Most people want to take backroads because they offer the more scenic routes. They say freeways tend to be boring because they were carved out to be the most direct routes, bypassing great landmarks that we travelers would usually want to see. They are constructed for the sake of speed and efficiency. Approximating a straight line, they are the shortest practical distance between two points. I-15, however, is not like that.
I always think that whoever designed this great freeway was thinking of me. I am often in California visiting family. And from there, it isn’t a stretch to cross over the border of the U.S. and Canada at Sweet Grass, Montana, continue north so I can visit my daughter in Calgary, Alberta, or turn west to go to Essex, Montana, near the Glacier National Park to visit good friends.
Let me show you how endearing this 20-hour route can be. It only takes three days to drive it. But if you allow for slower travel, add a day or two or three each way, and pretty soon you will have taken off your bucket list some very wonderful places you wanted to visit. This article provides you with a smorgasbord of wonderful options for strategic stops along this long route that you may want to go through, just like we do.
Las Vegas, Nevada
From California, this is a no-brainer first stop since it is only 5 hours from Los Angeles or 6 hours from San Diego. You can leave later in the morning and still be here by nightfall. But we leave early so my husband and I can have a great lunch at one of the inexpensive buffet options combined with a comfortable overnight stay using one of the many promos always available in Sin City.
And you can even squeeze in two or three hours to try your luck at the penny machines before having dinner right after so that you can resume your trip early the following morning. If you have more hours to spare because your next stop is nearby and you can leave later in the day, you can also roam The Strip, experience High Roller, or see a new show after dinner.
If you have a full day to spare, you can explore the awesome Hoover Dam and the recreational area it created: Lake Mead. If you have already been there, you can opt to discover the natural side of Vegas. There is Red Rock Canyon (20 minutes from the Strip), Valley of Fire (45 minutes), and Mt. Charleston (45 minutes). Since these three are near each other, you may cover them all in one day by having lunch at Mt. Charleston and doing either Red Rock or Valley of Fire in the morning and the other in the afternoon.
Salt Lake City, Utah
Salt Lake City is the logical next stop. It is only five and a half hours from Las Vegas. The best day tour is that of the iconic Temple Square including the Tabernacle and Mormon Temple. However, there is currently a massive renovation going on, so some of the buildings may not be open. And even though the Tabernacle Choir rehearsals have resumed, they are still not open to the public. All tours are expected to return to normal in 2024. In the meantime, it is still very relaxing to visit the lovely hallowed grounds and admire the architecture of the buildings, especially in spring and early summer. Great restaurants surround the area, too.
If you have time to spare, there are some wonderful day trips from the city. If it is summer, you may want to get up to the mountains and visit Snowbird, Utah. The town is known for spectacular cable car rides with awesome views. It is also the place to try some exciting mountain rides and several great shops. If it isn’t summer, you may want to stay down in the valley and tour Antelope Island in the middle of the Great Salt Lake instead. There is a lot to see on the island and so many opportunities to photograph wildlife.
The third natural stop, seven hours from Salt Lake City, is Helena, Montana, the state’s capital (population, 31,000). It is only three hours away from the Sweet Grass at the Canadian border (Calgary is just three and a half hours from there). Essex, Montana, the gateway to Glacier National Park where our friends live, is also just three and a half hours from Helena.
The search for a nice place to dine led us to the Last Chance Gulch Walking Mall, right in the heart of downtown Helena. Lucca’s, the best Italian restaurant, was fully booked, so we opted for Bella Roma. After dinner, we walked the Mall which was lighted by large yellow bulbs just like San Diego’s Gaslamp district. Close behind the restaurant was a striking gazebo. Victorian buildings that have been converted into shops and hotels lined the entire strip.
There are many pieces of art adorning the Last Chance Gulch area in downtown Helena. For me, however, it was the Bullwhacker Statue that stood out as a testament to the early settlers, when ox carts were used to conduct commerce between cities, especially during the gold rush. It’s written on the statue: “Driven by noise, the oxen responded to the crack of the whip over their heads and the constant curses of the bullwhacker.” These creatures played such an important role.
Idaho Falls Or Lava Hot Springs, Idaho
On the way back, you don’t have to stop at the same three places. I-15 gives you many options. My suggestion is that you consider Idaho Falls, Idaho, just under 7 hours from the Sweet Grass border or Glacier National Park. You may want to pay a visit to the Idaho Potato Museum to find out why Idaho potatoes are such an excellent choice.
Otherwise, go farther to Lava Hot Springs, Idaho, 2 hours away, and stay the night if you have a day to spare. I have previously written about it in 6 Fascinating Spots I Discovered During My Idaho Vacation. With a population of less than 500, the tiny town is part of the Pocatello Metropolitan Statistical Area of Idaho. There are numerous hot springs here that are great for bathing. A popular weekend resort for the state and even northern Utah, there is also a mildly turbulent river perfect for tubing running through part of the town. When we visited, there were lots of large yellow tubes, so radiantly bright they made a welcome sight for this lover of the color yellow. This was such a relaxing recreational stop for us.
St. George Or Cedar City, Utah
If you are coming from Lava Hot Springs, your next stop can be St. George, Utah, just over six hours away. The city is adorable, like Sedona, Arizona, with beautiful red rocks surrounding it. We camped at the St. George RV Resort (KOA) for the night in the small town just before it called Hurricane. It is the closest town to two great must-see natural landmarks: the striking hoodoo wonderland of Bryce Canyon National Park, and the adventure hiking trails among the majestic peaks of Zion National Park.
If you are coming from Idaho Falls, Cedar City, Utah is another option, just six and a half hours away. I noticed a sign for Cedar Breaks National Monument and googled how long it would take to get there: just 30 minutes! We decided to make a quick visit. And we were rewarded by finding a hidden gem up in the mountains, smaller than Bryce Canyon National Park, but the hoodoos were bigger! We made it to the visitor center in time to buy some souvenir ball caps and to visit and photograph Sunset View and Chessmen Ridge Overlooks. It was so pretty that we promised ourselves to return to the other three overlooks, two of which you have to hike to.
We even had time to go around town before dinner, taking pictures of a few points of interest: the Shakespeare Theater, the Festival Grounds, and the Mormon Temple on a hillside. We then noticed that the Cedar Breaks Lodge and Spa, located between the city and the national monument, is the main lodging option. I knew it was included in our timeshare directory, so as a result, we have booked it for July 2-9, 2022, for a family reunion and a more immersive visit.
From St. George, it’s just under seven hours to Santa Monica. From Cedar City, it’s seven hours and 15 minutes. Both are doable drives so there is no need to stop in Las Vegas unless you can’t get enough of it. I know, a great buffet lunch and a restful, comfy sleep overnight are hard to resist, especially if they are both inexpensive!
And there you are: a real smorgasbord of options for stops on a drive from California to Montana or back all on I-15. In summer, it makes so much sense to go from sizzling to cool climes. And the reverse is true in winter!