Because Interstate 80 connects two major US cities (San Francisco and Teaneck, NJ, right outside New York City), it's a popular and well-traveled route. But, even though its endpoints are two of the country's coolest destinations doesn't mean that everything in the middle isn't worth checking out! Along the way, you'll pass through Sacramento, Salt Lake City, Omaha, Des Moines, and more, and travel across states like Indiana, Illinois, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, which are all loaded with offbeat and interesting attractions. Here are some of the coolest things to see and do along I-80!
The interstate starts in San Francisco. The City by the Bay is one of the country's quirkiest destinations, so spend a day exploring before you hop in the car for the cross-country journey on I-80. Whether you're most excited to explore hippie capital Haigh-Ashbury, or you want to experience the city's legendary Chinatown, or you just want to see the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz, there are some pretty amazing things to see and do here.
Not too far away from San Francisco, you'll reach California's capital city, Sacramento. As the capital, it's got loads of cultural attractions (the Crocker Art Museum, the California Automobile Museum, the Sacramento Zoo, and more) and tons of history (Old Sacramento, Sutter's Fort and the Capitol Building) to explore.
10791 E Empire St, Grass Valley, CA, US
Once you leave Sacramento, you'll drive on I-80 towards the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Here, you'll find the Empire Mine State Historic Park, one of the "oldest, deepest, longest, largest and richest" mines in California. Over 300 miles of passageway produced 5.8 million ounces of gold over the course of 100+ years. In the park there are tours of historic buildings, hiking trails, and the chance to go down into the shaft of the mine, but the coolest feature here is the Secret Room. Few knew about this room's existence while the mine was operational, but it was kept hidden because it contained a scale model of the whole mine's underground system... and today, you can go check it out! It's the best way to really understand just how huge this mine is.
Virginia St, Reno, NV, US
You'll pass near Reno on I-80, so pull off and at least take a picture at the iconic Reno Arch, bearing the city's iconic slogan: "The Biggest Little City In The World." If you want to stay longer, there are plenty of attractions (the National Automobile Museum, the Fleischmann Planetarium and Science Center, and Wingfield Park) to keep you busy... if you don't spend all of your time trying to strike it rich in the casinos!
The Whitney Peak Hotel, and the Peppermill Resort Spa and Casino are two stellar options for hotels in Reno, although there are some really nice casino/resorts all throughout the city!
800 Highway Dr, Imlay, NV, US
On a shoulder of I-80, you'll pass by Thunder Mountain Monument, a very special outsider art installation. Built by a WWII veteran and self-identified Creek Indian, the monument is a series of buildings and sculptures meant to provide shelter for people during the "imminent apocalypse" and serve as a spiritual haven for the hippies of the era. Only three of the seven buildings remain (one was a three-story hostel where many hitchhikers slept), and there are also thousands of sculptures depicting the struggles of the Native Americans, which are made of concrete and found objects. The buildings were subject to a lot of vandalism before they were declared a state historic site, and they're now open for self-guided tours.
501 Railroad St, Elko, NV, US
For more interesting history along the highway, stop at the Western Folklife Center. It contains a gallery, museum, and gift shop but it's so much more than just that. They offer concerts, classes, lessons, and tons more, and work to preserve the aspects that make the American West so unique. And, if you're lucky, you'll be passing by here during the annual National Cowboy Poetry Gathering.
1045 Wendover Blvd, West Wendover, NV, US
Since you're in Nevada, indulge yourself a little at the Rainbow Hotel Casino, just off I-80. Luxe rooms, free wifi, several onsite restaurants, two pools, a spa, and, of course, the casino, make this a nice place to take a break from driving and relax.
The next city you'll reach if you stay on the interstate is Salt Lake City, Utah. The mountains, forests and (of course) the lake make for a beautiful natural setting for this city, with its many unique attractions. Science-lovers will appreciate the Clark Planetarium and The Leonardo, a museum that explores the intersection of art, technology, creativity, and science. Or, if you're a culture nerd, check out the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art and the Utah Museum of Natural History. Plus, as the home base for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (aka the Mormon Church) you can learn about this unique religion at the Gilgal Sculpture Garden, Temple Square, and the Museum of Church History and Art.
If you're looking for a quaint hotel in Salt Lake City, you're in luck, because there are more than a few options here. The Peery Hotel and the Ellerbeck Mansion are two excellent choices!
601 Bear River Drive, Evanston, WY, US
Then the route takes you into Wyoming. Just because the state is known for its wide open spaces doesn't mean there aren't plenty of things to see in Wyoming! Get a deep appreciation for the state's landscape at Bear River State Park. With views of the surroundings, a few miles of trails, and a chance to see some of that famed Wyoming wildlife (the park is home to herds of elk and bison), it's a great place to experience the Wild West.
