of fact, it stretches from San Francisco almost to New York City as a smooth, continuous connection through 11 different states.
So buckle up and settle in for a tour of one of the longest thruways in the United States.
The History of Interstate 80
Interstate 80 was part of the original plans for the Interstate Highway System when it was established in the 1950s. Construction of I-80 started in 1956, in segments, and it took 30 years to complete. After opening for traffic in 1986, it’s now in its 35th year of service.
This highway is a more modern replacement for the historic Lincoln Highway, the nation’s first transcontinental road. Interstate 80 follows much of the Lincoln Highway’s original path in addition to historic trails that predated highways.
How Long is I-80
With an official distance of 2,899.59 miles, Interstate 80 is the second-longest interstate highway, trailing only Interstate 90. It’s also the sixth-longest road in the United States.
Where Does Interstate 80 Begin and End?
It starts in downtown San Francisco, specifically at the U.S. Highway 101 interchange. Then, it crosses the country east to Teaneck, New Jersey, where it transitions into the New Jersey Turnpike.
Interstate 80 in California
San Francisco has so many cool attractions that you may not want to leave. When you do, you’ll cross the bay and pass through Oakland. The capital city of Sacramento is your next major stop.
Interstate 80 in Nevada
Past the scenic Sierra Nevada Mountains, the lively small city of Reno, Nevada, lies low in a valley. Then, as Interstate 80 continues toward Utah, it loosely follows two rivers, the Humboldt and the Truckee.
Interstate 80 in Utah
Continuing eastward, you can’t miss the magical beauty of Salt Lake City and its surrounding landscapes. Besides barren salt flats, Utah has regions of forests and mountains and iconic natural sandstone features.
Interstate 80 in Wyoming
Interstate 80 reaches its highest point at Sherman Summit, which is near the ghost town of Buford in southern Wyoming. As you traverse the Rocky Mountains you’ll actually cross the Continental Divide not once but twice.
Interstate 80 in Nebraska
You’re headed toward America’s heartland now, and Colorado is just to the south. The long stretch of open road ahead is straight as an arrow for 72 miles!
Interstate 80 in Iowa
One of the reasons many people associate Iowa with endless corn crops is because I-80 cuts through farmland. However, this corridor is also the most heavily populated area of the state. Keep an eye out for the world’s largest truck stop, just outside Quad Cities.
Interstate 80 in Illinois
You’ll then cross the Mississippi River into Illinois and continue through the northern part of the state through Joliet. The city of Chicago remains just out of reach to the north as you make your way toward Indiana.
Interstate 80 in Indiana
Crossing the next state line puts you in the city of Gary, Indiana, on the southern shore of Lake Michigan. Interstate 80 runs concurrently with I-94 through much of the state. Toward the east, it shares the same route as Interstate 90 through South Bend and into Ohio. It’s also a toll road through Indiana – and through Ohio, too.
Interstate 80 in Ohio
Known here as the Ohio Turnpike, I-80 continues as a toll highway south of Toledo on its course toward Cleveland. Then, in Rossford, it intersects with Interstate 75 at a major intersection that’s called the Crossroads of America.
Interstate 80 in Pennsylvania
It’s a freeway again as it moves into Pennsylvania, except for a toll bridge over the Delaware River. Some gorgeous undeveloped areas lie just outside the massive Pittsburgh metropolitan area.
Interstate 80 in New Jersey
The final part of Interstate 80 stops just short of New York City – about four miles away. In fact, the official terminus is near the Degraw Avenue overpass in the suburb of Teaneck. The roadway then continues (across the George Washington Bridge) as Interstate 95 or the New Jersey Turnpike.
Best Hikes off I-80
With so much driving, it’s a good idea to take a break and stretch the legs. So here are some details on two great places for a hike.
One nice diversion is in Tahoe National Forest near Nevada City, California. Emerald Pools is a .7-mile out-and-back route along the South Yuba River and Jordan Creek. With an elevation gain of just 45 feet, it’s certainly suitable for all skill levels. Dogs can join, too, as long as they’re kept on a leash. The adjacent Pioneer Trail requires a bit more climbing.
This great getaway spot is on South Mountain Reservation. It’s a 2,110-acre nature reserve on the Rahway River near Milburn, New Jersey. This 4.3-mile loop is popular with hikers, runners, and dog-walkers, so it can get pretty crowded. In addition, some areas are not as clearly marked. Hemlock Falls is off the trail but worth seeking out if it’s not too muddy.
Best Camping off Interstate 80
Indian Springs Campground offers dry camping in Tahoe National Forest near Interstate 80 and the South Yuba River. It is about three miles west of Big Bend and about 23 miles from Truckee. Donner Lake is just 19 miles away. It sits at an elevation of 5,600 feet among mature cedars and pines. There are drinking water and vault toilets as well as picnic tables and tent pads. Recreation opportunities include trout fishing, swimming, and access to OHV trails.
The Pennsylvania Wilds region is one of the largest blocks of woods between Chicago and New York. Woodland is a great place to experience this unique part of the country. The campground has full-hookup, pull-through sites, tent spaces, and cabins for rent. Kayaking and volleyball are among the many recreation choices, and there’s an off-leash area for dogs. There are also shopping and dining opportunities nearby as well as woodland trails.
Is an Interstate 80 Road Trip Worth It?
We wouldn’t necessarily advocate taking Interstate 80 from end to end as an experience unto itself. However, I-80 is an efficient way to get to some of the most interesting places in America. After all, to a large degree, it follows the same general path as some other historically important routes. These include the Lincoln Highway we mentioned above, the Oregon Trail, the California Emigrant Trail, and the first transcontinental railroad.
So Interstate 80 is also a convenient stepping stone to secondary roads from one end of the country to the other. Besides getting you from coast to coast, it can lead you to anywhere you want to be.
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