I must admit, I felt giddy hopping on the legendary Route 66. Known as The Mother Road and the Main Street of America, Route 66 was the main thoroughfare through the United States for decades. I had listened to Nat King Cole’s velvet voice sing about it for years and had visions of drive-in diners, neon lights and vintage cars lining the route. That song had a lasting impression.
Get Your Kicks On Route 66
Be sure to get your road trip playlist ready and make sure you have a little Nat King Cole on there to hear his smooth jazz while you drive the open road.
“If you ever plan to motor west
Travel my way, take the highway that’s the best.
Get Your Kicks, on Route Sixty Six “
History of Route 66
Route 66 spans across America from Chicago, Illinois to Santa Monica, California. Built in 1926, Route 66 was a road of dreams passing through eight states. The history of route 66 has endured through the years and has grown in popularity throughout the 21st century. It is at the top of any road trippers dream vacation.
The Mother Road
John Steinbeck gave Route 66 its name The Mother Road in the Grapes of Wrath. During the Great Depression, Route 66 was filled with people dreaming of a better life in the West as they escaped the drought stricken southern plains known as the Dust Bowl.
During World War II soldiers and military vehicles used this road extensively as it was the most direct route through the country from Chicago to Los Angeles.
As families flocked to route 66 to take their summer vacations to see the Grand Canyon and other iconic sites in California and Arizona it became known as the Main Street of America. It was a rip roaring good time through the 50s to the 70s.
This was a busy and exciting route through America. But that all changed in 1985 when the need for speed was at the top of people’s list. As the interstates came in, the old roads connecting the east to west, went out.
Those days are long gone and today, the 3940 km (2448 miles) route is a shadow of its former self with only pockets still clinging to a bygone era.
What Happened to Route 66
Why did Route 66 crumble? In the 1980’s, the highway system was built bypassing most of the towns located along the route. With tourists driving directly to the tourist attractions of Arizona and California fast and efficiently on Interstates instead of the slow backroads of Route 66, most towns along the historic Route 66 fell into disarray.
But over the years, some began to rebuild and pockets of nostalgia have cropped up throughout the route. The allure of the road trip still holds strong and it is at the top of many people’s bucket lists to take this driving tour across America.
You can drive the entire route 66 and it will take about 2 weeks (three weeks if you really want to take your time) to do so. But you can do portions of Route 66 as well. There are many portions that you can drive. As we said, route 66 passes through 8 states with plenty to explore in each. If you are “driving west” like the Nat King Cole song, you’ll start in Chicago, Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and finally end in Santa Monica, California.
Things To See On Route 66
Car rentals can be booked one way if you don’t have your own. So there is no excuse not to drive this historic highway if you find yourself in America. (Or at least a portion or two). Since it spans across America, there’s a good chance you will be somewhere close to Route 66 during your United States travels.
- Route 66 begins downtown Chicago and there is a sign that states, “Route 66, Historic Route Begins”
- In Pontiac there is the Illinois Route 66 Hall of Fame and Museum showcasing the history of route 66.
- Bloomington, Atlanta and Lincoln – Along this route you’ll find the weird Paul Bunyon hot dog statue, the world’s largest covered wagon, and Abe Lincoln holding an ax. There are soda shops and diners.
- And if you spend the night, be sure to catch a movie at the Skyview Drive In Theatre in Litchfield. It’s one of the last remaining original drive in on Route 66.
- Read more: The Best Things to Do in Chicago, Top 10 Hot Spots to Eat in Chicago
- The main city here is St. Louis welcoming you with her gateway arch. It is the largest city on Route 66 between Chicago and Los Angeles.
- In Missouri, you’ll be crossing the Chain Rocks Bridge as you cross the Mississippi River
- There’s a Cuba in the US located in Missouri and it is officially designated Route 66 Mural City depicting scenes from the Route 66 heyday.
- Check out the Meramec Caverns limestone caves, another of the popular roadside attractions along historic route 66.
- there is another Route 66 Museum in Lebanon
- Kansas is the shortest section of Route 66
- Baxter Springs has the Coopers Dry Goods Store and diner dating back to 1865 and the historic Bush Creek Bridge
- There’s the usual old gas station, corner store and museums along Route 66.
- The opposite of Kansas, Oklahoma has the longest section of Route 66
- In Oklahoma you’ll pass through Tulsa and Oklahoma City on Route 66
- There are a couple of museums along this route – The Oklahoma Route 66 Museum in Clinton and the National Route 66 Transport Museum in Elk City showing artifacts celebrating the spirit and history of route 66.