Po Box 112 37000 Business Loop I 80, Fort Bridger, WY, US
One cool attraction in Wyoming is Fort Bridger. Established in 1843 as a supply stop on the Oregon Trail, Fort Bridger saw many, many old-timey road-trippers passing through its gates. Today the Fort Bridger Historical Association has recreations of the trading post and fort buildings, an archaeological site preserving the remains of the original structures, and a museum housing artifacts from the Fort here.
Superior, WY, US
There's also Natural Corrals Archaeological Site, which is a really special place for a few reasons. It's a geologically important site, because ancient lava flows formed a rugged landscape dotted with caves, some of which have ice all year round. It's also historically important; there's evidence that Native Americans used this place for buffalo kills. Spend some time taking in the unique views here!
Sinclair, WY, US
Stop by Fort Fred Steele to stretch your legs by walking among the remains of an old army post, built to protect the railroad. Several buildings and loads of interpretive signs and exhibits, not to mention a beautiful setting in the Wyoming landscape, make this a quick educational stop.
Off Wy 130, Laramie, WY, US
Another interesting historic stop along I-80 is the Wyoming Territorial Prison Museum. Built in 1872, it saw many famous outlaws (including Butch Cassidy!) pass through its doors. Walk into the cells, see pictures of old convicts, and learn what life was like for outlaws who weren't able to escape arrest!
Champagne Dr, Warren AFB, WY, US
Located on Wyoming's F.E. Warren Air Force Base, the Intercontinental Ballistic Missile and Heritage Museum is a fascinating look into the science and history of ICBMs and the 90th Missile Wing, which operates Minuteman-III missiles across the west. It's all housed in a turn-of-the-century building at the oldest continuously active military installation within the Air Force!
U.S. 26, Lewellen, NE, US
I-80 makes its way into Nebraska next, where you'll find even more natural beauty and interesting history. From Apache Indians to the Oregon Trail, Ash Hollow State Historical site is loaded with fascinating stories from the past. It's not hard to see why Native Americans chose to settle here, as it has caves for shelter and tons of wildlife. The park's Windlass Hill is notable as it was a challenge for emigrants on the Oregon/California Trail.
1249 North Homestead Rd, NE, North Platte, NE, US
Named for Union Pacific president Edd H. Bailey, Union Pacific Railroad's Bailey Yard manages 10,000 rail road cars every single day on its 2,850 acre spread. It's the world's largest train yard, and it's kind of hard to fully appreciate it unless you go to the top of the Golden Spike Tower and view it all from the observation deck. It's one of the best places to learn about the crucial role railroads played in American history!
606 Heartland Road, Lexington, NE, US
Another great attraction is The Heartland Military Museum, which has a huge collection of military vehicles that is incredibly impressive, with helicopters, jeeps, tanks, and tons more. You'll also find displays of weapons, uniforms, and equipment among other things. The chance to sit in some of the restored vehicles is definitely an opportunity you won't want to miss out on!
3600 US-30 B, Kearney, NE, US
Kearney, NE's Classic Car Collection is an ever-growing display of well-maintained and super cool vintage cars from across history. Even if you don't know a ton about cars, you'll love poring over the details and aesthetic of these retro beauties!
358 Bluff Rd, Seward, NE, US
Keep going on I-80 and you'll hit Seward, NE, which is home to the World's Largest Time Capsule. It's a 20-foot by 8-foot by 6-foot concrete vault filled with 5,000 objects from the town's history, donated by its citizens; there's even supposed to be a car inside! It was dedicated in 1975 and is set to be open in 2025, but in the meantime, you can check out the memorial and ponder what might be within.
Omaha is the next big city you'll pass through while on I-80. Explore the Heartland Park of America or the Lewis and Clark Landing, check out the Durham Museum, housed in a 1931 train station, or visit the awesome Henry Doorly Zoo! And, while you're in cattle country, get a steak at Drover... it'll change your life.
And there are plenty of great hotels in Omaha as well. The Magnolia and Hotel Deco XV are super swanky and will have you feeling like royalty!
1156 Anita-Adair Road, Adair, IA, US
One of the more offbeat and lesser-known attractions along I-80 is the Monument to the First Train Robbery in the West. The year was 1873, and Jesse James and his gang of bandits had the (admittedly genius) idea to move a section of track to derail a train, and use the diversion to make off with some of the cargo. The monument features a wheel with a plaque, as well as the section of track that the gang shifted to derail the locomotive. It's an interesting and quick stop!
There's plenty to see and do in Iowa's capital, Des Moines. Go back in time at Living History Farms, go for some thrills at Adventureland Park, or check out what's on display at the Des Moines Art Center. Or, if you're just making a quick pit stop here, take a ride on the Heritage Carousel, grab a bite to eat at Drake Diner, or snap some pics at the Pappajohn Sculpture Park.
The Des Lux Hotel and The Hampton Suites in Downtown are great hotels in Des Moines.
