Route 66, and its 2,500 miles, is known affectionately as "The Mother Road." It's 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 1980's it was fast becoming one of the most popular road trip routes once more.
The Illinois stretch of Route 66 is home to some pretty good eats, especially if you like classic American cuisine. Before you hit the road, visit Dell Rhea's Chicken Basket, just outside Chicago, for some of the best fried chicken you'll ever have. They've been serving the home-cooked goodness since 1946.
The Illinois stretch of Route 66 is also home to loads of great roadside attractions, but none shout "retro-kitsch" louder than the massive muffler men statues! 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 in Illinois, 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 great for history buffs, as it's 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 the Watermelon Lincoln Monument, and the Railsplitter Covered Wagon in Lincoln.
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 has so much to photograph, including massive vintage Route 66 signs and memorabilia.
Another great Missouri museum to visit is the Jesse James Museum in Sullivan. It's a very weird, but very cool interactive walking museum that takes you through the life of outlaw Jesse James and even questions his mysterious "death." The gift shop is loaded with kitschy Jesse James memorabilia, as well.
Your last Missouri stop should be at Gary's Gay Parita in Ash Grove: it's a verifiable Route 66 icon. As Gary says, “Folks from all over the world say it’s the dream of their life to travel Historic Route 66. It’s the dream of my life to meet those folks.” Owner Gary Turner loves the Mother Road and the people on it so much that he recreated a little retro Sinclair gas station, and spends his days welcoming travelers with a soda and great conversation.
Next up: Kansas! 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, 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?
One of the most popular roadside attractions along Route 66 is the Blue Whale of Catoosa, built by Hugh Davis in the early 1970s. He built the massive blue whale as a surprise anniversary gift for his wife Zelta, who loved whales and collected whale figurines. The whale has certainly seen better days, but it's a very cool stop. Take time to wander around the abandoned ruins of this famed roadside wonder, and have a picnic at one of the picnic tables. If you're lucky, the tamale wagon will be open and you can grab a tasty snack.
The historic Rock Cafe in Stroud is another iconic Route 66 stop. It also has a deep connection to the movie "Cars" and it was also featured on the show "Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives." It's famous for its mouthwateringly golden-brown chicken-fried steak, and if you're in the mood for something sweet, try their Diet Doctor Pepper float.
Also, get a photo in front of Lucille's Famous Rt. 66 Gas Station in Hydro, OK. This historic two-story gas station was built by Carl Ditmore in 1929 in a very rural area... in fact the area is still very rural, but there's a nearby stream where locals go to find fossils and arrowheads.
On to Texas! The Lone Star state still has about 150 miles of Route 66 road still remaining, and it all 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 remains a great place to take pictures to this day. 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 roadside classic. While you’re in Shamrock, also hit up their very own Blarney Stone.
No Route 66 trip through Texas would be complete without a big Texan-style meal. Do yourself a favor and head to The Big Texan Steak Ranch. It's a Route 66 legend with its 72oz steak challenge, which began way back in 1962. Just a couple years after owner Bob Lee opened the doors he noticed the influx of hungry cowboys on their paydays looking to down some hearty steaks. One Friday in 1962 he set up an eating contest to see who could eat the most one-pound steaks in an hour. After one cowboy downed 72oz worth of steak (along with a salad, a shrimp cocktail, and a baked potato) Lee declared that anyone who could eat that much steak in an hour gets it for free... and so a legend was born.
Next up is New Mexico! There are about 465 miles of historic Route 66 that run through the state, though in recent years a few of those miles have disappeared. However, there's still plenty of old-school road to drive along, and so many charming communities along the way to visit. There are tons of classic Route 66 places to see, including 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. Enjoy a meal at historic 66 hotspot, Del's Restaurant in Tucumcari, where a cow gracefully adorns the sign above the diner.
In fact, you should plan on spending at least a whole day in Tucumcari. The entire town feels like you've stepped back in time. The people are salt-of-the-earth, friendly and passionate. They believe in Tucumcari and are fighting for it, so this great Route 66 town doesn't go the way of so many others in the wake of the highway system. Tucumcari is also home to the Tee Pee Curios, a quirky little gift shop. Or you can hit up the Sand Hills Curiosity Shop for some great taxidermy and other antiques.
If you're looking to spend the night in Tucumcari, the Blue Swallow Motel is an absolutely essential Route 66 lodging. It's perfect for photographs pretty much any time of day. Its retro signage is some of the best you'll see along the route, so make sure to pull over for a few pictures, at least.
Another New Mexico highlight along Route 66 is the small town of Santa Rosa, home to the Blue Hole of Santa Rosa. This deep azure-hued diving hole is a favorite local 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. Then, once you've toweled off, visit the Silver Moon Cafe in town for some of the best pancakes of your life.
The historic El Rancho Hotel and Motel in Gallup, built by Joe Massaglia in 1936 has been featured in loads of Hollywood movies. The Western-style hotel is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and features wagon-wheel headboards and suites named after famous Hollywood Western stars. Even if you don't spend the night here, at least pull over to check out their epic lodge-inspired lobby, which has loads of antiques and Native American decorations. The onsite restaurant also makes a delicious enchilada and tasty margarita.
Your next major stop is Seligman. At just 6.4 square miles, and boasting a population of only a little over 450 people, it's become a legendary Route 66 town, welcoming multitudes of visitors from around the world every year. And, seriously, when you drive through the town it feels like you've been transported back in time. Seligman's Main Street is lined with historic locally-owned businesses that, against all odds, have withstood the test of time. Many Route 66'ers claim Seligman is a major culinary highlight along the route as well. It's eclectic, quirky personality shines through from Delgadillos Snow Cap Drive-in to the Historic Route 66 General Store, and the ridiculously quirky Rusty Bolt store.
Of course, no trip through the Wild West is complete without visiting at least one ghost town, and Route 66 offers a few opportunities. But, the best is arguably Oatman, Arizona, which 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 the Dollar Bill Bar are must-visits when passing through.
If you're looking to go full kitsch, then you don't want to miss out on spending the night in a Wigwam Village. Once scattered across the country, today only several villages remain to offer guests the pure fun of staying in a teepee-shaped motel room. There's two along Route 66: Wigwam Village Motel No. 6 in Holbrook, AZ, and Wigwam Village #7 Motel in Rialto, CA.
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. It’s the perfect spot to stretch your legs after your journey, or to snap a couple pictures of the ocean before embarking on a 2,000+ mile trip back 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 means you'll come across some crowds along the route. In addition, July and August is considered high season, so you're going to be paying higher rates for lodging.