- Be sure to see the old vaudeville Colman Theatre in Miami
- Grab a classic soda pop at POPS in Arcadia
Once you enter the Lone Star State there are plenty of things to see on Route 66
- Keep an eye out for the leaning water tower in Groom
- Stop in at Amarillo to see the Cadillac Ranch and the Big Texan State Ranch
- And in Texas, you have made it half way from Chicago to Los Angeles. Grab lunch at the Midpoint Cafe which is the oldest continuously running cafe on the route.
- Snap a photo as you’ve driven 1139 miles already and you have 1139 to go!
- the major city is Albuquerque New Mexico
- Tucumcari has a good portion of Route 66 attractions with a dinosaur museum, roadside motels and old gas stations.
- Santa Rosa has the Route 66 Auto Museum and Blue Hole
- Santa Fe was a popular stop on the earlier Route 66 alignments and has a few things to see including the La Fonda Hotel, one of the oldest hotels in the United States.
- Read more: The Very Best Historic Sites in New Mexico
Arizona has a lot of Route 66 Attractions that are well preserved. See our full Arizona Road Trip
- Winslow Arizona – I cannot believe we didn’t make it to Winslow Arizona. I love the Eagles and I’m always singing “Standin’ on the corner of Winslow Arizona…” from Take it Easy.
- Williams, Arizona, is considered the best preserved stretch of Route 66 and here it feels as if time has stood still.
- The Grand Canyon is not on Route 66 but it is located just north of Main Street America and is worth the detour to see this natural canyon clocking in a 277 miles (455 km) long, a mile (1.6 km) deep. It lives up to the hype
- Read More: Arizona Road Trip – The Ultimate 10 Day Itinerary
The final stop on the great American road trip. This is where dreamers ended their trip in search of the American Dream. Some of the sites to see that are specific to Route 66 in California are.
Route 66 Signs And Roadside Attractions
As Americans migrated west looking for work, it captured the imagination of the nation. Luckily, a lot of the signs, roadside attractions, and memorabilia have been preserved. One of the best things about driving Route 66 is to drive with no plans.
Go with the flow and stop when you see something nostalgic or historic. You’ll find a lot of roadside attractions along the route 66 and as tourists and Americans travel more to revisit a simpler past, more attractions are opening up.
All along the route from Chicago to California towns cling to a not so distant past and a few tourists who set out to recreate their own American Dream by driving along the iconic route making it the ultimate road trip.
The towns that were bypassed by the Interstates refuse to quit and attract visitors from around the world wanting to catch a glimpse of America’s glory days.
There are old cars on display, a soda shop and 50’s style gas stations, a colourful downtown and of course Route 66 signs and leftover ads from its heyday.
There are old motor hotels, The Road Kill Cafe, a Texaco Gas Station and the old general store. If you are going to buy any souvenirs, buy them in Seligman because they have everything highlighting the historic Route 66.
It really is an amazing journey. The picturesque landscape with cows grazing in the distance and rolling hills surrounding our lonely stretch of road takes you back to a time when people didn’t stare at their phones and when family was first and foremost.
It’s not easy to navigate Route 66 with just Google Maps but there are apps and guide books to help you out.
It’s nice to have that extra security because at times, we felt completely isolated. There were moments where we barely saw another car on the route. We drove it at the end of summer during shoulder season so that may be the case. We often we wondered if we had taken a wrong turn, but luckily, quirky signs would always pop up to let us know we were going in the right directly.
My favourite were the ads for Burma Shave. These quirky signs lined up in groups of five told a little tale with a silly punchline at the end, punctuated by a final sign advertising “Burma Shave”
A lot of times you’ll come across run down buildings and ghost towns. If it can’t attract tourists, towns completely shut down.
National Parks Along Route 66
Route 66 travels through some of America’s most beautiful scenery. You’ll want to take your time and make some detours to see the National Parks along the route. Here is a list you may want to consider.
We loved driving the historic Route 66. There has never been a better time to take a road trip across America. While people plan on staying closer to home, this is a great places to start.
- Grand Canyon National Park – Arizona
- Petrified Forest National Park – Arizona
- Gateway Arch National Park, – St Louis Missouri
- Chaco Culture National Historical Park, New Mexico
- Joshua Tree National Park – California