49: California

Note: This web site shows the tour in reverse order. If, instead, you want to view the tour from the beginning, go to the first entry (Nevada), and keep clicking the “»next state»” links near the top-right of each page.

I made it! After 14,357 miles (23,105 km) and almost 2 months, I completed my tour of the 48 contiguous United States, plus the District of Columbia.

Some additional statistics:

  • Latitude/Longitude extremes: North: 47.04 degrees (near Ovando, Montana); South: 29.16 degrees (near Grand Isle, Louisiana); West: -122.36 degrees (Redding, California); East: -68.18 degrees (Arcadia National Park, Maine)
  • Farthest ‘as the crow flies’ distance from my home (in Mountain View, California): 2,812 miles (4,525 km), in Arcadia National Park, Maine
  • Elevation extremes: High: 8,610 feet (near Crystal, New Mexico); Low: sea level (several places)
  • Gas price extremes: High: $4.699/gallon (Chicago, Illinois; May 17th); Low: $3.359/gallon (Tulsa, Oklahoma; April 3rd)
  • National Parks visited: Petrified Forest (Arizona); Hot Springs (Arkansas); Shenandoah (Virginia); Great Falls (Virginia); Acadia (Maine); Badlands (South Dakota); Wind Cave (South Dakota)
  • State capital cities visited: Oklahoma City (Oklahoma); Little Rock (Arkansas); Jackson (Mississippi); Raleigh (North Carolina); Annapolis (Maryland); Augusta (Maine); Montpelier (Vermont); Des Moines (Iowa)
  • Degree Confluence points visited: 37: 1 in California; 1 in Arizona; 2 in New Mexico; 1 in Oklahoma; 1 in Kansas; 3 in Arkansas; 1 in Tennessee; 3 in Mississippi; 2 in Louisiana; 1 in Georgia; 2 in South Carolina; 2 in North Carolina; 3 in Virginia; 1 in New Jersey; 1 in Massachusetts; 2 in New Hampshire; 3 in New York; 1 in Iowa; 2 in South Dakota; 2 in Montana; 2 in Oregon

I also did some sightseeing in the remote north-eastern corner of California, by visiting “McArthur-Burney Falls Memorial State Park“, to see the magnificent Burney Falls (which I had not seen before).

Burney Falls

Lake Britton Bridge (near Burney Falls) - the site of the famous 'railroad bridge scene' in the movie "Stand By Me"

48: Oregon

Most people’s impressions of Oregon are of the beautiful western half of the state: The Pacific Coast, the Willamette Valley, and the Cascade Range. The sparsely-populated eastern half of Oregon is much less well-known, yet is stunningly beautiful in its own right. Like the western half, it contains forests, mountains and farmland, but also a large region of desert, reminiscent of neighboring Nevada.

I passed through eastern Oregon using U.S. Route 395, which runs north-south from Pendleton to Lakeview.

Ritter Butte lookout, at sunset

View from Ritter Butte lookout, at sunset

View of a distant rainstorm from Highway 395

View from the 43 degree north, 123 degree west 'degree confluence' point

Abert Rim (fault scarp)

Pelicans at Dog Lake

47: Washington

Much of my route through Montana and Idaho happened to follow the route of the famous 1804-1806 Lewis and Clark expedition – the first overland expedition from the Missouri River over the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific Ocean. When I crossed from Idaho to Washington, I passed through two towns – Lewiston, Idaho and Clarkston, Washington – named after the leaders of this expedition. These two towns are separated by the Snake River, which flows into the Columbia River. Lewis and Clark used these two rivers to reach the Pacific Ocean. Even today, these two rivers are navigable all the way to the Pacific. Lewiston, Idaho even has a seaport – making it the furthest inland of any of the US’s western ports.

Looking across the Snake River to Clarkston, Washington (from Lewiston, Idaho)

My visit to Washington State was brief; I passed just through its south-eastern corner, en route to Oregon. The countryside here is pretty, with green, gently-rolling hills filled with grain farms. Just before entering Oregon, I passed through the largest town in this region: Walla Walla (whose unusual name comes from name of a local Indian tribe).

Countryside near Walla Walla, Washington

46: Idaho

People usually cross Idaho using freeways at the southern end of the state (where most of its population – and its ‘famous potato’ farms – reside), or perhaps using the I-90 freeway at the far north of the state. I needed to cross the northern portion of the state (the ‘panhandle’) because I wanted to get to Washington State, but I didn’t want to drive farther north than necessary, so I instead drove the remote U.S. Route 12 westward from Missoula, Montana.

