It began as a paved road which literally went where no paved thoroughfare had gone before—a byway that preceded gas stations, motels, and fast food joints at every highway exit. The Lincoln Highway even beat the iconic Route 66 to the punch by more than a decade and almost a thousand miles.
This cross-country route connected some of the most prominent cities in the country, from the Big Apple to the Second City to frontier up-and-comers like Omaha and Cheyenne.
The History of the Old Lincoln Highway
It was railroads that initially opened up the country’s newly-minted National Parks to the public, but just a few decades later, it was the automobile that kept Americans flocking to destinations like Yosemite and the Grand Canyon. There was just one serious problem— though railroads had won the West, cars struggled to reach the far edge of the country where roads were often little more than ruts left behind by wagon trains on their way to Oregon, California, and the southwest. And so in the early 20th century, a group of pro-auto industrialists decided they would build the first-ever coast-to-coast highway.
In the spirit of post-Reconstruction unity, Packard Motor Car Co. president Henry B. Joy suggested naming the new highway after President Abraham Lincoln. The ambitious project began in 1913, propelled by private funds and corporate donations. This was forty years before President Dwight D. Eisenhower would put $100 billion behind the federal Interstate Highway System. By 1935, the Lincoln Highway stretched from New York to San Francisco.
Twenty years after completion, the westward route taken by Jack Kerouac’s characters in On the Road—one of the quintessential American road trips in pop culture—closely mirrors the Lincoln Highway’s path through what would become the Rust Belt and the upper heartland before sliding down across the Continental Divide, Wasatch Mountains, and Sierra Nevada to the Pacific.
Though it’s now over a hundred years old and numerous other state and federal highways have replaced what was once “America’s Main Street,” the spirit, and several key sections of the Lincoln Highway remain.
What to See and Where to Camp Along the Old Lincoln Highway
From the beginning, the Lincoln Highway was the province of “tin can tourists” ushering in a bold new era in RV history. Today, you can still drive parts of the original Lincoln Highway or its same general route along I-80, and camp along the way.
We rounded up a few of the best places to see iconic sites and take in the best scenery on your way across America.
New York State on the Old Lincoln Highway
The Lincoln Highway starts in Time Square, amidst the glitz and hubbub that F. Scott Fitzgerald described as the “soft rush of taxis…and laughter…hoarse as a crow’s, incessant and loud, with the rumble of the subways underneath and overall, the revolutions of light.”
It’s hard to believe, standing here at the 42nd Street and Broadway marker commemorating the Old Lincoln Highway’s eastern terminus that you’ll soon be passing through waving fields of corn tassels and grain, and eventually the vast and rocky plains of the upper midwest.
In a few days of driving, you’ll be climbing over the Sierra Nevada that stand, at their highest point, 12,729 feet higher than the tip-top of One World Trade Center. But today you are simply pulling out of the city through the Lincoln Tunnel, cargo box packed for the adventure ahead. From here you thread down through Trenton, New Jersey and into the Philadelphia metro area. You’re on your way!
Pennsylvania on the Old Lincoln Highway
To follow the original Lincoln Highway route more closely, skip the New Jersey Turnpike for Highway 1 near Woodbridge, New Jersey and continue as you approach Philadelphia. Once you hit the Pennsylvania border, you’ll be driving on the original Lincoln Highway, which was co-designated Pennsylvania Route 1 in 1924. Past Philadelphia, you’ll want to transfer to Route 30 to stay close to the Old Lincoln Highway route as it moves west.
Just northwest of Philadelphia and its own wealth of colonial and early American history is Valley Forge. This is the historic site where George Washington’s cold, tired army spent the winter of 1777, an incident which could have ended in tragedy and British victory, but instead cemented the loyalty and determination of the Continental Army. While you can’t camp at Valley Forge National Historic Park as Washington’s soldiers did, you can pay a visit and hop back on Route 30 to continue on to another important site in U.S. military history— Gettysburg.
While there are a lot of incredible Pennsylvania campgrounds open year-round, Gettysburg Campground is ideal for road trippers thanks to accommodations for any size camping setup from tents and cars to the biggest of rigs. It’s also the only RV park in the area with an on-site repair facility, in case the first leg of your journey raises some maintenance concerns. Additionally, there are cabins and cottages available if you want to take advantage of the indoors before moving west.
You’ll have a chance to visit the place where President Lincoln gave his famous Gettysburg Address.
“Tent sites are spacious and fits 2 cars, sites fit 2-3 tents. The campground is pretty close to downtown Gettysburg if you’re looking for restaurants/shops. It’s in the heart of the battlefield access points and trails. The campground usually puts on various activities, parties, etc, mainly kid-oriented. This is a nice site/area for base camping in the fall.” — The Dyrt camper Dave G.
Keystone State Park
Keystone State Park is convenient to Idlewild Park, the oldest amusement park in Pennsylvania and the third oldest in the country after Lake Compounce and Cedar Point in Sandusky, Ohio. You’re also on the outskirts of Pittsburgh, where you can stay for a day or longer depending on your road trip itinerary. Keystone State Park has plenty to entertain, too, with tent sites, RV sites, cottages and cabins, as well as yurts.
