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  1. Default Chicago to Seattle end of September Questions

    Hi everyone, this is my first post but this seems like a great website.

    My partner and I are moving to Seattle from the Chicago area for October 1st. We will have anywhere from 4 to 6 driving days depending on when we decide to leave. I have some questions.

    We were planning to stick to the major highways, and of the three routes (I-90, I-94, or I-80), we were looking at taking I-94 through Minneapolis eventually hooking up with I-90 in Billings. We want to do this just because I have some inclination that this will be the most interesting route for us (being less familiar with these states), it's also the shortest.

    Here are some specific questions I have:

    1. Is weather a concern at this time of year? Relatedly, what mountain passes will we have to cross and how is the weather this time of year for the passes?

    2. What would logical stopping cities/towns be? Are there any very long stretches without accommodations?

    3. How many hours per day should we expect to drive if we do 4, 5, or 6 driving days respectably?

    4. What are some recommendations for cheap, safe accommodations along the way without camping?

    5. If you had to pick one great local restaurant anywhere along this route we should eat at, let us know... we love to good try local spots.

    Thank you! We really appreciate your help.

  2. #2

    Default The passes, Montana towns

    Hello rich,

    I like the I-94 route approaching Twin Cities and across MN and ND, though it's been 29 years since I've traveled that corridor. Along the way you'll find Medora, ND, the gateway town to the Theodore Roosevelt NP. It was still a National Grassland in 1982, I believe, but Medora was an authentic cow town then, and probably still is.

    Well west of Billings on I-90, you'll reach the east side of Bozeman Pass at Livingston, MT. For maybe 20 miles, you'll pick up, then lose about 2,000' of elevation, bottoming back out at Bozeman on the west side.

    Perhaps 30 miles farther on you'll go over an unnamed high point between Three Forks and Whitehall, where you'll pick up and again lose only 1,500' or so. Just past Whitehall lies Homestake Pass, topping out around 2,900' above Whitehall, and dropping down to a high plateau at around 5,000' for some 25 miles farther west, to a point near Anaconda. You pass Butte, MT on the west side of Homestake Pass.

    Well past Missoula, you'll climb Lookout Pass, forming the MT-ID border. Then it's across the high plains of ID and eastern and central WA to Snoqualmie Pass just east of Seattle.

    I would have no fears for weather during early October. Yes, you may see a dusting here and there, but it's highly unlikely you'll see enough snow or ice to affect Interstate travel. Excepting the passes, I-90 runs along river valleys through Montana at moderate to low elevations between 2,700' and 4,000'.

    Billings is Montana's biggest city and has a bit of an industrial/oil refinery vibe.

    Just south of Laurel, west of Billings, is Red Lodge, a fun tourist town at the north end of the Beartooth Highway, which in turn leads into Yellowstone NP.

    Livingston is home to writers, artists, and musicians and is a fun town right on I-90. Think "Livingston Saturday Night".

    Bozeman is a college town (Montana State) and is well-liked by travelers.

    Butte is a college town, to a degree (Montana Tech), but is better known as a rough and tumble mining/union labor town. I like Butte, but I'd be careful about mixing it up with the locals there but so much.

    Missoula is easily my favorite Montana city, with the Clark Fork River and many pedestrian/bicycle bridges and pathways, the University of Montana, and a host of motels, restaurants, and bars along the river and walking distance from the motels. Its low elevation provides as mild a climate as is seen throughout Montana, hence the name "The Garden City".

    If you plan on passing through either Bozeman or Missoula on a weekend, have a look at the relevant MSU or U of M football schedules. Both school's fan base is large within Montana, and you might find it hard to find a motel at one city or the other on a fall football weekend.

    Have fun traversing Big Sky Country! You're sure to enjoy Montana.


  3. #3
    Join Date
    May 2003
    Green County, Wisconsin


    Welcome to the RTA Forum!

    Snow would be fairly unlikely in September - although not completely impossible. The I-90/I-94 spends more time at lower elevation than your other options. In the case of snow, the interstates get top priority and should not be in poor condition for very long.

    4 days really would be the minimum amount of time we'd recommend for a trip of this length. Logical overnight stops would be around Alexandria, MN; Miles City, MT; and Missoula, MT. You'd be looking at about 8-9 hours travel time for each of these legs, plus whatever extended stops you might make. If you end up using 5 or 6 days, then your best options would depend upon where you stop along the way. It is very rare where you'd go more than 45 minutes to an hour without reaching a town with several lodging choices, as every city with even a few thousand people will have multiple lodging options.

