If you've driven along Old Route 66, then a lot of the driving you're doing will be along present-day Interstate 40. Connecting Barstow, CA to Wilmington, NC, much of the Western portion overlaps what was once the Mother Road. These days, it's part of a much larger highway that connects the western half of the country with the eastern half, via Arizona, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Arkansas and Tennessee. Passing through major cities like Flagstaff, Albuquerque, Oklahoma City Little Rock, Memphis, and Nashville, it's a great route to take when touring some of the interesting spots across the South as well. With that, here are some of the coolest, must-see stops along I-40!
Barstow is a small town that oozes kitschy Old Route 66 vibes! Spend some time exploring the town's Route 66 'Mother Road' Museum or the Western American Rail Road Museum, or stock up on snacks and souvenirs at Barstow Station, a massive rest stop.
36600 Ghost Town Road, Yermo, CA, US
Ghost towns are dotted all across the west, and Calico is one of the cutest! It's been super well-preserved, and is now more of a tourist attraction than an authentic historic stop, but with the museums, shops, restaurants, train rides, and restored buildings, it's a fun little stop with tons to do. There's even a campground here, if you're looking for a place to stay the night!
90942 Kelso Cima Rd, Barstow, CA, US
For a taste of the authentic desert landscape you've been driving through on I-40, stop at the Mojave National Preserve. Scrubby plants, multicolored rocks and stark, stony earth provide a unique view. The Mojave is especially breathtaking at sunset and sunrise, and if you plan on hiking here, remember to be careful of the heat and lack of shade!
Old Route 66, Golden Valley, AZ, US
Don't expect to top off your tank here (the gas pumps, while beautifully restored, don't actually work) but make a pit stop at Cool Springs Gas Station because it's an authentic Route 66 icon. There's a museum and souvenir shop inside the building, and it's touching to see how much time and effort was put into restoring this once-abandoned gem of the Mother Road!
Surrounded by National Forests and designated Wilderness areas, Flagstaff is an oasis of natural beauty that can give you the comforts of a big city. Check out the Museum of Northern Arizona during the day and the Lowell Observatory come nightfall. Grab dinner at Diablo Burger if you're craving fresh food as a respite from all the fast food you normally eat on road trips. And, if you're in search of hotels in Flagstaff, the city provides tons of options. The Little America Hotel in Flagstaff features a gorgeous setting in a pine forest, and the Starlight Pines Bed and Breakfast will make you feel like royalty with the clawfoot tubs, private balconies, delicious breakfasts and comfy beds.
I 40 Exit 233, Winslow, AZ, US
Just outside Flagstaff is one of the weirdest attractions in the west: Meteor Crater. The impact crater formed from a meteor that hit Earth thousands of years ago is unbelievably massive-- and the mile-wide hole in the ground is topped with a visitor center that features a museum, videos, and a killer observation deck.
PO Box 2217 or 1 Park Road, AZ, US
Like Old Route 66, I-40 cuts right through Petrified Forest National Park. And while it might be the smallest National Park, it features loads of impressive hikes, scenic viewpoints, and attractions that highlight the stands of glittering petrified wood (basically, old trees that have been fossilized) for which the park is named. Explore the Rainbow Forest, the Crystal Forest, and the Agate House, or hike the Blue Mesa Trail for views of the Painted Desert.
E Aztec Ave, Gallup, NM, US
Stepping into Hotel El Rancho is like stepping back in time to the 1930's, when Route 66 first started to gain popularity. The lobby is all Southwestern motifs and native stone and wood, and the rooms are just as vintage. Even if you don't stay the night, grab some enchiladas and a drink at the bar and soak up the history.
Eventually, I-40 will take you to Albuquerque. Famous for its balloon festival and association with the cult TV show "Breaking Bad", this town has loads of artsy Southwestern charm. Visit the National Museum of Nuclear Science and History, grab a bite to eat at Perea's New Mexican Restaurant, and tuck in for the night at the Nativo Lodge... or just drive past Walter White's house on your way through! As for hotels in Albuquerque, there are some cool options. Hotel Parq Central is an old hospital turned sleek hotel, Hotel Cascada has a waterpark onsite, and the Casas de Suenos let you rent your own private cottage right in Old Town!