“I loved camping here. The camping was great and the amenities were better than any other state park that I have been to. There was a lot of stuff to do swimming, kayaking, hiking and biking. I only wish that we would have taken our bikes. That’s the only thing that would have made the weekend better.” —The Dyrt camper Mike B.
Ohio on the Old Lincoln Highway
Columbus, Ohio city skyline
The drive across Ohio isn’t terribly long— just four hours all told. While that means you won’t need to make many camping stops, there are still interesting things to see along the way. And there are few better places to combine beer and camping than Columbus, Ohio, where restaurants and road trip detour activities abound.
At the intersection of Robertsville Avenue and Baywood Street in Paris Township, Ohio, near GPS coordinates 40.758747, -81.186069 you can still see the original bricks used to pave many sections of the old Lincoln Highway. Get a feel for how winding and verdant the country’s first coast to coast thoroughfare was, and picture tackling it in an old Model T!
As you leave Pennsylvania behind and pass into Ohio, stop for a bite and a beverage at the historic Spread Eagle Tavern in Hanoverton. The tavern was built in 1837 when Hanoverton already had a reputation for being an important stop on the Underground Railroad. Here in Hanoverton’s pretty historic district, it’s easy to see what the Old Lincoln Highway would have looked like a century ago, and what the town was like even before the age of the automobile.
Pride Valley Campgrounds
Camp nearby at Pride Valley Campgrounds. This family-run space has been female-owned and operated since it was founded in 1958 by Evelyn Foltz, whose daughter and granddaughter have kept her dream alive and shared this beautiful piece of property with generations of travelers— more than a few traveling on the old Lincoln Highway. You’ll find tent sites and RV sites with 30 and 50 amps and full hookups, showers, and even a spot to go fishing.
“Nice small campground.. relaxing, great wooded views .. lake for swimming. Has full hook ups (W/E/S). Sights are pretty level, are newer so gravel still settling. We would come back here!”—The Dyrt camper Jacci W.
Indiana on the Old Lincoln Highway
As Highway 30 crosses the border into Indiana, you’re entering the home state of one of the old Lincoln Highway’s founders and father of the Indianapolis Speedway, Carl Fisher. He also had a hand in the construction of the old Lincoln Highway’s little sister—the Dixie Highway—which ran from Chicago to Miami. Unsurprisingly, this is a state that takes the old Lincoln highway very seriously— just ask Keith Elchert and Laura Weston-Elchert, who wrote a whole book just on the roadside eats that can be found along the Lincoln Highway, and their historical significance.
A gentleman named Daryl Beghtel started the Lincoln Highway Power Trail in LaPorte County to get new generations interested in the history of this stretch of road by making a destination for geocaching. If you’re a fan of scavenger hunts and outdoor navigation, plan ahead to take part in the fun as you leave Fort Wayne behind and approach Chicago.
Speaking of Fort Wayne, Indiana, there’s a lot to do in the country’s 75th largest city. There’s the Studebaker Museum, for one, as well as the John D. Haynes house, which was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, and the AAAHSM African American History Museum.
For RV enthusiasts, it will be well worth an hour and a half detour northwest to Elkhart, where you can visit the RV/MH Hall of Fame. Their collections and exhibits include some of the earliest motorhomes, the same that earned drivers the moniker “tin can tourists” as they cruised the Lincoln Highway when it was brand new. If you’ve ever been curious about the history of RVs, this is definitely a destination to visit— they even have brought out some of the vintage rigs to cruise the Lincoln Highway again on the centennial of this famous thoroughfare.
Johnny Appleseed Park
During your stay in Fort Wayne, Indiana you can also see the grave of John Chapman, better known as Johnny Appleseed, the wandering do-gooder who spread orchards throughout the eastern United States in the late 1700s and early 1800s. It’s tucked away behind Fort Wayne’s Coliseum on a hill overlooking the St. Joseph River. You can follow a driveway/path up from Parnell Avenue, starting directly across from where the Spy Run Avenue extension dead ends into Parnell.
Outdoor enthusiasts will find plenty of interest, too— especially paddlers attracted by the triple threat intersection of the Saint Joseph River, Saint Mary’s River, and Maumee River here. Rent a kayak or canoe at Fort Wayne Outfitters and Bike Depot and put in at Johnny Appleseed Park. This is also a great place to pause your road trip to camp overnight, even if it isn’t the most bucolic. The Park is just on the other side of the hill from Johnny Appleseed’s memorial, It’s open from April 15-October 31, except the week of September 15-September 25, when the Johnny Appleseed Festival takes place.
“This is a great little campground if you are wanting to explore Fort Wayne or are local and want to campout. Easy access to downtown, the Coliseum, IPFW, and shopping. The River Greenway path cuts right through the park, and there is also a boat launch for the river.” — The Dyrt camper Tara W.
Indiana Dunes National Park
On your way out of the Hoosier State, make a detour to see Indiana Dunes National Park before continuing back down to the old Lincoln Highway and on to Joliet. It was only recently upgraded to National Park status, making it the country’s 61st such protected space.
