Get Your Kicks on the Mother Road: Route 66

Route 66 opened in 1926 and gave birth to motels, diners, gas stations and kitschy roadside attractions down its 1,410 miles spanning from Illinois to California. She’s a behemoth, the Mother Road, the way to motor West. Much of the original road is gone now and many portions were never paved until decades after it opened. Follow the footsteps taken by the characters in John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath as they travel from the Dust Bowl of Oklahoma to California to change their fortunes.

The Route 66 Path

This cross-country journey takes you from the shores of Lake Michigan to the beaches of the Pacific Ocean and can easily take a week to fully enjoy all the sites. To truly experience the original Route 66, you’ll want to find a map that can show you all the twists and turns along the way. Much of the original road is a series of turns on streets that skip and wander through towns and on and off interstates.

Route 66 starts in Chicago at Lake Shore Drive and Jackson Drive, taking you past the Loop and the Sears Tower downtown before heading south to Joliet. From here, continue down to the twin cities of Bloomington-Normal, where you can stop at the original Steak & Shake drive-in, a classic Route 66 burger joint. The route continues on to Springfield, where you can find the Mustang Corral, a haven for French travelers who know the attraction from a documentary on the road, before entering the St. Louis metropolitan area.

Here you’ll want to stop by the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial and the Gateway Arch next to the Mississippi River and later Ted Drewes Frozen Custard. As you leave St. Louis, you’ll take Interstate 44, which took over Route 66 in many places and follows the original path. At Six Flags, you can find Route 66 State Park, site of Times Beach. Further south in Cuba, you can find the 1930s Wagon Wheel Motel, the Viva Cuba Mural Project and the Crawford County History Museum. In Fanning, Mo., discover the Guinness Book of Record’s Largest Rocking Chair.

From here, the route travels through Rolla, Mo., south to your second Springfield of the journey. Here you’ll want to stop for cashew chicken at any one of the number of Chinese restaurants in the city. This pseudo-Chinese dish was created here. You can also find the Shrine Mosque on the National Register of Historic Places and Park Central Square, where you can look for a plaque dedicating Springfield as the birthplace of Route 66.

In Carthage, you can find the 66 Drive-in. Next you’ll come to Joplin before crossing the Kansas state line and heading to Galena. Near Riverton, Kan., you can find the Marsh Arch Bridge, the last of its kind on Route 66. The road continues south to Oklahoma straight to Miami. In Claremore, you can find the Will Rogers Museum and in Catoosa, find the Blue Whale, part of an old water park.

Finally you reach Tulsa and drive on to Oklahoma City, where you can visit the Oklahoma State Capitol. You’ll eventually join Interstate 40 and continue west into Texola to cross into Texas. In Shamrock, stop by the U-Drop Inn and then in McLean, stop by the Devil’s Rope Museum. Next in Groom, Texas, discover the World’s Largest Cross and Leaning Water Tower. You’ll eventually reach Amarillo. Soon you’ll come across the Cadillac Ranch, a site you’ll want to photograph. When you hit Adrian, Texas, you’ve reached the geographic center between Chicago and Los Angeles. Celebrate at the Midpoint, a cafe and gift shop.

In Glenrio, you can find the First Motel/Last Motel in Texas in this almost ghost town on the border of Texas and New Mexico. To experience the true Route 66, you may travel on many gravel roads in New Mexico that mark the original route. In Tucumcari, you can find the Blue Swallow Motel. You’ll want to stop in Santa Rosa to see the Blue Hole, a deep spring where you can scuba dive in the middle of the landlocked desert.

Next you’ll hit Santa Fe and travel on to Clines Corners to discover a famous stop on the Mother Road. The route keeps heading south to Albuquerque, where you can find El Vado Motel, a famous Route 66 motel. Near the University of New Mexico, you can find the Frontier Restaurant, a classic student dive across from campus. You’ll then pass into Western New Mexico with its mountainous terrain. Along the way, you’ll meander through numerous Native American reservations, where you can collect souvenirs that reflect the heritage here. At Gallup, you’ll want to stretch your legs at the teepees on the east side of the town. After Defiance, you’ll hit the Arizona state line, where you can find a number of souvenir stands.

Route 66 crosses through the Painted Desert in Arizona, and you can visit Petrified Forest National Park. In Holbrook, visit the Wigwam Village. At Winona, you can find the Barringer Meteor Crater, one of the world’s best-preserved impact craters. Soon you’ll hit Two Guns and the elevation begins to rise while desert landscape is replaced by pine forests. You’ll reach Flagstaff, where you can visit Lowell Observatory.

At Williams, Ariz., you can hop off Route 66 to visit the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, only an hour north of the highway. After Williams, the road leaves the mountains to regain its desert composition. When you reach Ash Fork, you’ll find one of the longest unbroken stretches of the original Route 66. You’ll want to gas up before entering this area. In Seligman, find the Dejgadillos Historic Route 66 Visitor Center. Then before you reach Peach Springs, stop at Grand Canyon Caverns before you pass through the Hulapai Indian Reservation and Kingman. Stop in the ghost town of Hackberry, where a general store houses a Route 66 gift shop and visitor’s center.

At Topock, cross the Colorado River and enter California. You can see the original bridge that now carries a pipeline. You’ll enter the Mojave Desert, one of the most dreaded parts of the original journey for most travelers along the road. Gas up since services are few and far between. At Needles, you will need to stop to ensure you’re not carrying any fruits, vegetables or plants into California.

You’ll pass by three sets of mountain ranges on your way through Chambless and Amboy, where you can find Roy’s, another famous Route 66 stop, and Amboy Crater. Pass through a dotting of small towns before you hit Barstow. At Blue Cut, Route 66 crosses the San Andreas Fault. You’ll keep traveling until you reach San Bernadino, home of the world’s first McDonald’s.

Enter Los Angeles, where you’ll take Sunset Boulevard into Santa Monica to Ocean Avenue, where Route 66 ends and a plaque dedicates US 66 as the Will Rogers Highway. Celebrate the end of your journey at the Santa Monica Pier.

Trip Details:

  • You can drive the entire byway in four or five days, but to enjoy it, plan for several days per state.
  • Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California
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