Route 66, and its 2,500 miles, is known affectionately as "The Mother Road." It is the quintessential cross-country road trip experience. From Chicago through the beating heart of America and down to Los Angeles, the route officially ends at the Santa Monica Pier. The road reached peak popularity in the late 40's and early 50's before being officially removed from the US Highway System in 1985. After a few years, travelers from America and beyond started feeling tinges of nostalgia, and by the end of the 1980s, it was fast becoming one of the most popular road trip routes once more.
Route 66 is famous for the oddball roadside attractions that pop up along the route, from Illinois' World's Largest Catsup Bottle in Collinsville, to Oklahoma's Blue Whale of Catoosa. From the heartland the route takes you to the Texas Panhandle, home to Amarillo's famous Cadillac Ranch, and through the Southwest, with stops at classic retro towns like Tucumcari and Kingman. In addition to the man-made attractions, there's also loads of natural wonders to see along the way. Dive into the refreshing Blue Hole of Santa Rosa, or gawk at the intergalactic awesomeness of Meteor Crater, and take a scenic drive through the colorful Petrified Forest National Park. You can also get some fresh air and catch a double feature at the Route 66 Drive in Theater in Illinois, which is where this Route 66 trip guide starts. So, sit back, and buckle up, because you're about to go on a road trip down the Mother Road.
Beginning in Chicago, the Illinois stretch of Route 66 is home to loads of great roadside attractions, but none shout retro-kitsch louder than the muffler men! The Gemini Giant in Wilmington and Bunyon With a Hotdog in Atlanta, IL are two of the best for photo-ops of this iconic vestige of Americana. While you're in Atlanta, which is a ridiculously-charming little town, visit the Route 66 Arcade Museum, it's a fantastic hidden gem that features tons of vintage arcade machines you can play. Illinois is also home to loads of Abraham Lincoln-inspired attractions, and since the establishment of Route 66 big 'ole statues of "Honest Abe" have been delighting road travelers over the years. For the full-Lincoln experience spend the night at the Pasfield House Inn in Springfield, and just down the road there's also the Watermelon Lincoln Monument and the Railsplitter Covered Wagon in Lincoln.
But. if quirky roadside attractions are your thing, then you can't get much better than Henry's Rabbit Ranch in Staunton, where you'll find a whole bunch of VW Rabbits all cut in half and sticking out of the ground, like some weird Stonehenge homage. There's also a gift shop and info center on site and a few actual bunnies that hang around to meet travelers. It's such a sweet stop to make along the route and so much to photograph, including massive vintage Route 66 signage, and memorabilia. Lastly, Illinois’ Route 66 is dotted with old service stations, many of which have been beautifully restored, like Ambler's Texaco Gas Station in Dwight and Soulsby Service Station in Mount Olive. Also, don't miss the Illinois Route 66 Hall of Fame and Museum in Pontiac, and for pre-Columbian Native American history buffs, visit the Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site in Collinsville.
Sure, many (many) of the miles of Route 66 that pass through Missouri have been replaced by bigger highways, and what remains is a bit cobbled (especially in and around St. Louis), but the state is still packed full of fantastic Route 66 diners, roadside attractions, and places to pay homage to the Mother Road. Starting in St. Louis, there's Laumeier Sculpture Park & Museum, where you can see a gigantic, massive, eyeball in the middle of a field, it's pretty wild and fun to walk around. Before leavin the city, head to Old Chain of Rocks Bridge, which is both unique in construction and its place in American history. It had to be repainted during WWII to make its bright red sections less noticeable from the air, and it was nearly blown up in the 1970s so Army demolition workers could practice. Another great museum to visit is the Jesse James Museum in Sullivan. It's a very weird, but cool, interactive walking museum that takes you through the life of Jesse James and even questions his mysterious "death."