Route 12 enters Idaho at Lolo Pass. (At 5225 feet elevation, lots of snow was present, even in late May.) As I crossed into Idaho, I was pleased to learn that I had also returned to the Pacific Time Zone. (While southern Idaho is in the Mountain Time Zone, northern Idaho – with its close ties to Washington State – is in the Pacific Time Zone.)

In Idaho, I drove alongside the Lochsa and Clearwater rivers, which were flowing swiftly and near full from recent rain. This region of Idaho is heavily forested; I passed several lumber mills as I drove westward.

Entering Idaho at Lolo Pass

Lochsa River

Lochsa River

Clearwater River

45: Montana

Montana is a large but sparsely populated state; it’s renowned far more for its nature than for its towns and cities. I had already visited the state briefly in 1994, but back then I saw just a small portion of its southwestern corner, near Yellowstone National park (which is mostly in neighboring Wyoming). So I was looking forward to driving across the whole length of this beautiful state.

Unfortunately most of my visit to Montana was thwarted by heavy rain. I got to see little of the eastern 2/3 of the state (except for the rain-soaked I-94 and I-90 freeways). A section of I-90 was even closed due to flooding, making it impossible to reach the Little Bighorn Battlefield (where General Custer and his troops were massacred in 1876). The most noteworthy thing I saw in the eastern part of the state was the heavily flood-swollen Yellowstone River. Because the Yellowstone River flows into the Missouri, which in turn flows into the Mississippi, it was easy to see why so much of the Mississippi River is currently flooded (and will likely remain flooded for weeks to come).

A flooded section of the Yellowstone River, in eastern Montana

After driving across the eastern 2/3 of the state in heavy rain, I crossed the Rocky Mountains (and the Continental Divide), to stay the night in the city of Butte. Fortunately, the rain had mostly cleared the next day.

"Our Lady of the Rockies" - atop the Rocky Mountains, next to Butte


Butte (pronounced “beaut”) was one of the world’s most productive mining areas in the 20th century. Unfortunately, the city grew up in the middle of the mining area, leaving mine shafts and pits interspersed with city blocks. In my opinion, this makes Butte one of the ugliest cities in the country.

Butte

Butte

Butte’s most prominent feature is the “Berkeley Pit” – a huge open pit, located next to the city center. A former open-air copper mine, this pit has been filling with water since the mine was closed, and has become a major toxic waste site.

Berkeley Pit, Butte

I then continued west from Butte, through Missoula, towards Idaho – the next state on my itinerary.

Blackfoot River, near Missoula

44: North Dakota

During this trip, I got to visit several states for the first time: Oklahoma, Kansas, Missouri, Arkansas, Kentucky, South Carolina, Delaware, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Vermont, Ohio, Iowa, Nebraska, South Dakota, and now North Dakota. I have now been to every state in the country, except Alaska – which will have to wait for some other year.

This visit to North Dakota was very brief – just a few hours. I passed through the south-western corner of the state (and specifically, the town of Bowman) while driving from South Dakota to Montana. This section (at least) of North Dakota is dominated by rather bland farmland (although I did see some ‘badlands’ at the far west, near the border with Montana). One thing that surprised me, though, was the number of wild pheasants that I saw while driving through the countryside. Unfortunately they all ran away before I could photograph them.

Old farm equipment

An approaching storm, near Bowman

Grain silos at the downtown railway station, Bowman

Badlands west of Bowman, near the Montana border

43: Wyoming

Wyoming is the least populated state in the country, and definitely one of the most scenic. I had visited the state once before, in 1994, when I visited the spectacular Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks in the north-western corner of the state. I definitely plan on visiting Wyoming again sometime in the future, probably spending several days here.

In this trip, however, I decided to do just a quick ‘out-and-back’ visit (from South Dakota) to Devil’s Tower National Monument, in the north-eastern corner of the state – a part of the state that I had never visited before.

I first learned about Devil’s Tower when saw it featured in the 1977 Steven Spielberg movie “Close Encounters of the Third Kind“. (In the movie, it was used as a landmark for visiting alien spacecraft.)

Devil’s Tower consists of volcanic rock that was apparently originally a plug of lava inside a volcano. Over time, the rest of the volcano eroded away, leaving the harder volcanic rock intact.

