Hard to believe it’s only been a week since we returned, but last week at this time my son and I were on the last leg of our epic road trip to bring him home from his freshman year at beautiful Pitzer College in Claremont, California. We live in Boulder, Colorado, so that’s almost exactly 1000 miles away. The route goes through the Colorado Rocky Mountains, then through Utah, a little corner of Arizona, Nevada and thence into California. I drove out solo and my son Gareth and I joined forces on the return drive.
Powering the trip was the terrific 2019 Nissan Murano AWD in eye-popping “Sunset Drift”, a vehicle that was absolutely perfect for the task. Turns out I’d had a chance to test drive the Murano just a few weeks earlier [see 2019 Nissan Murano: Test Drive for lots more info on the vehicle] which was great timing: I knew it was comfortable, knew it had plenty of interior space, and would be great for those long hauls through Utah and Nevada where the cruise control ends up your most important feature.
Still, 1000 miles is a lot of driving and while Google Maps insists it’s about a 14 hour drive total (averaging 70mph the whole way) I have long since learned that breaking up a drive to no more than 600 miles per day is a lot smarter. I try to also “front load” my road trips, doing more of my driving on the first day when I’m relatively fresh as a driver.
DAY ONE: Boulder, Colorado to St. George, Utah (641 miles)
The first day of a road trip can be the most stressful with the last minute scramble to ensure that you haven’t forgotten anything, but this time my stress came from weather: I woke to snow. Snow in May! I don’t mind bad weather, but it means that the drive through the Rockies can be tricky. The highest point of elevation on the route is an impressive 11,158 feet, coincidentally the highest point in the entire US interstate highway system. In okay weather that can be cold and slippery, but add bad weather and it can become slow going. The Murano is AWD so I wasn’t worried about traction, but still, slow driving = longer trip, right?
Fortunately the Colorado Department of Transportation are pros at bad weather and the worst condition I experienced was fog and rain, and even then the road was clean and clear:
The above route is Highway 6, just above Golden, Colorado (home of Coors Beer, among other things) and it’s a beautiful route, ideal for spotting big horn sheep and other wildlife. In fact I did drive past a small herd but there was no way to get a photo or turn around. Turn around? On a road trip? No thanks. 🙂
One of the highest points on Highway 70 is the amazing Eisenhower Tunnel. I’ve written about the tunnel before, but one thing I enjoy about this almost 2-mile long hole through a mountain (literally) is that you often encounter different weather when you come out the other side. And so it was this time too, with a beautiful morning and blue sky just starting to show through the clouds:
The rest of the day’s drive was really smooth sailing, though I kept traveling through patches of rain. None was really heavy and one gauge of driving conditions is whether there are cars pulled over or accidents. I was glad to see none on my travels.
I pulled into lovely St. George, Utah about 5pm, having already booked a room at the La Quinta Inn. Cheap, comfortable, and it had a functional fitness facility that let me work off some of the aches of so many hours behind the wheel. I met up with a good friend for dinner at the local burger place and we had a great conversation, trading notes on parenting, teens and teeth. Yes, teeth. My 15yo girl just got braces and it turned out that his 15yo son had a few teeth pulled that very day in preparation for braces too.
DAY TWO: St. George, Utah to Claremont, California (357 miles)
Day two was going to be a lot easier drive, around half the hours behind the wheel. Featured on the route: A small corner of Arizona featuring some gorgeous rock formations that offer a hint of the majesty of the Grand Canyon and a route right through the heart of Las Vegas, Nevada. The real highlight, of course, was arriving, but that was still a ways down the road.
Here’s a typical ridge that the highway passed through, a testament to the use of dynamite in road construction:
Some of the canyons were really breathtaking too. Last time we drove this route my 22yo daughter joined us to take Gareth to Pitzer and she had done her homework: When we made it to Las Vegas, she had a great vegan restaurant all picked out for our meal [Vegenation]. This time I was flying solo so a turkey wrap at Arby’s was sufficient and my stay in Las Vegas lasted about as long as it took to fill up the Murano and get back on the highway!
With the time zone change, I pulled into Claremont, California around 1pm, which was great. I had a chance to pop into the local Starbucks to catch up on email, then met up with my son over at school. I won’t say he was ready to head home, but he was already about 80% packed and within 90 minutes the car was filled up. We did pop by later that afternoon so I could take this “hero” shot of the Murano at the oh-so-Southern-California Pitzer campus:
While Gareth might have been eager to jump back in the car and start heading back to Colorado, I convinced him that we could spend a day in Southern California and head back the next day. Begrudgingly, he agreed.
DAY THREE: OH, THAT LA TRAFFIC!