Another Missouri town that will make you feel like you're traveling back in time is Cuba, and while there tour the Murals of Cuba. When you need to stretch your legs, take a slight detour to Ha Ha Tonka State Park and explore the massive ruins of the Ha Ha Tonka abandoned castle. Hop back in the car and hit up the Route 66 Museum in Lebanon before making a quick visit to the Hubble Telescope Replica Statue in Marshfield (a must-see for NASA nerds). Finish your Missouri Route 66 drive with a trip to the Fantastic Caverns in Springfield. It's North America's only completely ride-through cave tour, and it's absolutely worth the 55 minute tram tour.
So, the Kansas section of Route 66 isn't what you'd call "lengthy", by any means. In fact, it's just 14 miles, but it's absolutely worth a visit. If you're coming in from Joplin, MO heading west, your first stop should be Galena, KS at the restored Kan-O-Tex service station now called Cars on the Route. There are little snacks and sandwiches for sale, as well as antiques and Route 66 memorabilia. As part of their vision to connect visitors with the town, many of the items for sale are made by local craftspeople and artists. And what Route 66 service station would be complete without an old truck made to look like “Tow Mater,” from the Disney/Pixar film Cars? Then, visit Galena Mining and Historical Museum to learn all about the region’s rich mining heritage. The hours of the museum vary, but it’s a fun little stop full of newspapers from yesteryears and other antiques. Our favorite part of the museum? Of course, it would be the collection of Model Ts and Model As in the back garage. Next, visit Baxter Springs Heritage Center and Museum, where you can explore 20,000 square feet of various exhibits paying homage to the area’s unique role in American history, including the days of the Osage Native Americans, the Civil War, lead and zinc mining, and, of course, Kansas’s portion of Route 66. You might even get lucky and have a “living history” presentation by someone dressed as a Civil War soldier or other historical figure. When in Baxter Springs you can rest your weary head at Baxter Inn 4 Less.
There's over 400 miles of Route 66 in Oklahoma, in fact it's the longest driveable stretch of the Mother Road in America. There are so many charming towns, historic attractions and quirky roadside wonders, and half a dozen Route 66-focused museums throughout the state, of which the Oklahoma Route 66 Museum and National Route 66 & Transportation Museum are a couple of the best. One of the most popular roadside attractions is the Blue Whale of Catoosa, built by Hugh Davis in the early 1970s as a surprise anniversary gift for his wife Zelta, who loved whales and collected whale figurines. Oklahoma also has its share of retro Route 66 hotels (notable today for their signage, as many have gone downhill by way of cleanliness and service, sadly). A few notable ones along the route are the Desert Hills Motel in Tulsa, the Skyliner Motel in Stroud, and the Lincoln Motel in Chandler. Also, don't miss Lucille's Famous Rt. 66 Gas Station in Hydro. This historic two-story gas station was built by Carl Ditmore in 1929 in a very rural area, in fact it's still very rural, but there's a nearby stream where locals find fossils and arrowheads.
The Lone Star state still has about 150 miles of Route 66 road still remaining, and closely parallels Interstate 40, so it's easy to hop on and off the patches of Mother Road. A few highlights include Shamrock, Texas, which is home to the Conoco Tower. This once bustling stop along the route today remains a great place to take pictures. Of all the gas stations, open or closed, in America, this may be one of the most stunning. It’s just a hop, skip, and jump off I-40, so you really have no excuse not to stop and see this Route 66 icon. While you’re in Shamrock, also hit up their very own Blarney Stone. Another great little Texas town to visit is McLean. Here you can stop at the Phillips 66 on the Route, a vintage 1928 gas service station that was designed in what was known as "Cottage Fashion" because it resembled a little country cottage.
Palo Duro Canyon State Park is another fantastic stop along the route. This is America's second largest canyon and it only costs $5 to enter. You can easily drive the length of the park and pull over for some scenic overlooks. There's also camping offered onsite. When anyone mentions Route 66, Cadillac Ranch in Amarillo almost always gets mentioned. Ten Cadillacs stand along Old Route 66, buried in the dirt at the same angles as the Great Pyramid of Giza, and you can spray paint them! It’s not every day someone creates a giant work of art and then allows people to spray paint it, so take advantage of this opportunity. Roadtrippers also asks you to be a good person and pick up empty spray cans left by less-awesome road travelers, so do your part to keep Cadillac Ranch from turning into a dumpster of spray paint cans. For a little side adventure, check out the nearby similar VW Slug Bug Ranch.