Route 66, Santa Rosa, NM, US
If you're looking for a place to cool off while driving through the desert, then you won't find a better spot than the Blue Hole of Santa Rosa. The crystal-clear and deeply blue water is super cool and refreshing. Jump off the rocks into the pool, scuba dive to the bottom, or just dip your toes in and soak up the natural beauty of the setting!
924 E Tucumcari Blvd, Tucumcari, NM, US
The whole town of Tucumcari is pure retro bliss, but the crown jewel of the community might be Tee Pee Curios. The sign, decor, and building (with its concrete teepee out front) ooze an authentic 1950's aesthetic, and if you stop inside, you'll find a collection of souvenirs that range from kitschy to certified American Indian crafts. Take pictures of the vintage neon around town and support Tucumcari's comeback-- ever since Route 66 went defunct, the once-bustling town has begun to slip into obscurity.
Interstate 40 Frontage Road, Amarillo, TX, US
Amarillo, TX is home to the iconic folk art attraction known as Cadillac Ranch. Proposed by 3 artists who called themselves the “Ant Farm” (Hudson Marquez, Chip Lord, and Doug Michels) and financed by an eccentric millionaire named Stanley Marsh 3 (He thought using Roman numerals was too pretentious), Cadillac Ranch went along relatively unnoticed for a few years. Slowly, the Caddies became quite the roadside attraction, and they're meant to be spray painted with graffiti from those who have stopped by. Bring a can of paint to leave your mark (and a trash bag to clean up after those who have left empties littered around the attraction).
Welcome to Amarillo, TX! This town in Texas's panhandle is a great place to experience the Lone Star State, since I-40 only passes through a small portion of it. Home to the kitschy Big Texan Steak Ranch and authentic Tyler's BBQ, it's got some good eats. You'll also find the vintage Wonderland Amusement Park, the Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum here! There are some great hotels in Amarillo, too. The Courtyard in Downtown Amarillo is in a historic building with a great location, and the Ashmore Inn and Suites is incredibly relaxing, with a nice pool and gazebos where you can watch the sun set!
11450 Park Road 5, Canyon, TX, US
Palo Duro Canyon State Park is a beautiful place to stretch your legs. There are several trails that traverse the bottom of the canyon and take you to the top for more lovely views. The camping in the canyon is excellent as well... and the stargazing is unbeatable!
101 E. 12th Street, Shamrock, TX, US
Another major icon from the glory days of Route 66, the Tower Station Conoco and U-Drop Inn are probably recognizable to most because they inspired some scenes from Disney's "Cars." The stunning Art Deco architecture make it one of the prettiest (former) gas stations in the country, and it's nice to see that the building is being restored and converted!
3000 Logan Road, Weatherford, OK, US
From a recreation of the Wright Brothers glider to an F-4 Phantom to spacesuits that were worn by astronauts in flight, the Stafford Air and Space Museum does a great job of covering the history of air and space flight. They have 3,500 artifacts and objects on display, including a very impressive display on the US's nuclear missiles, complete with a Titan II rocket.
Oklahoma City is the next major urban center along I-40. Home to awesomely offbeat attractions like the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum, the Museum of Osteology, and the American Banjo Museum, along with an aquarium, a zoo, a science museum, an art museum, a history museum, and tons more, it's a rich city bursting with things to see and do. Hit up Ann's Chicken Fry House or Tucker's for an onion burger and tuck in for the night at OKC's boutique hotel, The Colcord.
South side of Broadway between 3rd and 4th St, Okemah, OK, US
Woody Guthrie was a massively influential folk artist from Okemah, OK. Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Johnny Cash and tons more drew inspiration from Guthrie's huge catalogue of songs, many of which were based on his experiences during the Dust Bowl of the 1930's, which harshened the blow of the Great Depression in Oklahoma especially. Today, a small park stands in Okemah with a statue and memorial plaque dedicated to Woody Guthrie. It's a small stop, but it's a good place to take a break... and maybe make a new playlist for the next leg of your journey.