Indiana Dunes is an excellent destination for midwesterners hoping to hike, bird watch, play on Lake Michigan. There are opportunities to camp, too, at Dunewood Campground, which has 66 campsites, including 54 drive-in sites, 12 tent sites and 4 sites that are accessible for campers with disabilities. There’s all the programming you’d expect at a National Park, too, including geocaching, horseback riding, ranger-lead tours, and even cross-country skiing in the winter.
“The campground is always clean and there is fantastic access to the dunes as they are literally on the backside of the campground. The campground is definitely set up to favor RVs as all of the sites are pads (with grass surrounding) with power however we found that there is still space to set up a tent when needed.” — The Dyrt camper Josh M.
Illinois on the Old Lincoln Highway
At last, the old Lincoln Highway crosses into The Land of Lincoln, as what is now Route 30 cuts west just twenty minutes and fifteen miles short of Lake Michigan. Along this stretch, which has been designated a National Scenic Byway, you’ll have a chance to admire 35 interpretive murals from Lynwood on the Indiana state line to Fulton, where the Mississippi River divides Illinois from Iowa.
The murals depict the history of the old Lincoln Highway. One showcases a highlight of women’s history, when Adeline and Augusta Van Buren became the first women to ride across America by motorcycle using the old Lincoln Highway. In another, learn about how the construction of the Lincoln Highway inspired the need for gas stations, gas pumps, and mechanics in small towns across the country.
You can choose to spend time in Chicago for the museums and good eats before continuing your Lincoln Highway road trip, or simply forge ahead. After Plainfield, you’ll have a chance to cross America’s other famous coast-to-coast highway— the iconic Route 66.
Once you reach Aurora, you can see one of the original shelters for “motor hobos,” as road-trippers used to be called. The Aurora Automobile Club built this highway shelter close to Lincoln Highway near Phillips Park, on the edge of town, in 1923. It was saved from demolition in the 1990s and restored as a historic landmark. It’s fun to see how the KOAs and other classic roadside campgrounds, along with motor lodges and motels, evolved out of these early municipal rest stops. Aurora also near where you’ll say goodbye to Route 30 and start to follow IL 38 to stay on the original route of old Lincoln Highway.
Blackwell Forest Preserve
Make like the old tin can tourists of yesteryear by camping near Aurora at Blackwell Forest Preserve. There’s a free self-guided compass course on nearby Mount Hoy where you can practice navigation skills. The slopes of Mt. Hoy also ideal for tubing and snowshoeing in the winter. Fans of camping near fossils will appreciate the local discovery of a wooly mammoth, found in one of the marshes in Blackwell Forest Preserve in 1977. At the end of the day, whatever activities you get into, 60 wooded sites for tents and RVs are waiting, too.
“Just outside of Chicago, we have been staying here for quick weekend trips and absolutely love the proximity to home. They have discounted rates for Dupage county residents and have electric at all sites and great prices for firewood. Sites are level and clean and they have modern bathrooms. We take our kayaks to the lake during the summer.” — The Dyrt camper Marc W.
Morrison Rockwood State Park
Your last stop in Illinois before crossing the Lyons-Fulton Bridge into Iowa, savor the Illinois landscape at Morrison Rockwood State Park. It’s close to Clinton, Illinois, which was once hailed as “the lumber capital of America,” and was even briefly called “the Chicago of the Mississippi” thanks to the business boom brought by the triple threat of the Mississippi River, a major railroad terminus, and, of course, the Lincoln Highway.
At the heart of Morrison Rockwood State Park is Lake Carleton, which is a nice spot for anglers with a variety of fish, including largemouth bass, black crappie, rock bass, channel catfish, muskie, and walleye. Ice fishing is just as popular in the winter months, too. There are hiking and equestrian trails around the lake, which is enjoyed by paddlers and motor boaters alike. As for the camping, there are 92 tent and RV sites with electricity, grills, and fire rings, as well as a sewage dump on-site and flush toilets and showers in the bathhouse.
“We just got home from our first visit at Morrison Rockwood Park and it was fun. We had site 57 which is in a loop which goes around a playground. It was great for the kids who could go play and the sites in this loop provide plenty of space and privacy.” — The Dyrt camper Ben W.
Iowa on the Old Lincoln Highway
The Lyons-Fulton Bridge, originally built for wagon and pedestrian traffic, was a key part of how the old Lincoln Highway commission chose to run their new route through Clinton. After all, private investors were having to build “seed miles” throughout the 3,000-mile span to help generate further interest and investment, and demonstrate the kind of engineering techniques communities would need to invest in. A pre-existing bridge across the mighty Mississippi was a very attractive feature for the bootstrapped highway.
Legend has it that the bridge, and therefore also the Lincoln Highway, was used by bootleggers for rum-running between Illinois and Indiana during prohibition. Despite that illustrious history, the Lyons-Fulton Bridge has since been replaced, and U.S. 30 now goes across what is called the Gateway Bridge, which was built in the 1950s.
Not too far past Cedar Rapids, is a little retro roadside stop called King Tower Café in Tama, Iowa. One of the first truck stops in Iowa, it offered a place to fill up your gas tank and get a bite to eat. The iconic signage gives modern drivers a glimpse of how the old Lincoln Highway would have looked in 1937, when King Tower first opened. You can still get a classic diner meal “from breakfast to bedtime.”