New Mexico has 465 miles of historic Route 66, though in recent years a few of those miles have disappeared. However, there's still plenty of miles to drive along and so many charming communities along the way to visit. There are tons of classic Route 66 architecture and fully-functioning historic motels, diners and classic roadside attractions. A few of the notable Route 66 cities you'll pass through include: Tucumcari, Santa Rosa, Santa Fe, Albuquerque, and Gallup.
A few other New Mexico highlights along Route 66 include the small town of Santa Rosa, home to the Blue Hole of Santa Rosa. This deep blue diving hole is a local favorite swimming spot, and it's absolutely worth a stop to take a dip, especially if you're braving the Mother Road in July or August. If you're a serious diver, this is one of America's most popular dive destinations. And the historic El Rancho Hotel and Motel in Gallup, built by Joe Massaglia in 1936
The Grand Canyon State is home to 400 miles of Route 66, and it provides some of the most stunning landscapes you'll encounter along the route. Starting with Petrified Forest National Park, where you can explore 93,000 acres of rocky badlands. The colors of the "Painted Desert" feature every hue imaginable, from lavenders, to dark violets, to grays and bright reds and pale pinks. This is a photographers playground. Located in Northern Arizona, the Painted Desert goes from the Grand Canyon National Park all the way to the Petrified Forest National Park. Here you can spend the night in the Painted Desert Inn, an absolutley beautiful lodge overlooking the badlands. A little drive away is the La Posada Hotel in Winslow, which was built in 1929 by the Santa Fe Railway. While in Winslow, hit up the Standin' on the Corner Park, a public park that commemorates the Eagles song "Take It Easy."
Stuck in the middle of the Arizona desert between the famous Route 66 towns of Seligman and Kingman, AZ is one of the very best kept secrets along the Mother Road…the Grand Canyon Caverns. Tucked over 200 feet below the earth’s crust, the caverns are the largest dry caverns in the country, all accessible by elevator for you to explore. The Grand Canyon Caverns offer adventure and wonder both above and below the ground with thousands of acres of truly unspoiled air, sky, and prairie all around. Of course no trip through the Wild West is complete without visiting at least one ghost town, and Route 66 offers a few opportunities. Oatman, Arizona considers itself a "living" ghost town, complete with gift shops, staged gunfights and wild burros wandering through town. Judy’s Saloon and Oatman Hotel and Dollar Bill Bar are must-visits when in the area.
One of the best roadside stops along Route 66 is the Rt. 66 Roy's Motel Cafe & Gas Station in Amboy, CA. Located on a desolate stretch of road, this is an iconic vestige of the Mother Road, and a must-visit for all 66ers. If Oatman Ghost Town was a bit too rowdy and crazy for ya (with all the burros running around), visit Calico Ghost Town, it's maintained by a park system, and even has a campground. If you're looking to go full kitsch, then you don't want to miss on out on the Wigwam Villages. Once scattered across the country, only several villages remain to offer guests the pure thrill of staying in a teepee-shaped motel room. There's two along Route 66, Wigwam Village Motel No. 6 in Holbrook, and Wigwam Village #7 Motel in Rialto.
Whether you call it the starting point or the ending point of the Mother Road, it all comes down to one place: the Santa Monica Pier Santa Monica Pier. It’s the perfect spot to stretch your legs after your journey or to snap a couple pictures of the ocean before embarking on your 2,000+ mile journey east. Sure, it’s touristy, but it should be! It’s the Santa Monica Pier! Take a ride on the old 1922 carousel, grab something sweet from the soda fountain, and take in all the great people watching.
Best time of year to travel along Route 66
The best time to road trip down Route 66 is between late April and early July, as well as late August through late October. The worst times to visit would be July and August, this is when the temperature is sweltering and all the kids are out of school, which make for some pretty crowded spots along the route. In addition, July and August is considered high season, so you're going to be paying higher rates for lodging.