Considering an epic road trip from the Midwest to the Pacific Northwest? The Chicago to Seattle drive is a lot of fun. There are three main routes to choose from, but they all take you through national parks, large urban areas, interesting small towns, and quirky roadside attractions.
The scenery changes dramatically along the way, from the cornfields of Iowa and Nebraska to the wide-open plains of the Dakotas to the hills and mountains of Montana.
I’ve driven the routes described in this article, and I’ve done the trip in reverse as well (Seattle to Chicago). Here’s how to plan a Chicago to Seattle trip, and what you’ll see along the way! We’ll also touch on the Amtrak train that connects the two cities.
Chicago to Seattle Drive: Route Options
There are three primary routes for completing the drive. The northernmost route takes you through North Dakota. Some folks find this route a bit boring, but I enjoy it because North Dakota has a lot of roadside attractions, as well as the fantastic Roosevelt National Park. This route has the least amount of traffic of the three.
The middle route takes you close to all of South Dakota’s main attractions, like Mount Rushmore and Badlands National Park. It’s a popular road trip during the summer.
The southernmost route hits a lot of states that people often overlook, including Iowa, Nebraska, Utah, and Wyoming, plus some nice-sized cities. This route mostly follows I-80, so expect to be driving next to lots of semi trucks.
From either of the first two routes, you can detour just a couple hours off the path to visit famed Yellowstone or Glacier National Parks. I think both are very much worthy of the detour if you’ve never visited them.
The drive time in these itineraries ranges from 30-32 hours, which means you could make the drive in 3-4 days if you’re really in a hurry. But to have more time to fully experience the attractions along the way, give yourself closer to a full week.
Route Option #1: Northern Route on I-94
Distance: 2064 miles
Drive time: 30 hours
Highlights: Madison, Minneapolis, Theodore Roosevelt National Park, Montana
My personal favorite route of the three follows a path through Madison, Wisconsin and Minneapolis before heading into North Dakota.
The latter two states have numerous roadside attractions, such as the “Otto the Otter” statue in Fergus Falls MN, the “World’s Largest Buffalo Statue” in Jamestown ND, the Cowboy Hall of Fame in Medora ND, and the Super Mario Bros. Wall in Fargo.
Roosevelt National Park is massively underrated. The hilly terrain is especially beautiful in autumn, and the wildlife is remarkable. I saw bison, wild horses, rattlesnakes, wild turkeys, and prairie dog villages.
This route also travels through eastern Montana, a gorgeous stretch of country that is hilly and rocky, and has a desert-like appearance. Then comes western Montana and its green forests. Idaho and Washington have more forests and great hiking opportunities if you’re into the outdoors.
Route Option #2: Middle Route on I-90
Distance: 2043 miles
Drive time: 30 hours
Highlights: Madison, Mount Rushmore, Badlands National Park, Custer State Park, Montana
The second route initially follows the same path to Madison, then veers west onto I-90 through a series of small towns. Sioux Falls, South Dakota is the biggest city along the way, until you reach the Mount Rushmore area.
This route eventually connects back up with the first one in Billings, Montana, and meanders through winding mountain roads as it heads toward Seattle.
Route Option #3: Southern Route on I-80
Distance: 2183 miles
Drive time: 32 hours
Highlights: Des Moines, Omaha, Salt Lake City, Craters of the Moon National Monument, Boise
This route seems less popular than the other because it’s a bit longer. It adds a couple hours and 140 miles to the journey.
This route includes long, desolate stretches of Iowa, Nebraska, and Wyoming. But it does take you through Des Moines, Omaha, Cheyenne, Salt Lake City, and Craters of the Moon National Monument, so folks who haven’t visited those places may be interested in going that route.
I suggest taking the small detour up to the Idaho Potato Museum in Blackfoot, and Craters of the Moon National Monument.
This road trip then passes through small towns in eastern Oregon and southern Washington before making its way to Seattle. Be sure to stop at the kooky Teapot Gas Station in Zillah!
This route has a lot of highway driving on busy I-80. To experience some of the back roads instead, follow U.S. Route 20 through Nebraska and Wyoming.
Alternate Travel Option: Take the Chicago to Seattle Train on Amtrak
Aside from flying, the other easy way to make this journey is by taking the Chicago to Seattle train. That’s the Empire Builder route on Amtrak.
I’ve taken this trip before, and it was a cool experience with great scenery. It takes about two days to make the trip, which is a lot faster than driving. The train goes through Minnesota, North Dakota, and Montana, following the northern road trip route pretty closely.
I recommend getting a sleeping room if you can (they’re expensive.) You’ll have plenty of room to stretch out and enjoy the scenery. North Dakota and Montana have the best views.
The train even goes right through stunning Glacier National Park, although it does so in the evening, so you won’t be able to see much of the park in the darkness.
The train does make a couple of stops where you can get off and smoke or enjoy some fresh air. The train is great because you can sit back and enjoy the views, or read a book, or just relax, instead of having to concentrate on driving.
Frequently Asked Questions
What if I’m driving east from Seattle to Chicago instead?
Everything is the same, except in reverse. No changes at all to the distance or the recommended attractions along the way.
Are there rest stops and bathrooms along the way?
Yes, because these are major interstates, you can find rest stops with road maps, tourist information, and public bathrooms. This site has a nice listing of rest stops by highway.
How much will gas cost for the Chicago to Seattle drive?
This obviously varies depending on the fuel efficiency of your vehicle and the current price of gas. I recommend using Gas Buddy’s Trip Calculator, which allows you to estimate your costs and suggests the cheapest gas locations along your route.
In general, for a newer midsize vehicle, expect to pay $200-300 to make it from Seattle to Chicago, based on gas costs ($2.20 national average) as of winter 2020-2021.
What’s the speed limit on these highways?
Again, it varies by state. Montana had the highest speed limit that I saw – 80 miles per hour. I saw very few police cars on the highways in Montana, while I saw a ton in North Dakota.
Which route has less snow in the winter?
All three of these can see snow storms during the winter months, as they all pass through some high-elevation areas. But the southern route is your best bet to avoid bad weather. Montana and the Dakotas are more high-risk for inclement weather during that time of year.
Have you ever done the Chicago to Seattle drive?