Walking Stick Adventures Farm
After getting a taste of the old Lincoln Highway, turn off route and drive south to Walking Stick Adventures Farm, which has its own share of retro kitsch for the Instagram generation. They offer tipi camping, outdoor showers, and canoe and kayak rentals to explore the pond on site. There’s even a nearby winery, and because Walking Stick Adventure Farm is private property, you’re free to bring a bottle back with you to enjoy by the fire.
“This place has a lot to offer. It’s great for solo and couples looking for some relaxation, and families looking for a fun excursion. The area of land you have with this booking is so impressive and very private.” — The Dyrt camper Daniel B.
Ledges State Park
Ledges State Park is full of interesting topography made up of dramatic canyons and bluffs and ancient Indian mounds left by the Sauk, Fox/Mesquakie and Sioux tribes.
The campground at Ledges State Park is recently renovated, with tent sites, RV sites, and a cabin all with access to modern restrooms, showers, a dump station, and a playground for little ones. Two of the sites are ADA accessible, one with hookups and one without. Four miles of nearby hiking trails lead to several overlooks that let you see first hand the sandstone ledges, carved by glaciers and periodic flooding of Pea’s Creek, that give this park its name.
“The views around the park are some of the very best in Iowa. Hiking trails often found you coming face to face with deer who look at you inquisitively. Fun for family as the waters over the roadways are a splash for adults and children alike. It’s a hidden gem, just outside Boone Iowa.” — The Dyrt camper Mike C.
Wilson Island State Recreational Area
You began your journey through Iowa by crossing the Mississippi River, and you’ll be leaving Iowa by going over the Missouri River to Nebraska. Savor the last leg of your time in Iowa by staying at Wilson Island State Recreational Area, which is near the border-spanning DeSoto National Wildlife Refuge. The latter is a bird sanctuary in the wetland and floodplain habitat that is home to migratory species including shorebirds and the endangered pallid sturgeon, piping plover, and least tern. In addition to bird watching, visitors to DeSoto also enjoy mushroom foraging, fishing, kayaking, and canoeing.
Camping at Wilson Island is a treat, too, with five miles of hiking trails, and plenty of shoreline for boating and fishing. There are 119 sites here, including 77 with electric, 1 with full hookups, and 37 tent sites or non-electric RV sites. Unfortunately, the climate-change-induced Midwestern flooding in 2019 has temporarily damaged and closed Wilson Island’s campground, so call in advance for an updated status.
“It is right next to the Missouri River, and although the park and campground are in Iowa, the DeSoto National Wildlife Preserve is in both Iowa and Nebraska. You have to pay separate fees to enter the Wildlife Preserve but it is worth it. The entire area is beautiful and has great views of the Missouri River. There is a visitor center and a few other attractions but the trails and the Missouri River are the best feature.” — The Dyrt camper Matt S.
Nebraska on the Old Lincoln Highway
If you keep following U.S. 30 into Blair, Nebraska, you’ll be taking an alternate route established in 1923 to shave 30 miles off the Lincoln Highway’s original route. If you take the Old Lincoln Highway (still bearing its original name on street signs) to Council Bluffs, you’ll have a chance to see a city that was significant in the history of westward expansion. Council Bluffs played a role in the Lewis and Clark Expedition, the Indian Wars, the gold rush, and the era of the great railroads.
The other advantage in taking the original route is that you can see the longest stretch of the original Lincoln Highway paving in the country. After crossing over from Iowa, continue west on Dodge Street till you hit 174th, which will take you back up to the Old Lincoln Highway, which once crossed the Missouri at a now-demolished bridge. Around North 183rd Street to North 192nd Street outside of Elkhorn, you can see the original brick pavers used on so many sections of the old Lincoln Highway.
After the route was moved to pass through Blair, it meant less traffic crossed the Omaha section of the old Lincoln Highway, helping those bricks last over a century. Today vehicles over 6 tons aren’t allowed to drive on the sections preserved as entrees on the National Register of Historic Places.
Another stretch of original highway brick lies near Boys Town, Nebraska. Boys Town is best known for the organization that gave the city its name, founded in 1917 around the time Carl Fisher was envisioning the old Lincoln Highway. Many of the town’s museums and monuments are dedicated to the long history of Boys Town helping at-risk youth, but that’s not the only game in town. You can see a unique roadside oddity here in the form of the world’s largest ball of stamps. You can also stretch your legs on the fifty-mile West Papio biking and hiking trail.
Fremont Lakes State Recreation Area
Camp past Boys Town and Elkhorn at Fremont Lakes State Recreation Area. The titular lakes were formed in an unusual way— by filling in about twenty pits dredged for gravel and sand manufacturing. Only three of the lakes are open to motorboats. The rest are for swimming, paddling, and fishing. You’ll find over 400 campsites here, 202 for RVs and the rest for primitive tent camping. Shade trees, dump stations, and nice bathrooms are all part of the amenities, too.
