Shortest 48

Today I’m fortunate enough to present a guest article from Jon Persky. Jon is a frequent contributor to the Twelve Mile Circle with a long history of insightful comments. He also inspired the popular Counting Border Crossings article a couple of years ago. In other words, Jon is an aficionado of geo-oddities of the highest order.

Jon contacted me a few weeks ago. He had been working on an interesting problem, attempting to determine the shortest road distance between all 48 continental United States plus the District of Columbia. In a weird coincidence, Data Pointed wondered the same thing and published an article right around the time Jon was finishing-up his research. Jon and I took another look at his draft and felt it was different enough from the Data Pointed article so we decided to stick with it.

Without further ado, and with sincere thanks and appreciation, I turn the remainder of 12MC today over to Jon:

Suppose you wanted to drive to all 48 continental United States. Sure, many with time on their hands and a yearning to see the country have accomplished this feat and have the stickers to prove it. But let’s up the stakes a bit: in a scene eerily reminiscent of the Keanu Reeves movie "Speed," imagine that there’s a bomb in your trunk rigged to go off when your odometer hits 6,500 miles. Without hitching your car to someone’s U-Haul – that would be cheating – can you complete your dream roadtrip and make it out alive?

Extreme road-tripping (minus the time bomb) is actually a sport with a devoted following. The Iron Butt Association administers a long list of lengthy motorcycle rides. If you’re up to it, you can ride 1,500 miles in 24 hours and win a handsome certificate. (To do this, you’d have to average over 65 miles per hour assuming you can manage to spend only 1 hour buying gas, eating, and using the bathroom.) The Association also awards a prize to those who visit 48 states in the span of ten days. There are a bunch of rules: you have to visit an actual town in each state, and you need a receipt from a gas station or store in each state showing the time and date that you visited.

True aficionados, not content with only 48 states, continue to Hyder, Alaska, the easternmost town in Alaska and the closest by road to the lower 48. (Fun facts: (1) Hyder is the only U.S. town that uses a Canadian area code, 250; (2) the state of Alaska pays for the children of Hyder to attend school across the border in Stewart, B.C.). The 49-state record, held by Iron Butt founder Ron Ayres, is 7 days, 0 hours, and 20 minutes. If you’re the four-wheel type, you might be interested in this guy made it to Hyder in 7 and a half days – in a 1932 roadster.

If driving nonstop for four days without sleeping is not your thing – and, for the sake of drivers and pedestrians everywhere, please let it not be your thing – then shoot for distance, not time. The man who finished the 48-state drive in 97 hours claims that he has designed “the shortest route on record” – a 6,500-mile trip – but he won’t tell you what it is. Real geography fans don’t keep secrets. So, I set out to both break his record and tell everyone what it is. And as an added measure of difficulty, I decided to add the District of Columbia. It’s not a state, but it should be!

So, let’s get going in search of a sub-6,500-mile route. Here’s my first attempt, connecting the southwestern tip of Michigan with Bellows Falls, Vermont:

View 48 STATES (VT-MI) in a larger map

This clocks in at a disappointing 6,929 miles, and requires almost two complete east-west trips across the country. You can see that two states, Florida and California, are themselves responsible for a good portion of the mileage. The Appalachian region is tricky: you have to wend your way through Kentucky, West Virginia, and Ohio, but you can’t go too far inland or you’ll miss South Carolina. Finally, New England is a bit awkward. Drawing a straight line through the six small states isn’t an option, so we have to snake around a bit. In this version I decided to zip in and out of Maine and travel west to finish at the Vermont border.

I decided that the key to reducing miles was to increase the distance between the two termini. New Buffalo, MI is 885 miles by road from Bellows Falls, VT. If I increased the gap, could I decrease the total number of miles of the route? I decided to start and end at the California/Nevada/Arizona tripoint and the Oregon/Washington border, respectively.