Devil's Tower (from a distance)

Devil's Tower (from close up)

While driving to Devil’s Tower, I suffered my first (and I hope only) mishap on this trip. Two deer walked out onto the highway in front of me. I swerved to try to avoid them, but hit one of them with a glancing blow, which smashed my left front fender. Fortunately I was still able to drive afterwards, and so could continue the trip as previously planned. (I’ll get the fender repaired after I return to California.) The deer ran off after it had been hit; I hope it’s OK.

My car's left front fender, after hitting a deer near Sundance, Wyoming

42: South Dakota

My first-ever visit to the Dakotas didn’t start well – I ran into torrential rain in eastern South Dakota, while driving westward from Minnesota. Fortunately, though, South Dakota’s major attractions are in the western half of the state, and the weather was clear the next day as I drove through the spectacular Badlands National Park. (At this time I also crossed into the Mountain Time Zone, recovering the second of the three hours that I lost on my outbound trip.)

Just before entering Badlands National Park, I visited the “Prairie Homestead” – a pioneer’s sod home built in 1909. This was interesting, but even more interesting (to me, anyway) was the dozens of prairie dogs living on the grounds. Prairie dogs are actually a type of ground squirrel; they get their name from their high-pitched ‘barking’ warning call. I made a short video of one of them; you can also see a couple of photos below.

Prairie Homestead Historic Site

Prairie Homestead Historic Site

Prairie Dog family, Prairie Homestead Historic Site

Prairie Dog, Prairie Homestead Historic Site

For Native Americans and early white settlers – looking for good grazing land – the ‘badlands’ in what is now Badlands National Park are well named. This rugged, heavily-eroded region, however, is full of wildlife (and fossils), and in recent times has been far from ‘bad’ for South Dakota’s tourist economy.

Badlands National Park

Badlands National Park

Rabbit, Badlands National Park

Bighorn sheep (female), Badlands National Park

South Dakota’s most famous tourist attraction, however, is Mount Rushmore National Monument, in the Black Hills. The faces of four presidents are carved into a granite mountainside. I have to admit that I was a bit underwhelmed by Mount Rushmore, perhaps because I had already seen so many photos of it.

Mount Rushmore

Close-ups of the four presidents at Mount Rushmore:

George Washington

Thomas Jefferson

Theodore Roosevelt

Abraham Lincoln

I was more impressed, though, by “Crazy Horse Memorial” – a gigantic sculpture of Indian chief “Crazy Horse” that’s being carved from another granite cliff nearby. When finished, this will be the world’s largest sculpture. Carving (mainly using explosives) has been underway for more than 60 years, and so far only a small part (the face) has been completed. It will probably not be completed in my lifetime.

Face of "Crazy Horse"

Only a small part of the sculpture has been completed so far

This 1/34th scale model shows what the sculpture will finally look like when completed

I also visited two more attractions in the Black Hills: Custer State Park, which has a large herd of free-roaming buffalo, and Wind Cave National Park, with its distinctive calcite ‘boxwork‘.

Buffalo and calf, Custer State Park

Grazing buffalo, Custer State Park

Calcite 'boxwork', Wind Cave National Park

As I travel around the U.S., a trail of destruction seems to follow me soon afterwards. While in South Dakota, I learned that the city of Joplin, Missouri – where I stopped for the night in early April – was hit by a devastating tornado. As I noted in my “Missouri” entry, Joplin lies close to the “mean center of U.S. population”. In South Dakota, I got to visit a similar theoretical point: The geographic center of the U.S. This point was established in August 21st, 1959 – just a few days after I was born – when Hawaii joined the U.S.

The geographic center of the United States

Standing at the geographic center of the United States

41: Minnesota

My visit to Minnesota was very brief. From Iowa, I drive through the town of Luverne – in Minnesota’s south-western corner – en route to South Dakota.

Luverne, Minnesota

40: Nebraska

For my visit to Nebraska, I decided to do something a bit different: I parked my car in the city of Council Bluffs, Iowa, and walked across the Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge – which crosses the Missouri River to Omaha, Nebraska.

(The “Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge” is a bit misnamed, because it is also open to bicycles. I thought about riding my mountain bike across the bridge – instead of walking – but I wasn’t sure if I would be able to securely lock up my bike in Omaha while I had dinner.)

The Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge, connecting Council Bluffs, Iowa (foreground) with Omaha, Nebraska (background)

Looking back from Omaha towards Council Bluffs

Omaha is famous for its steaks (Nebraska being a major beef-producing state), and I celebrated my first visit to Nebraska with dinner in a downtown Omaha steakhouse.

Downtown Omaha

Spencer's Steakhouse, Omaha