“Great car camping experience here! We camped right along the water. We had sites 210 and 211 right on Victory Lake. The fishing was great and we had a lot of kayaking to do. There are a ton of available sites here right on the water. There is access to bathrooms and water nearby, and showers a little further up. We mostly cooked over campfire but there is a restaurant and we did head there while kayaking for a burger break.” — The Dyrt camper James D.
About 250 miles from Fremont, Nebraska, you’ll reach the official halfway point of the old Lincoln Highway. On the centennial of the Lincoln Highway, touring parties departed from New York and San Francisco to meet in the middle at Kearney, where residents and visitors alike celebrated the wild legacy that introduced America to the quintessential road trip.
Despite it’s uncertain beginnings, it’s hard to emphasize just how much the old Lincoln Highway wove itself into American pop culture and everyday life. Indeed, it even had a role to play in women’s history as female travelers set out to prove a road trip wasn’t too much for their constitutions. Even future etiquette expert Emily Post did a stint of travel writing as she and a female cousin set out to demonstrate that even middle-aged, well-to-do women could travel alone and in style across America using the Lincoln Highway.
“If between Omaha and Cheyenne there were three or four attractive clean little places to stop, or if the Nebraska speed laws were abolished or disregarded and it didn’t rain, you could motor to the heart of the Rocky Mountains with the utmost ease and comfort,” wrote Emily Post in “By Motor to the Golden Gate” in 1916.
Lincoln Highway RV Park
Camp near the midpoint at the aptly named Lincoln Highway RV Park. They have creature comforts Post would have approved of, including pull-through sites, laundry facilities, a propane fill-up station, WiFi and cable, a package store, and soon to be an on-site eatery and bar. There are primitive tent sites, too, and easy access to the North Platte River.
Wyoming on the Old Lincoln Highway
Image taken near Firewall Canyon in Wyoming, by The Dyrt camper Annie C.
After leaving Nebraska on the old Lincoln Highway, you’ll follow Route 30 to a brand new state. Route 30 is somewhat inconsistent in Wyoming; the original Lincoln Highway route meandered between it and other county roads, so you may find it easiest to junction onto I-80 at Pine Bluffs, which follows almost the same route without the potential for getting turned around.
As you cross the broad, rocky plains of Wyoming, you might understand why this route has been prized for a hundred and fifty years. Though the old Lincoln Highway wasn’t conceived until nearly fifty years after Abraham Lincoln’s death, the 16th president of the United States did have the chance to approve Omaha, Nebraska as the site for a Transfer Depot where eastern railroads could connect to Union Pacific’s western route across the continent. That paved the way, literally and metaphorically, for the Transcontinental Railroad to cross into Wyoming territory from Nebraska and on to San Francisco— a path that would later be closely mimicked, and even directly converted for use, by the Lincoln Highway.
Tie City Campground
Camp near the monument, trail, and old Lincoln Highway at Tie City Campground, a small 17-site loop campground favored by mountain bikers. It got its start as a camp for railroad workers building the Transcontinental Railroad, which made Summit, Wyoming famous long before the Lincoln Highway passed through. Today, there are primitive sites for tent campers and RVs that can make it up the tough, narrow road to the campground. There are vault toilets, but no potable water, so be sure you stock up in Cheyenne.
“Campsites are very spacious and clean. Each site has a fire pit and picnic table. By complete accident, we were up there for the perseid meteor shower! Great open view of the sky! Thoroughly enjoyed our little escape!” -The Dyrt camper Theresa M.
Firehole Canyon Campground
Moving past the Medicine Bow National Forest back into the vast flats of Wyoming, Firehole Canyon is a bright oasis. At the far north end of the Flaming Gorge Reservoir, which is the product of damming the Green River in the 1950s and 60s and extends to just north of Vernal, Utah. Popular with anglers and a site for year-round recreation, Flaming Gorge is the put-in and takeout for raft sections that extend down the Green River into Colorado at Gates of Lodore. It’s also in the vicinity of some spectacular chances to camp near dinosaur fossils, if you don’t mind veering off the old Lincoln Highway for a side trip while you’re in the area.
However long you choose to stay or what you get into, Firehole Canyon campground is a great introduction to the Flaming Gorge region of Wyoming. It’s an hour off course from I-80, but well worth the detour. Each campsite has a cabana, picnic table and campfire ring. Flush toilets are available, as are showers, firewood, trash collection, and an off-site dump station for RVers. Though campsites are arranged on a loop, they have plenty of privacy thanks to sage bushes and and Russian olive trees, and there is a boat launch and fish cleaning station should you take advantage of the lake.
“A great campground set down along the Green River. Some campsites have better views of the River (which kinda looks like a lake), but those sites seemed to be a bit more windy. I stayed here two nights since I liked the privacy and quiet at night while I checked out the gorge and looked for wild horses in the day.” — The Dyrt camper Arnie C.
Utah on the Old Lincoln Highway
There are two paths you can take from Wyoming to Utah on the old Lincoln Highway. The first is the most direct, by driving back up to I-80 from Firehole Canyon straight to the Utah border. The second path involves branching off I-80 at exit 66 to return to Route 30 before taking UT-16 south at Sage Creek Junction to reconnect to with I-80 near Bear River State Park. Whichever you choose, you’ll follow I-80 past Evanston, Wyoming across the border towards Wahsatch, Utah.
