September 13, 2020
U.S. Route 50 is a major east–west route of the U.S. Highway system, stretching just over 3,000 miles from Interstate 80 in West Sacramento, California, to Maryland Route 528 in Ocean City, Maryland. Until 1972, when it was replaced by Interstate Highways west of the Sacramento area, it extended (by way of Stockton, the Altamont Pass, and the Bay Bridge) to San Francisco, near the Pacific Ocean. The Interstates were constructed later and are mostly separate from this route. It generally serves a corridor south of I-70 and I-80 and north of I-64 and I-40.
The route runs through mostly rural desert and mountains in the western United States, with the section through Nevada known as "The Loneliest Road in America". In the Midwest, US 50 heads through mostly rural areas of farms as well as a few large cities including Kansas City, Missouri; St. Louis, Missouri; and Cincinnati, Ohio.
The route continues into the eastern United States, where it passes through the Appalachian Mountains in West Virginia before heading through Washington, D.C. From there, US 50 continues through Maryland as a high-speed road to Ocean City.
Signs at each end give the length as 3,073 miles, but the actual distance is slightly less, due to realignments since the former figure was measured in the early 1980s. US 50 passes through a total of 12 states; California, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, Kansas, Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, West Virginia, Virginia, and Maryland, as well as the District of Columbia.
US 50 was created in 1926 as part of the original U.S. Highway system. The original route planned in 1925 ran from Wadsworth, Nevada, east to Annapolis, Maryland, along several auto trails including the Lincoln Highway, Midland Trail, and the National Old Trails Road. The final 1926 plan had US 50 running from Sacramento, California, east to Annapolis with a gap in west Utah that was bridged by running the route north via Salt Lake City before rerouting it to US 6 in the 1950s. US 50 was extended west from Sacramento to San Francisco in the 1930s, replacing US 48; this was reversed in 1964 when I-580 replaced much of the route between the two cities. In addition, US 50 was extended east from Annapolis to Ocean City prior in 1949, replacing a portion of US 213. US 50 had two split configurations into US 50N and US 50S, one in Kansas and another in Ohio and West Virginia; both of these instances have been removed.
US 50 begins as a major freeway at its junction with Interstate 80 in West Sacramento and continues into Sacramento. The portion of US 50 west of and including its interchange with California's State Highway 99 in Sacramento is also designated, but not signed as, Interstate 305. The signage along this portion of the highway indicates Business Loop I-80 and a portion of the way (2 miles/3.33 km) as California State Highway 99. From Sacramento, the highway heads eastward as the William Alexander Leidesdorff, Jr. Memorial Highway, continuing as a freeway to the Gold Country foothills, then following the American River up the Sierra Nevada as a conventional highway, until cresting the Sierras at Echo Summit and descending to Lake Tahoe, where the highway enters Nevada. In Nevada, the highway crosses a series of north–south running mountain ranges that break up the Nevada desert which are called Basin and Range. East of Carson City, the road enters the heart of the Great Basin, passing by few communities and minimal services, giving it the name "Loneliest Road in America" until reaching Utah.
In Utah, US 50 also passes through desolate, remote areas with few inhabitants. After crossing the Confusion Range via Kings Canyon and the House Range, the road traverses the north shore of the endorheic Sevier Lake. In Holden, US 50 shortly overlaps Interstate 15 to cross the Pavant Range. The road begins a much longer overlap with Interstate 70 in Salina crossing the Wasatch Plateau and San Rafael Swell into Colorado. US 50 leaves I-70 upon entering the state and heads southeast through Grand Junction and into the southern part of Colorado. Once there, the road climbs to its highest elevation of 11,312 feet over the Rocky Mountains and in Monarch Pass where it crosses the Continental Divide. After descending from the Rockies, US 50 passes by Royal Gorge near Cañon City then joins U.S. Route 400 in Granada and follows the Arkansas River into Kansas.
Upon entering Kansas, US 50, concurrent with US 400, runs along the Arkansas River to Dodge City where US 50 splits from US 400 and takes a more northerly course. US 50 continues to traverse the farmlands and small towns of the Great Plains mostly as a straight two-lane road until Emporia where it joins Interstate 35 and splits onto Interstate 435 to bypass the center of the Kansas City Area. In Missouri, US 50 leaves I-435 for Interstate 470 splitting at Lee's Summit. US 50 runs as a four-lane divided highway across the Western Plain to Sedalia where it continues as a two-lane road until reaching California, MO about 20 miles west of Jefferson City. The road continues as a four-lane divided highway into Jefferson City where it joins US 63 just south of the Missouri River Bridge. It continues 12 miles east of Jefferson City to the Osage River where US 63 splits off to the south. It then continues as a two-lane road as it traverses the northern sections of the Ozark Highlands east to Union where it begins an overlap with Interstate 44 which goes through Pacific. The routes separate in Sunset Hills where US 50 migrates southeast bypassing St Louis by joining Interstate 255 to cross Mississippi River into Illinois.
In that state, US 50 switches to Interstate 64 before splitting onto its own alignment in eastern O'Fallon. It heads east through Trenton, Breese, Carlyle crossing the Kaskaskia River, Salem, Flora and Lawrenceville to the Wabash River along a corridor between Interstates 64 and 70. US 50 enters Indiana at the Wabash River, bypassing Vincennes and Washington and passing through Bedford, Seymour, and Versailles. It meets the Ohio River at Aurora, and soon crosses into Ohio, running through downtown Cincinnati via Fort Washington Way (Interstate 71). The route crosses southern Ohio via Hillsboro, Chillicothe, and Athens, joining the four-lane divided Corridor D (State Route 32) west of Athens. It meets the Ohio River around Belpre, and crosses the newer Blennerhassett Island Bridge (previously crossing the Parkersburg-Belpre Bridge) into greater Parkersburg, West Virginia.