    There's really no magic for cheap lodging, just good shopping around. You can certainly start by looking at the Reservations section of RTA which has very reasonable prices, but you can also look at coupon books that you can find at highway rest areas and truck stops, or trying the blind bidding options like on priceline.

  4. Default

    Just made the drive from Livingston, MT to Seattle last week. We are in Seattle now. I-90 was in good shape the the weather was fine. They have a few areas of construction, but we did not hit any extended delays. We stated at the Western Heritage Inn @ Bozeman, MT. $70 per night, simple breakfast, clean and locally owned. Also, a stuffed Grizzle Bear in the lobby. Stop often, and enjoy. It not the destination, it the journey. Drive safe

  5. #5
    Join Date
    Oct 2008
    Joplin MO


    From a sightseeing standpoint, if you take I-90 all the way instead of I-94 up through MSP, you could visit the Badlands and Mount Rushmore. Timewise, there's really no difference between taking I-90 or I-94, and you do run the risk of traffic congestion in MSP.

  6. Default

    thank you so much, this is very helpful.

    we are now considering adding an extra night or two and stopping over in yellowstone. clearly we understand that 1 or 2 full days at YS does no justice, but we figured it's better than nothing. we would head into the park via US-212 near Billings, and re-connect with I-90 via either 287, 191, or 89. Any thoughts?

    any more suggestions would be great. thanks a lot.

  7. Default

    Based on the suggestions so far, we are considering this route.

    We have a few options and want to remain flexible, but principly I'm considering pushing further on leg 2 (maybe to Red Lodge, MT) to get more time on Day 3 in YS, and pushing past Missoula into Idaho or Washington on the 2nd to last leg so that our final day is shorter.

    Thanks again.

  8. #8

    Default How about a "left hook"?


    If you can stand a bit of extra time in reaching points west of Yellowstone, consider these options:

    From Ennis, MT along US 287, turn west on MONTANA 287 and run it through Virginia City, Alder, Sheridan, to Twin Bridges. There take MT 41 south to Dillon. On the south side of Dillon, take MT 278 through Jackson to Wisdom, and from there MT 43 to Lost Trail Pass, on the MT-ID line, where you'll pick up US 93 to Missoula.

    The ride from Ennis to Dillon is nice. From just west of Dillon on 278 to just west of Wisdom, you'll traverse the Big Hole, easily the most breathtaking alpine valley in the Lower 48, or at the very least, within the top 3 or 4 (the Tetons and Jackson Hole are nice, I admit). There will be exactly zero other travelers on your route through the Big Hole. The Bitterroot Valley from Lost Trail Pass through Darby and Hamilton to Missoula is pretty nice, too, but is rather more developed. The heavily-glaciated Bitterroot Range on your left all the way to Missoula provides enough scenery to make up for a few stoplights in Hamilton and Florence, however.

    If you can't spare that time, look at taking MT 1 off of I-90 at Anaconda, past Georgetown Lake and Philipsburg, back to I-90 at Drummond. Very nice ride once you get past Anaconda.

    If neither of those is attractive, head south on I-15 from Butte to Divide, and take MT 43 to MT 569 just past the village of Wise River. MT 569 goes back over the Continental Divide to the south side of Anaconda, where you get back on I-90. That's maybe a 1 hour all paved river canyon and mountain pass drive, and both the Big Hole River canyon and the pass back over to Anaconda are very scenic.

    Enjoy your Montana RoadTrip. You're gonna LOVE US 212 from Red Lodge into Yellowstone. Keep your fleece and hat and gloves handy--it's COLD at 12,000'!


  9. #9
    Join Date
    May 2003
    Green County, Wisconsin


    Pushing to Red Lodge in 2 days is probably going to be too much. If you only get as far as Alexandria on day 1, then that would be way too far (it would be nearly 800 miles.)

    Since you are starting way out in the Western Burbs, You could try to get to Fargo the first night, and I'd probably only shoot for Billings on night 2. You might be able to make it to Red Lodge, but you'd only be getting about an hour farther down the road, and I'd bet your lodging options there would be quite a bit more expensive.

    For comparison sake, I did the same basic trip to Yellowstone back in July. I made it easy to Fargo on night one (starting roughly from Beloit), and about an hour short of Billings on night 2. I did spend a few hours of day 2 driving through Teddy Roosevelt NP, but that was one of the longest days on the road for my entire trip.

    And yes, be ready for cold on the fabulous beartooth highway. There was still lots of snow up there in July. Actually, you need to be ready for things to be quite cold in Yellowstone too.

  10. Default

    Just want to say thanks, we take off tomorrow and the advice here was very helpful for our planning.

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