301 Parker Avenue, Fort Smith, AR, US
As you continue along I-40, you'll make your way into Arkansas. Stop at the Fort Smith National Historic Site for a look into the state's past. The fort was established in 1817, right as the country began to move West, which means that this fort saw a lot: outlaws, clashes with Native Americans, the Trail of Tears, settlers struggling to tame the West, and more. Tour the old buildings and the visitor center, which houses a museum with artifacts that tell the story of Fort Smith.
11901 Pinnacle Valley Rd., Roland, AR, US
Get out of the car and breathe in the fresh air on a hike at Pinnacle Mountain State Park. The views from the top of the mountain are utterly breathtaking, and the trail up is a fun hike. There are also some great swimming spots, and the park's visitor center is a great stop offering lovely views as well.
North Little Rock, Arkansas, United States
Home to historic sites like the Old State House Museum, Little Rock Central High School, and the Arkansas Arts Center, Little Rock is a town rich with culture. If you can, stop for a bite at Doe's Eat Place or stretch your legs at T.R. Pugh Memorial Park!
West Memphis, Arkansas, United States
Right on the border of Arkansas and Tennessee lies the soul-filled city of Memphis. Check out one of their countless renowned BBQ joints, soak up some like blues music on Beale Street, and, of course, pay tribute to The King at Graceland!
1 Mindfield Alley, Brownsville, TN, US
This detour will take you off the highway and into the middle of nowhere, but it's worth it to check out this folk art display. It takes up an acre, and the highest point on it reaches 125 feet, making it the largest outdoor sculpture in Tennessee. Tripp, the mastermind behind the installation, says that it is inspired by his life and his emotions, and that he intends to be buried within it when he dies. Until then, he'll keep adding on to it as inspiration moves him!
44 Hurricane Mills Rd, Hurricane Mills, TN, US
Even if you aren't a country music fan, you have to admire singer Loretta Lynn. A groundbreaking female artist who wrote and sang brutally honest songs, often about controversial topics like birth control and the Vietnam War. This museum is located on her ranch is shows off her personal collection of memorabilia and mementos from her life and from the lives of her friends.
I-40 then rolls into Nashville. Known for its Southern charm and country music scene, this city is known for its awesome dining (check out Prince's or Hattie B's for some hot chicken), honky-tonk nightlight (Broadway Street after dark is always fun) and great live music (head to the Grand Ole Opry or the Bluebird Cafe).
1081 Cummins Mill Road, Cookeville, TN, US
On your way out of Nashville, stop off at Cummins Falls State Park for some fresh air. Hike to the bottom of the park's Cummins Falls, and if you brought towels and a bathing suit, you can even swim in the stream; the pools here have been listed among the best in the country!
1 Bethel Valley Rd, Oak Ridge, TN, US
And for a fascinating look at a little-known slice of history, head to Oak Ridge, TN. Sounds like a charming country town, right? That's exactly what government employees thought too-- that's why they voted to bestow the name on the town, which was founded by the military in 1942 to be a main base of operations for the Manhattan Project, the WWII-era R&D project which gave us the first nuclear weapons. You really can't make this up.
The secluded and defensible yet easily accessed area, plus the tiny population, made the Eastern Tennessee region perfect for the project. In addition to the K-25, S-50, and Y-12 plants, where uranium was enriched, there was also the Oak Ridge National Laboratory (formerly the X-10 test graphite reactor) and a good-sized town to house the thousands of workers. It had libraries, schools, restaurants, theaters, churches, houses, apartment buildings... the works, all meticulously planned by the US Army Engineer Corps to be as inconspicuous as possible. The kicker? Most of the plant workers had no clue what they were building, and didn't find out until America dropped the nuclear bomb on Japan in 1945. Two years after the war ended, the government handed over control of the town to the citizens.
Still don't believe the story? You can actually visit some of these sites and see for yourself what was actually going on in the so-called "Atomic City". The Department of Energy has teamed up with the American Museum of Science and Energy to put on a bus tour to some of the coolest declassified sites in Oak Ridge. The tour, which runs almost daily between June and August, starts at the American Museum of Science and Energy, and then heads to the New Hope Visitors' Center at Y-12, and the graphite reactor at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, where you get to view the world's oldest nuclear reactor. After that, the tour drives past the Spallation Neutron Source and the East Tennessee Technology Park (formerly K-25) before heading back to the museum. Along the way, you'll get extra insight on the town and the Manhattan Project... because seriously, it's incredibly fascinating, right?