1422 5th Ave, Moline, IL, US
If you keep heading along I-80 from Des Moines, it won't be long until you reach Illinois. A great location along the river in a neighborhood filled with antique homes adds to the atmosphere of Lagomarcino's Confectionary in Moline, IL. They serve up sandwiches, but the ice cream and candy are the main attractions here. Order a soda, malt, or one of their decadent sundaes and enjoy it in one of the old-fashioned booths... and don't forget to stock up on turtles and other chocolates for the road afterwards!
via Iowa Dr
2678 East 873rd Road, Oglesby, IL, US
You'll find plenty of great parks in Illinois as well. There are tons of hiking trails at Starved Rock State Park, taking you past waterfalls, through twisting gulches, into mossy canyons, and around shaded forests. Make a day of it by camping out or booking a room at the onsite lodge and bask in the beauty of this natural wonder!
1125 Collins St, Joliet, IL, US
I-80 passes through the quaint little town of Joliet, IL next. It's hard to get inside the Joliet Prison (even after committing a felony, since the facility is closed) but the gorgeous old building has a unique claim to fame: it was featured in the Blues Brothers! Put on your suits, fedoras, and Ray Bans for a super epic photo op.
2300 Jackson St 46407, Gary, IN, US
I-80 passes around Chicago, and just east of the city, in Gary IN, is the humble little house where Michael Jackson and the rest of the Jackson Five (and Janet) grew up. You can't go inside, but the community has maintained the building and yard, and you're more than welcome to stop by and take pictures. Sometimes, neighbors will come out and talk to you!
21565 Executive Pkwy, Elkhart, IN, US
Indiana also has tons of unexpectedly cool things to see. Even if you aren't an RVer, a stop at the RV & Motorhome Hall of Fame is a must. Their collection of drool-worthy vintage RVs is worth the admission and is sure to enchant! If the display inspires you to sell all of your worldly possessions to hit the road in an RV, there's a lot of info on restoring retro motorhomes here as well.
Oh 163, Marblehead, OH, US
Ohio at last! Welcome to Marblehead Lighthouse, the oldest operating lighthouse on the US side of the Great Lakes. Opened in 1822, it still guides ships to safety to this day. Located in Marblehead Lighthouse State Park, you can tour the historic lighthouse during the summer, and go into the keeper's cottage, which has been turned into a museum dedicated to the maritime and natural history in the area. Plus, the lighthouse is pretty photogenic and the views of Lake Erie are hard to beat!
1550 Boston Mills Rd W, Peninsula, OH, US
I-80 also passes near one of the country's coolest National Park. Cuyahoga Valley National Park is an underrated gem of the NPS. Encompassing forests, stony gulches, waterfalls, an old canal, quaint towns, historic farmsteads, and fields of wildflowers, it's a picture-perfect setting for hiking, picnicking, and taking a scenic train ride. Plus, those quaint towns make for some awesome exploring as well!
2697 McConnells Mill Road, Portersville, PA, US
Your next stop along I-80 is Pennsylvania. McConnell's Mill State Park features a deep scenic gorge, massive boulders, and scenic, winding drives, but the highlight has to be the gristmill that you can tour and the covered bridge crossing the creek at the bottom. The hiking and rock climbing here are (naturally) outstanding, and you can even hunt, fish, and whitewater raft here if you're looking for a more thrilling adventure.
Centre St., Centralia, PA, US
In 1962, a mysterious fire tore through an abandoned strip mine, causing a chain reaction when it broke through a rock pit, settling the rest of the town’s coal mines alight. Despite the tireless efforts of firefighters, the town of Centralia was unable to quell the flames, and the underground has been a furnace ever since. The town of Centralia is now abandoned, and it makes for an eerie adventure. Steam rises from cracks in the graffitied roadway, telephone poles stand barren, and empty buildings add to the ominous vibes of this modern-day ghost town.
186 State Route 94, Blairstown, NJ, US
If you're getting hungry, but want a restaurant with atmosphere that's as noteworthy as the food, the Blairstown Diner is your stop. With its retro silver building and reasonably priced and tasty food, it's worth a stop in its own right, but the fact that it was featured in the slasher classic "Friday the 13th" makes it a can't-miss stop on the route. It's the perfect way to celebrate reaching New Jersey, the last state you'll cross on the I-80 route.
65 McBride Ave, Paterson, NJ, US
Paterson, NJ has played a huge role in shaping America's industrial development, and Paterson Great Falls National Historic Park commemorates this. The scenic Great Falls, viewable from the bridge, ran water along raceways to power mills that churned out cloth, paper, and even factories making trains and planes. You can see the raceways, tour some of the mills, and visit the Paterson Museum that gets really in-depth into the history of this fascinating town.
Teaneck, New Jersey, United States
Your journey along I-80 ends in Teaneck, New Jersey, which is just outside of New York City. End your adventure in this little town, or keep your coast-to-coast trip going and take it all the way to the New York City and the Atlantic Ocean!
There's no bad time of year to road trip along I-80. Snow might make traveling a little tougher in the winter, closing some attractions and slowing down your drive, and Iowa can get some bad storms and tornados in the spring, but there are enough big cities along the way and people driving the highway that something will always be open!