Rather than pick my son up from college and immediately turn around, we decided that a visit to the beach was a necessity. One of my favorite beach areas is Newport Beach, so that’s where we headed. About 45 miles on LA highways, how long could it take? And on a Saturday, no less. Turns out the drive west wasn’t actually too bad, just a bit over an hour, but even though I grew up in greater Los Angeles, I’d forgotten just how many darn cars all those Angelenos own. So much traffic. So many highways to bounce between and a Nissan nav system that occasionally left me confused and in the wrong lane.
But we made it, and oh, I do miss the beach.
On the way back from the beach we decided to meet up with some family friends in Pasadena, relatively close to the Pitzer campus. And the traffic there from the coast? That was ugly. It was about 90min of snarls, stops and angry drivers before we finally got to their house, and that was through a weird route on back roads that avoided traffic, drove us right past University of Southern California and through some, um, pre-gentrified areas of Los Angeles.
The final leg of the day was a great demonstration of the vagaries of LA traffic: When we arrived, Google Maps said it would take us about 70 minutes to get from Pasadena back to Pitzer (actually to the lovely Doubletree Claremont where we were staying). That’s about 30 miles. Since Gareth had some schoolwork to do and I had a book, we decided to hang out at Vroman’s Bookstore, a Pasadena landmark. Comfy, great book selection and way more pleasant than sitting in traffic. Finally, when we did head east it took us a bit less than half an hour to pull into the hotel parking lot. Moral of the story: avoid rush hour traffic!
DAY FOUR: Claremont, California to Fruita, Colorado (731 miles)
Having a second driver available to spell me on the long haul, we decided that we’d do most of the drive in the one day, a rather daunting 731 miles. We were up and out early – no reason to hang around Claremont when Colorado beckoned! – and the weather was very much in our favor, a day of beautiful blue skies and warm weather.
When I took my son out to college earlier in the year, we’d stopped at Virgin River Gorge, Utah for a photo of him, his sister and our Chevy Traverse [you can find it in my article about that 2200 mile road trip if you want]. This time through we stopped at the very same campground but found it was closed. No problem, I got a matching photo anyway:
Truth be told, Gareth drove a few legs, but mostly it was me behind the wheel on the long haul. We had an audio book we were enjoying (the classic cyberpunk Snow Crash, by Neal Stephenson). Still, a lot of miles are a lot of miles. Much respect for truckers; it’s boring to drive for hours and hours, even through beautiful terrain like this:
Finally, though, we made it across the Colorado state line and into Fruita (locals pronounce it “froo-eat-ah”). Our hotel for the night? Another La Quinta. Except this one was under construction and a bit messy inside. Not a big issue, though, mostly just a remodel. I had noticed that a Jimmy John’s sandwich shop was across the parking lot, so once we were checked into the room I left Gareth snoozing while I walked over and grabbed dinner. Jimmy John’s isn’t a great sandwich, but it’s reliable and that was plenty good enough.
DAY FIVE: Fruita, Colorado to Boulder, Colorado (266 miles)
Last day, and just a few hours of driving. A beautiful route through Glenwood Canyon and the Rockies, passing Vail, Keystone, Copper Mountain and so many famous ski resorts. We were on the move, however, with a destination uppermost in our minds, so we just zipped through without even a Starbucks stop as we went.
Finally, finally. Home. Ahhh, such a pleasure to get home, however much a trip may be fun and inspiring. There’s something about your own stuff, your furniture, your pets (!!) and even going through the mail that arrived while you were out of the house. Most importantly, Gareth was home, year one of his college adventure in the bag. Mission (well) accomplished.
THOUGHTS ON THE NISSAN MURANO
I was originally going to drive out in my Mazda CX-5, a compact SUV that drives great and has solid handling in any weather. But it’s not so big. Dorm life doesn’t involve buying furniture, but ya accumulate, so it turned out really well that Nissan offered a loaner Murano AWD for the trip: The bigger cargo space was very much needed, as you can see:
I’ve written about the Murano before [see 2019 Nissan Murano AWD Reviewed] so won’t belabor the point, but I do want to say that it performed beautifully for the road trip. It was plenty spacious for a lot of gear, darn comfortable for both driver and passenger, and the sound system meant whether we were listening to music or our audio book it was terrific. The entertainment system left me a bit wanting in the complexity of LA highway driving, but that also reflected my unfamiliarity with the nuances of lane choice coming up to multi-highway LA intersections too.
The Murano delivered really good fuel efficiency too, even better than the EPA measurement would lead you to believe, and the first day of generally heading downhill (once I’d crested the Rockies) gave me a daily average of 30.0 mpg. Across the entire drive I would imagine that 28mpg was more accurate, but quite acceptable for a spacious SUV. And, of course, utilizing cruise control as much as possible.
Phew. That was a lot of driving. A fun adventure and so glad to have my son home after he did great on his first year of college. Now to catch up on some gardening…
Disclosure: Nissan very generously loaned me the Murano for the drive in return for this writeup. Discover Claremont also covered the cost of our stay at the Doubletree Claremont, which was very much above and beyond. I appreciate their sponsorship of this trip!