Those weren’t the only Lincoln Highway routes through Utah, either. Despite the popularity of the Victory Highway, a later cousin of the old Lincoln Highway started in 1921, in Utah, the Lincoln Highway tried three different paths through Utah as planners struggled to find a route that didn’t run into undue conflict from mountains or mud. Goodyear Tire even built its own “cut off” route in an attempt to finesse a way across the desert, and promote their products. That section is now taken up by Dugway Proving Ground, a mysterious military test site roughly 40 minutes south of Timpie Springs Waterfowl Management Area.
Today, much of the old Lincoln Highway simply follows I-80, while the Victory Highway was replaced by I-40. In Salt Lake City proper, the original Lincoln Highway is partially routed along State Route 201 and Parley’s Way before reconnecting west of the city with the interstate highway, which runs almost perfectly straight to Nevada across the famous Bonneville Salt Flats between more government test sites and past intriguing ghost towns.
Rockport State Park
Welcome to Utah! Just south of Wanship, Utah is your first stop in the Beehive State. Rockport State Park, like many of the campgrounds ideal for stopovers on the old Lincoln Highway, is on a three mile long reservoir favored by boaters, anglers, and anyone hoping to beat the Utah heat.
There are 116 campsites including 7 group use sites, 3 boat-in sites with mooring, 79 primitive sites, 23 sites with standard hookups for RVs, and 4 tent only sites. There are plenty of amenities at Rockport State Park, including drinking water, a dump station, partial hookups, hot showers, and flush toilets. Pets are allowed, too, in case Fido is joining you on your old Lincoln Highway road trip.
In addition to the Rockport campground, there is also the Marina at Rockport, which features a fully stocked camp store and pro shop for all your outdoor and fishing needs, as well as cabins and yurts to rent in case you need a break from car camping or your RV. During the summer months they offer live music and family-friendly activities. Don’t sweat it if you don’t have room in your road trip rig for extra gear like watercraft and bigger toys. The Marina rents pontoon boats, new wave runners, kayaks, paddle boards, and fishing boats.
“Once we found this gem, we have started going here every other week. Absolutely our family’s very favorite campsite! We’ve only stayed at the lower campsite called Old Church then drive to the water during the day. The camp host and his family are super awesome (and are usually selling firewood); there are plenty of restrooms; even at full capacity, it doesn’t feel (or sound) full and it stays the perfect temperature. Seriously a little bit of heaven on earth.” — The Dyrt camper Emelia S.
Knolls Recreation Area
On the other side of the Great Salt Lake and the capital that shares its name, you can catch a break from the desert at Knolls Recreation Area. Here I-80 crosses the iconic Bonneville Salt Flats, so if you’re planning on camping at Knolls Recreation Area, you’ll want plenty of water to balance out the harsh conditions, and a familiarity with desert camping safety tips. Dispersed tent and RV camping is permitted but no facilities provided aside from pit toilets. Most of the other campers are OHV enthusiasts and overlanders with rigs that can handle the dust and salt.
“This was a great stop for us on our way across I-80. Pulled over right at sunset and had the place to ourselves in the middle of July. Pit toilets only and no water. Not much shade but didn’t matter to us since we got there at sunset and left early to continue our trip. Tent on the sand!” — The Dyrt camper Janessa L.
Nevada on the Old Lincoln Highway
The old Lincoln Highway crosses out of Utah at Wendover, and splits away from I-80. Instead, you’ll junction onto Alternative Route 93 and head south past the rocky mass of Goshute Peak on the horizon. You’ll come to Ely, Nevada, a town that has been a significant waypoint since the days of the old Pony Express and Central Overland Route, before the railways even laid track in this desert. Here you’ll turn onto Nevada’s famous Route 50, sometimes called “The Loneliest Road in America.
US 50 will carry you west across the Sagebrush State’s Great Basin Desert, across the tips of the finger-shaped Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest. The later is the largest national forest in the lower 48 states, covering a whopping 6.3 million acres. Also running north and south, like fingers digging grooves in the land are a series of mountain ranges and the valleys between them as US 50 weaves from mountain pass to mountain pass past silver mine ghost towns.
Roadside attractions include one of the largest shoe trees in the world, slowly accumulated by the millions of passersby who have made this relatively undeveloped stretch of desert a little less lonesome. You can also see a worn portion of the old Lincoln Highway’s original route in Hazen, Nevada, just off US 50/Reno Highway. Turn right on Old Lincoln Highway just past Hart Road. It’s a dirt track bisected by California Road.
Cave Lake State Park
Image of Cave Lake by The Dyrt camper Jessica W.
From West Wendover, follow Alternative Route 93 to the town of Ely. Ely is a stunning destination for outdoor enthusiasts close to some of the best scenery and desert playgrounds in the Sagebrush State. From Ely you can make an hour detour to Great Basin National Park, a truly stunning place with something for everyone, from camping near caves to dark sky park views of the Milky Way to a spectacular if unexpected glacier— one of the southernmost in the United States.