View 48 STATES (OR-CA) in a larger map

Maybe I’m on to something here. This route measures 6,781 miles, and the termini are 1,005 miles apart. I still think we can do better, though. For one, the route requires two full east-west cross country trips. For another, there are significant redundancies in the Northeast. Even though I’ve "picked up" New York en route from the George Washington Bridge to the Connecticut border at Greenwich, after completing New England I’d have to drive another 400 miles through a state I’ve already been to. (The 6,850-mile, 101-hour trip planned by the Morriss brothers, from Four Corners to the Kansas/Oklahoma/Missouri tripoint, suffers from the same malady.)

Then I had an epiphany. If the distance between endpoints reduces the length of the route, then the route shouldn’t be a loop at all: it should begin and end on opposite coasts and snake through the country. After some tweaking, I arrived at a route connecting Walla Walla, Washington with Eliot, Maine, clocking in at 6,495 miles:

View 48 States (WA-ME) in a larger map

Not only does this route break the 6,500 mile record, but it does it in an elegant fashion. I only needed to add nineteen detours to Google’s driving directions between the two endpoints. (Because Google’s routes are optimized by time, not distance, it’s necessary to make a number of manual corrections in order to shorten the distance between two places). There are only a handful of states that are "poked" – i.e., dipped into and out of without accumulating any mileage. Somewhat surprisingly, I saved some distance by skipping Four Corners, in favor of routing the trip through different parts of each of the four states. For those of you who collect state capitals, the route passes through eight of them (plus, of course, the District). Also, since the route begins in Washington state, I could proceed 1,200 miles to Hyder and claim my 49th. If I ever accomplish that, I’ll have earned a vacation – in Hawaii, of course.

I’ve thwarted the nerdy terrorist and saved the day. But there must be a shorter route out there. Can you spot places where I can shave a few miles? Might it make sense to use different end points? Would you hit the south of Ohio, as I’ve done, or the north? Are there more creative ways to hit the tricky states of Florida, California, and Michigan?

And now for some extra credit: Can you design a route under 7,300 miles that hits each state exactly once without reentering it? I did, and I’ll share my map in the comment section. As you may have guessed, you have no choice but to start in Maine, and you’ll have to make some significant adjustments to the 6,500 mile optimized route.

(POSTSCRIPT: In a coincidence worthy of the "great minds think alike" accolade, Tom pointed me to a recent blog post by fellow TMC fan Stephen Von Worley that attempts to determine the fastest method to reach all fifty states – the last two by air. He also uses the “W” formation in the lower 48, arriving at a 6,813 mile route.)

18 Replies to “Shortest 48”

    1. Yes, that’s a true statement. The context, however, makes the meaning clear. I do understand that popularly-used albeit technically incorrect statements can sound like finger nails on a chalk board to some people, and I have peeves like that myself for certain terms (although not this one). Let’s try to not get caught-up in the symantics, take a step back, relax and have a beer. 🙂

    2. I used a common phrase without thinking about it. No disrespect to Alaska, one of my favorite places. I think I’ll have to include the route to Hyder from now on!

  1. I once had the idea of doing this as a road trip with my dad, but decided that while it may be cool, it would result in us not getting to see much. Instead, we did 3 roadtrips of the lower 48 …except, we missed Missouri – As you can see from a couple of the maps in the article, as big as it is, it seems tough to include. Luckily we had both already been there before, so we could still check it off our list. You can kind of get an idea of our trips on my county page:

  2. This makes me want to get in my car and start driving. Start in College Place, WA, rather than Walla Walla and you might be able to shave 3-4 miles off the route. CP is slightly closer to the WA-OR border than WW.

    Walla Walla, WA

    1. Matthew, the trip actually starts at the WA/OR border – I used Walla Walla as shorthand.
      Makes for a good Will Shortz puzzle though – think of a two word city where each word begins with the first two letters of its state.

