Toronto to Vancouver Road Trip Through the Midwest USA
While we normally head to Europe in September, this autumn would be spent in Vancouver, British Columbia. When the options were all considered, we decided to do a road trip across the country to get from Toronto to Vancouver. This was the second major road trip we did this year, having travelled to Nova Scotia in May. Like all of our best road trips, for the majority of the time it was just us and the open road.
It was an interesting drive across the U.S. through the mid-west, into the foothills and ending on the west coast. Travelling through the midwest, we could see the road ahead for miles, watch the fields of cows as we passed and when we hit North Dakota there were oil derricks.
At one point we kept passing huge fields of sunflowers with their heads all turned up to the sun.
Along the way we saw amazing scenery, saw displays of American pride and we stopped to visit a few spots. Follow our journey for a taste test of what you might see ….
Day 1 – Toronto to Rockford, IL
The car was partially loaded the night before we left so that we could leave Toronto by 6:30am. Since it was Saturday we didn’t expect much traffic but did want to hit the border crossing as soon as possible. Arriving at the Queenston Lewiston border with only 4 cars in front of us, even with a beginner border guard, we were through in 5 minutes and officially on our road trip across the country!
Following the GPS directions put us on the ring road I290 to bypass downtown Buffalo and sailed through New York state with little problems. The trip along I90 through Pennsylvania was short and before we knew it we were crossing into Ohio.
As the signs for Cleveland started to show up, I couldn’t help but sing about the heart of rock and roll being in Cleveland (yes – Huey Lewis and the News is on my iPhone music list). Bypassing Cleveland we went past the first of many major sports stadiums we would see as we went through the U.S.
Toledo was the next milestone point. I had been joking about not being a storm chaser if we saw a twister until David told me there had been a tornado in Toledo in April and there had been tornado warnings just that week. While the skies turned black a few times through the day, the winds remained calm as we moved through Indiana.
We stopped regularly to stretch and for bathroom breaks. At lunch we took a look for where to stop the first day. We both agreed that we would prefer to get past Chicago on the first day, even if it did break our rules about how long we would drive. The first spot past Chicago was Rockford, Illinois so that got entered into the GPS for detailed routing and timing.
Our decision to take I90 to get past Chicago that first day was good but be prepared with money to pay the tolls on a regular basis. In all, we paid about $45C in tolls and most of it was in this first day of travel. David had done a little research before we left but he never managed to find a way to get a multi-state EZ Pass so that we could travel cashless.
The original ETA was about 5pm local time. Some traffic slowdowns and an extra stop slipped the arrival time. Approaching Chicago a bad decision on my part to not take the ring road put us in stopped traffic where every mode of public transit passed us by!
It was after 7:30 when we arrived at our motel. Starving and stiff from 13 hours of travel, we quickly found a local spot for dinner before settling in for the night. We had certainly failed on our first travel day to keep our driving day reasonable.
The Red Roof Inn was a compromise selection – not the super cheap Super 8 and not the overpriced Holiday Inn. It had the free wifi we needed to work on planning and a good air conditioner. While located really close to a major road, once the tailgate party in the parking lot was shut down, it was a quiet and restful night.
Day 2 – Rockford, IL to Sioux Falls, SD
We were headed to Sioux Falls in South Dakota for our next stop on our road trip through the midwest USA. Leaving at 7am with grey skies, we decided to take Hwy 20 and avoid the interstate I90 for awhile. The first part of the trip was slow as we wound through twisty two lane roads in the drizzle before the roads opened up. Only later did we realize we were past the interstate highway tolls and the speed limit went up to 80 mph! I don’t believe there is a highway in Canada that is even close to that speed. Not quite the European autoroute but a good chance to put the pedal to the metal.
Leaving South Dakota and crossing the Mississippi River, we entered Iowa and stopped in Dubuque for breakfast. On Sunday morning, the town was empty but we managed to find a small cafe. We could help but stop for gas in this town when drawn into the Oky-Doky gas bar!
Driving through Iowa presented miles and miles of corn fields with Ethanol plant nearby.
At one point David kept talking about this big bird circling over the highway only to find it was a crop dusting plane coming in low to spray adjoining fields (aka “the yellow crop dusticus” bird).
When we finally had enough of the slower road, we headed up at Hwy 35 in the direction on Minneapolis to get back on I90. The Minneapolis area is the setting for novels I read by John Sanford so many of the towns felt familiar. I kept being tempted to detour to Mankato, the home of “Fucking Flowers” one of my favourite John Sandford characters.
Travelling on I90 was quick and we arrived in our Super 8 in Sioux Falls motel just as the skies turned black and dumped, leaving a double rainbow in its wake. I was not pleased to experience the top recent TripAdvisor complaint about this hotel when someone else came into our room because they had been given the same room. Despite this it was a big room, with cold a/c and a good bed. Since we are traveling with our favourite pillows, we didn’t worry about the crappy hotel pillows.
Day 3 – South Falls, SD to Buffalo, WY
We were back on the road again at 7am on our road trip through the midwest USA because we had planned an 8 hour driving day. Driving at 80mph on I90 let us make great progress but we added a few hours when we chose a few interesting detours.
We were fascinated to find as we drove west that I90 must be regularly closed to traffic. There were signs that said the highway would be closed and that you needed to head back the way you had come. To ensure that cars obeyed this, actual barriers would come down to close the road. We figured this would be in bad weather on the open stretches or construction. But if you are travelling this route in the winter, you may want to have a few alternate paths or stops in your plan.
Giant multiple creative roadside billboards sucked us in to our two coffee stops, advertising first Big Als and then at the huge fake western town billed as Walls Drugs.
If you want to shop for tourist trash or buy “local Indian moccasins” made in the Dominican Republic, these places are for you. If you want to try the best selection of pies we saw on the trip, stop at Big Als. Throughout our drive, we continued to see the stragglers leaving the recent motorcycle rally in Sturgis and a big group of them had decided that Walls Drugs was worth a visit.
We passed the Badlands and the signs for dinosaurs but did not get off to visit. Maybe if you have small children, this would be a site not to pass. The Canadian Badlands in Alberta are a Unesco World Heritage Site and I know that they are very popular with visitors.
Our big detour for the day was to see Mount Rushmore. We took the much more scenic back route in and managed to catch sight of the famous faces from many angles.
Taking Hwy 16 back up to I90, we crossed into Wyoming for our stop for the night in Buffalo, WY. We were in Buffalo country so every field we passed got scrutinized. David was sure he saw one buffalo standing by the fence at the side of the road but of course we have no picture to prove it. Luckily we found a few painted ones and found juicy bison burgers for dinner one night.
David had booked us into the Big Horn motel to test how much of a princess I really was. I had been choosing brand name highway hotel brands (Super 8, Red Roof, etc) and had been ok with this level of room and service. While boasting a great TripAdvisor rating, the Big Horn motel was one step down as we went to this typical strip motel. The room was small but adequate in outfitting for a one night stop. While the a/c blasted cold (if you didn’t put it in night mode), it was so loud my ears felt assaulted by the morning.
We had enjoyed our view through the midwest USA and were glad we had planned to travel from Toronto to Vancouver through the U.S. Next we would head into the foothills on our way to the Pacific coast!
Have you done a road trip through the midwest USA? What were your stops along the way? What detours did you take to see tourist spots?