Even closer to Ely is Cave Lake State Park, another oasis in the desert beloved by anglers and campers. Well-suited for all but the largest rigs, the graded campsites are suitable for tent campers, travel trailers, and small to medium RVs. Showers and a sewage dump is included in your camping fee, as are fire pits, a playground, flush toilets, picnic tables, and fire rings. They’re a camp store where you can stock up on any supplies you didn’t get in Ely, too.
“The campsites are very nice and offer views of the lake, be aware of mice …don’t leave any food out! Star gazing here is incredible as there is no light pollution…sit back and watch the wheel in the sky turn – Milky way baby!” -The Dyrt camper Tom N.
Hickison Petroglyph Campground
From Ely, turn onto Route 50 and continue west until just short of Yankee Blade. At the tip-top of Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest is Hickison Petroglyph. Ancestors of today’s Southern Paiute, Northern Paiute, Western Shoshone, and Washoe peoples dwelled in these pinyon forests, 6,500 feet above the desert floor, atop Hickison Summit in the Toiyabe Range.
Back then, the Great Basin wasn’t nearly so dry or desolate. Instead it was full of lakes that have since evaporated or soaked deep into the earth, leaving behind the salt and alkaline mineral deposits that make this landscape so unique. The ancient people who called this land home left behind their story in the form of images carved into the rocks, which date as far back as 10,000 B.C.
You can take a relatively short, partially ADA-accessible hike to see the petroglyphs. The main trail to the glyphs is only half a mile but can be extended to close to two if you hike the full loop and follow spurs to two scenic viewpoints overlooking the Monitor Valley and the Big Smoky Valley. You can also add an extra bit of driving to your itinerary by cruising the The Monitor Valley Scenic Drive, a 76-mile gravel track that runs between the historic town of Belmont and US Highway 50, ending near the town of Eureka.
The Hickison Petroglyphs is also an ideal place to take a break from driving, with 16 campsites, a day-use area, toilets, grills, picnic tables, and trash cans. Be sure to stock up on water, as there isn’t any available at Hickison— but then again, you should always have at least a gallon per day per person when traveling the desert, especially in remote areas.
“It was dark & desolate but somehow felt perfectly safe & we slept like logs. We woke just in time for the most spectacular sunrise & jack rabbits abound. It was glorious. We’d definitely find ourselves back here again. The peace & sense of adventure was immeasurable. It’s a different kind of camping. Perfect for keeping things interesting!” — The Dyrt camper PJ F.
From the Hickison Petroglyphs, continue down US 50 to Sand Mountain, another of the bizarre and wonderful natural features of Nevada. Made up of the remnants of the ancient Lake Lahontan, which once encompassed a vast area around today’s Pyramid Lake. Lahontan dried up about 9,000 years ago and a full millennium after the petroglyphs were carved on Hickison Summit. In its place, a series of flat playas were left behind, including Black Rock Playa where the Burning Man music festival is held each year.
Sand Mountain Campground
Camp at Sand Mountain, where primitive camping is available at the section of the dune where OHV use is permitted. Dune buggy fans come from all over the country to cruise the desert, so be sure you have your headlamp flashing (especially in the early morning or after sunset) to stay visible when you hike. You might want to brush up on your boondocking skills, not to mention add a pair of earplugs to your primitive camping checklist, along with plenty of water, which isn’t available on-site.
“My favorite part was exploring this 9000-year-old dried up lake bed. Watching the blue butterflies that only live here and nowhere else in the world made me feel as small as the specks of sand in this big place. Also there is the old station for the pony express which I found especially interesting. Rich in history and family fun.” — The Dyrt camper Kaitlyn T.
California on the Old Lincoln Highway
After leaving Sand Mountain, it’s a straight two hour shot to Reno, Nevada on the California border. Here you begin your climb high into the Sierra Nevada as you approach the last leg of your road trip. First, however, stop in Reno for a visit to the National Automobile Museum. Their permanent collection of hundreds of cars will give you a sense of just what a feat it was to cross the old Lincoln Highway when it was first built. The NAM also hosts regular talks on the second Thursday of every month led by local historians on a variety of topics, including the Lincoln Highway.
From here, you have two options. The old Lincoln Highway has had a variety of routes over the years, including an initial two in California. One follows the route taken by pioneer wagon trains, and courses south to Lake Tahoe and on to Sacramento. The other climbs the Sierra Nevada at Truckee and Henness Pass before rejoining to make the final stretch to San Francisco. However, it was the route now parallelled by I-80 that was settled on in the 1920s, and the one we recommend you follow and camp along today.
As you follow this last leg of the old Lincoln Highway, you’ll be following in the footsteps of the Native Americans who lived here long before their land was colonized and these trails were walked by pioneers moving west throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries. They were used by gold miners and farmers, merchants and outlaws, and later by the first motorists in the country. Considering the impact the automobile had on modern California, arguably shaped by car culture more than most places in the country, you’re embarking on a wild ride through history, and into our present.
Donner Memorial State Park
There are few places where that history is more palpable than at Donner Memorial State Park. After passing out of Verdi, Nevada into California, you drive south through Tahoe National Forest, a perennial favorite for camping in California. Follow I-80 to Truckee, a city that was once little more than a roadhouse on the Trans-Sierra wagon road, but transformed into an important hub following the discovery of the legendary Comstock Lode in western Nevada during the gold rush years.