  3. This subject recently got revived on Reddit. I had this basic formation down to 6505 at one point.

    View Larger Map

    Based heavily on Jon Ps work. I targeted the MI-IN-OH tripoint and the KY-IL-MO tripoint, then traveled further east thru the Carolinas and Virginia and hit the corner of the east WV panhandle.

      1. I’ve continued to obsess on this and I now have a route that runs 6459 and only has non-mileage “turn around” visits to four states (not counting starting points in ME and OR). I had it under 6450 but that took more time and had some inelegant stuff and one long dangerous gravel shortcut near the WY-MT-SD tripoint. I can write it all up if people like. The basic strategy is here though this exact map is more like 6650. Had to split into four Google maps to get all the shortcuts.

    1. Google’s data and routes change over time; looked at my 6487 map and it had grown to 6492. That’s probably what happened to IA on Jon P’s map

  4. Dang, should have saved a screenshot. Iowa was there last time i checked. 🙂 Will tweak my map and repost.

  5. Ron Ayres did not found the Iron Butt Association. True he is very active in the IBA. The IBA sort of evolved. The first Rally was in the mid 80s. Ron’s first IBA ride was in the mid 90s. I am sure he would be flattered but Ron would not take the credit for founding the IBA. Several people were involved in the birth of the IBA. Mike Kneebone is one of the key people.

    By the way just for informational purposes Ron did not own a motorcycle until he was in his 40s. Now he owns a world motorcycle adventure company.

  6. I’ve been working on optimizing for speed. Assuming you start in VT, so as to plan your jaunt through the NY-DC corridor at night when traffic is less likely (I don’t include DC in mine, but it wouldn’t be hard to add) – you’re looking at (according to Google, 101 hours, although I’m sure you can improve on that time without getting speeding tickets). 6743 total miles.

    Each number represents the google location needed for the next leg of the journey. I tried to use addresses that would cut down on off the road time so as to improve the accuracy of the total distance. You obviously won’t stop in every one of these places (and may need others depending on gas.)

    1. 1103 North Main Street, White River Junction, VT
    Passing through NH to
    2. 64 Dennett Rd, Kittery, ME
    Passing through MA and CT to
    3. 195 Danielson Pike, Foster, RI
    Passing through CT, NY, NJ, and PA to
    4. Interstate 95, Claymont, DE
    Passing through MD and WV to
    5. 2927 County Road 144, South Point, OH
    Passing through WV, KY, VA, TN, and NC to
    6. 2701 White Horse Rd, Greenville, SC
    Passing through GA and AL to
    7. 1400 Jones Rd, McDavid, FL
    Passing through AL and MS to
    8. Interstate 55, Kentwood, LA
    Passing through MS, TN, AR, MO, IL, IN
    9. 18913 La Porte Rd, New Buffalo, MI
    Passing through IN and IL to
    10. 370 Wisconsin 35, Hazel Green, WI
    Passing through IA, MN, and SD to
    11. Teddy Roosevelt Expressway, Bowman, ND
    Passing through SD and WY to
    12. US Route 212, Alzada, MT
    Passing through WY, NE, and CO to
    13. US 56, Elkhart, KS
    Passing through OK and NM to
    14. Texas State Line Rd, Clayton, NM (a dirt road to the right is Texas)
    Passing through NM and AZ to
    15. 27941-35367 U.S. 95, Needles, CA
    Passing through NV to
    16. 42 Wendover Blvd, Wendover, UT
    Passing through NV and OR to
    17. McNary Highway, Plymouth, WA

    I’m also a highpointer (one who tried to get to the highest natural point in each state – I’ve got 30 so far). This route would, with a few minor modifications, get you to 20 State Highpoints (RI, DE, PA, MD, WV, KY, VA, TN, NC, SC, GA, FL, MO, IL, IA, SD, ND, NE, KS, OK) – this would extend the trip by many hours (including some hiking time), but not a ton of distance.

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