The portion of US 50 from Parkersburg, West Virginia to Winchester, Virginia follows the historic Northwestern Turnpike, which crosses the southern tip of Garrett County, Maryland. From Parkersburg to Interstate 79 east of Clarksburg, US 50 has been upgraded as part of the four-lane divided Corridor D. US 50 is a curving two-lane mountain road, east of Clarksburg through Grafton, a bit of Maryland, and Romney to Winchester. This portion of the road is so curvy that locals claim "you can meet yourself coming". The land flattens out after the route crosses the Blue Ridge Mountain east of Winchester, and it follows the old Little River Turnpike from Aldie to Fairfax City and the newer Arlington Boulevard to Rosslyn, where it crosses the District of Columbia line on the west shore of the Potomac River and joins Interstate 66 on the Theodore Roosevelt Bridge.
Within the District, US 50 immediately exits the freeway onto Constitution Avenue along the north side of the National Mall and south of the White House. After turning north on 6th Street Northwest, it exits the city to the northeast on New York Avenue. Upon crossing into Maryland, it passes the south end of the Baltimore-Washington Parkway and becomes the John Hanson Highway, a freeway to Annapolis. The portion of this highway east of the Capital Beltway (I-95/I-495) is also designated, but not signed as, Interstate 595, and U.S. Route 301 joins from the south at Bowie. The freeway continues beyond Annapolis as the Blue Star Memorial Highway which crosses the Chesapeake Bay on the Chesapeake Bay Bridge and continues to Queenstown. There the Blue Star Highway continues northeast as US 301, while US 50 turns south, passing through Easton to Cambridge, and then east through Salisbury to Ocean City on the four-lane divided Ocean Gateway. US 50 ends near the Atlantic Ocean shore at Baltimore Avenue (Maryland Route 378 northbound); its westbound beginning is one block to the west, at Philadelphia Avenue (Maryland Route 528 southbound).
Before the creation of the Interstate Highway System after World War II, US 50 was a major east–west route. Numbered highways in the United States follow a pattern of odd numbers for north–south routes and even numbers for east–west routes, hence the designation of "50" for this route. In the preliminary report, approved by the Joint Board on Interstate Highways in late 1925, US 50 ran from Wadsworth, Nevada to Annapolis, Maryland, passing through Pueblo, Colorado; Kansas City, Missouri; Tipton, Missouri; St. Louis, Missouri; Cincinnati, Ohio, and Washington, D.C. The route did not directly replace any auto trail, instead combining portions of many into one continuous route. It followed the historic Northwestern Turnpike across West Virginia, and portions of other historic roads. Major auto trails followed, including the Midland Trail in part of Indiana, Illinois, Missouri, and parts of Utah and Colorado. The National Old Trails Road (Old Santa Fe Trail) was designated in Kansas and eastern Colorado, and the Lincoln Highway was constructed in Nevada. In most states that had numbered their state highways, US 50 followed only one or two numbers across the state.
One major controversy related to the preliminary route of US 50. The through route had been assigned to the Old Santa Fe Trail, while the spur U.S. Route 250 followed the competing New Santa Fe Trail to the south. As a compromise, the Joint Board on Interstate Highways approved a split configuration—U.S. Route 50N and U.S. Route 50S—in January.
Another problem was in western Utah, where no improved road existed for US 50 to use. The final numbering plan, approved in November 1926, left a gap in US 50 between Ely, Nevada and Thistle, Utah. Finally, rather than ending US 50 at Wadsworth, where the Lincoln and Victory Highways merged, it was sent over the Lincoln Highway's Pioneer Branch, past the south side of Lake Tahoe, to Sacramento, California.
The gap in Utah was soon bypassed by taking US 50 to the north, crossing the Great Salt Lake Desert with U.S. Route 40 to Salt Lake City, and using long portions of U.S. Route 93 in Nevada and U.S. Route 89 in Utah. U.S. Route 6 was marked along the direct, but still partially unimproved, route in 1937; it was finally paved in 1952, and US 50 was moved to it within a few years. Another straightening was made in 1976, when US 50 in central Utah was moved south onto the new extension of Interstate 70 at the request of the National Highway 50 Federation, a group dedicated to promoting US 50. Among other things, the group has unsuccessfully pushed for an extension of Interstate 70 west along US 50 to California.
The north–south split in Kansas was eliminated in the late 1950s, with the south route—which was to be US 250—becoming part of US 50, and most of US 50N becoming part of a new U.S. Route 56. Another split was located between Athens, Ohio and Ellenboro, West Virginia from the late 1920s to the mid-1930s, when US 50 went back to its original southern route; that U.S. Route 50N is now Ohio State Route 550 and part of West Virginia Route 16.
At its west end, US 50 was extended south from Sacramento along U.S. Route 99 to Stockton and west to the San Francisco Bay Area, replacing U.S. Route 48, by the early 1930s. US 50 was officially cut back to Sacramento in the 1964 renumbering, replaced by Interstate 580, but remained on maps and signs for several more years. US 50 was extended east from Annapolis to Ocean City, Maryland in 1949, three years prior to the opening of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge in 1952; this extension replaced Maryland Route 404 between Annapolis and Wye Mills and U.S. Route 213 between Wye Mills and Ocean City. Prior to the bridge opening, US 50 used a ferry across the Chesapeake Bay between Sandy Point and Matapeake and followed present-day Maryland Route 8 between Matapeake and Stevensville before continuing east.