From there the old Lincoln Highway climbs twelve hundred feet to Donner Pass, the site where an ill-fated wagon party from Missouri became trapped by unexpectedly early, plentiful snowfall and, over the course of four months resorted to cannibalism to survive. Today, a monument honors the struggle the Donner Party and other pioneers faced in their trans-continental journey at Donner Memorial State Park.
Despite the tragic history of the place, there’s no denying that Donner Pass and its adjoining lake are incredibly scenic. Indeed, campers and outdoor enthusiasts continue to flock here for the splendid views, shady stands of lodgepole and sugar pines, lake access, and proximity to Donner Ski Ranch. History buffs enjoy the Donner Museum, while others see this as a convenient alternative to campgrounds closer to Tahoe, which can fill up quickly, even if you’re braving a winter Tahoe camping trip.
There are 154 campsites that can accommodate RVs up to 28 feet as well as tents and hammocks. Each site has a campfire ring, food locker, and picnic table. There are seasonal restrooms, a beach, and a lakeside interpretive trail along with numerous other hiking opportunities in the area. The nearest dump station is one mile away at a local Chevron Station. You can rent boats from a concessionaire by the water, and there are numerous Ranger-led programs to enjoy, too. Several sites are also ADA-accessible, too.
“Like a Norman Rockwell painting. This is a great spot for families or folks looking for something right on the lake. There is a somewhat wind sheltered creek with picnic spots available that is great for kids or beginner paddleboarders who need to get started out of the wind. Along the lakeshore there are beautiful old wood stoves for cooking.” —The Dyrt camper Kat S.
Beals Point – Folsom Lake State Rec Area
Just northeast of Sacramento and in between the I-80 and US 50 routes you’ve been following state to state is Beals Point at Folsom Lake. The northern route of the old Lincoln Highway you’ve been on, which originally passed down Auburn Boulevard into downtown Sacramento. Dipping down to Beals Point, you’ll have a chance to see part of the southern route of the old Lincoln Highway, which cut straight through downtown Folsom on its way to the California state capital.
Take exit 110 near Loomis off I-80 and onto Laird Road and eventually Auburn Folsom Road. That will carry you to Beals Point, not far from the famous Folsom Prison where Johnny Cash made musical history in 1968 by performing live for the inmates. Beyond of Folsom’s walls, however, there are 69 family campsites at Beals Point, that can accommodate tents, trailers and RVs up to 31 feet long, with handicapped accessible sites, too.
Beals Point also affords lots of opportunities for outside fun. A concessionaire by the water rents kayaks, standup paddleboards, shade canopies, and rafts, too, so you can make the most of Folsom Lake. You can also hop on the American River bicycle trail here. Unlike the country’s many rail-to-trail conversions (like the Shining Sea Bikeway in Cape Cod), the American River trail is a purpose-built. This 32-mile paved trail that runs from Beals point along the shores of the river it was named for to Old Sacramento.
“This is a busy campground in a LARGE state recreation area (SRA). Folsom Lake is a very large lake which touches 3 counties (Sacramento, Placer & El Dorado). Beals Point is right on the border of Folsom & Granite Bay on Folsom-Auburn Rd. Lots of tent and RV sites. Lots of trails and fishing, although wouldn’t fish at Beals Point since it’s more of a beach.” -The Dyrt camper Tony G.
The End of the Old Lincoln Highway
After you depart Folsom Lake, follow the southern route of old Lincoln Highway through downtown Folsom on U.S. 50, which is still labeled Lincoln Highway on some maps. U.S. 50 turns into I-80 around Sacramento’s Midtown district, and you’ll take it all the way through Richmond, across the San Francisco–Oakland Bay Bridge, past the new bumper crop of tech companies in the trendy SOMA district, and junction onto another iconic highway — the historic 101, aka the Pacific Coast Highway until you reach Octavia Boulevard and turn left on Fell Street.
That will carry you the length of Panhandle Park, and turns into John F. Kennedy Drive once you hit Golden Gate Park. Turn right onto Eighth before you get to the California Academy of Sciences campus, and a quick left onto Fulton. Partway down Golden Gate Park you can turn onto 34th Street, which dead ends at Lincoln Park.
Continue on to the Legion of Honor Plaza, where a humble concrete post donated by the Boy Scouts of America is tucked behind a bus stop. If you have trouble finding it, the terminus is located at the GPS coordinates 37°47’05.9″N 122°29’57.7″W. It might not seem like much to mark the Western Terminus of the country’s first coast-to-coast highway, but this replica of the original mile markers (also donated by the Boy Scouts) is a fitting tribute in its own way.
Not only does the marker look like the posts countless drivers used to find their way through unfamiliar towns and difficult landscapes, it speaks to the way the Lincoln Highway has gone from blazing a path across America to being an almost imperceptible part of its fabric. As you can tell after driving all the way here from Times Square, the Lincoln Highway has given way to other roads and interstates, often paved right on top of their predecessor. It’s apropos that this marker should be neatly situated so close to a place called Lands End on one of San Francisco’s quieter streets.
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