16 Fie Top Rd, Maggie Valley, NC, US
Ghost Town in the Sky, an "Old West" theme park located in Maggie Valley, is one of the country's most unique amusement parks not just because of its unique brand of kitsch, but because it's located on the top of a mountain. In fact, the only way guests can even reach the park is via a 3,370-foot-long chair lift. Awesome. Opened in 1961 and often referred to as "North Carolina's Mile-High Theme Park", Ghost Town in the Sky is modeled after the classic Old-West town, complete with two saloons (with can-can dancers!), a school, a Native American settlement, and a gold mine. Depending on where and when guests were in the park, they were treated to impromptu gun fights, gold-mine riots, and even "Indian Attacks" on settlements.
It was closed in the 2000s, but was promptly bought at auction and work began to re-open this kitschy, classic Americana attraction. Expect to find the recreation Wild West town functioning, and rides are slowly being added to their list of offerings!
via I-40 E
431 Main St, Highway 64/74A, Lake Lure, NC, US
If you prefer your mountain views free of ghost town kitsch, then stop off at Rumbling Bald's Chimney Rock State Park. Chimney Rock State Park's main attraction is the magnificent, 315-foot mountain formation that gives the park its name. The 25-minute hike to the top along the Outcroppings Trail (also known as the "Ultimate Stairmaster") contains 491 steps, but the effort is all worth it once you reach the peak, called Exclamation Point (so punny!), and take in the breathtaking views-- you can see 75 miles of pure Blue Ridge beauty. The rock also hides a secret 26-story elevator inside, in case you're not up for the hike but don't want to miss the scenery. And, movie buffs may recognize the landscape from the film adaptation of The Last of the Mohicans.
243 3rd Ave. NE, Hickory, NC, US
As you continue down I-40, you'll pass the quaint little town of Hickory, NC, home to the Hickory Museum of Art. This hidden gem is home to an impressive collection of American art, including displays of pieces from the Hudson River School, exhibits dedicated to modern Southern folk art, displays of art pottery, and tons more. It's definitely worth a browse... especially since admission is free!
via Gun Club Rd
413 S Main St., Kernersville, NC, US
Kernersville, NC is home to one of the quirkiest stops along the route: Korner's Folly.
The outside of Korner's Folly looks fairly standard, but it's nothing compared to the crazy interior within. You could peer out a window into another room, look up and find an old-school fresco, or find yourself in a staircase leading into a bedroom with 5-foot ceilings. The house, built between 1878 and 1880, is the work of Jules Gilmer Körner, a visionary interior designer, furniture maker, decorator and painter. The purpose of the building was to display his work and his ideas (like a real-life catalogue or portfolio)-- and Körner had a lot of ideas. So many, in fact, that no two doorways or windows are alike, plus there's 15 different fireplaces (!!) and all kinds of hidden surprises, like hidden cubbyholes, trapdoors, and a private theater-- one of the first in the country. On top of it, the whole place is lavishly decorated (the dude was an interior decorator after all), making it even more awesome.
Overall, the building has 22 rooms all decorated in a different style across 7 floors and is 3 stories tall (the levels of the house don't line up exactly right, adding to the fun)-- definitely impressive for the Victorian era. But how did this work of ingenuity get labeled a folly? It was a practical farmer neighbor of Körner’s who declared that "that house will surely be Jules Körner’s folly". Körner, having a sense of humor, decided to make it the official name of the house and had it tiled on the front porch. While the house is always being further and further restored, it remains a sight that has to be seen to be believed.
450 Skipper Bowles Dr, Chapel Hill, NC, US
Even if you aren't a basketball fan, and you didn't go to UNC, you should still visit the Carolina Basketball Museum. College basketball is a huge deal here in North Carolina, especially in Chapel Hill, and it's fun to see just how dedicated fans are to the Tar Heels. Explore the beautiful campus and check out some of the college's favorite hangout spots!
522 Taylor Town Rd., Faison, NC, US
Buckner Hill Plantation is one of the best-preserved and largest Greek Revival Antebellum plantation homes in North Carolina. It's open by appointment only, so give the owners a call and have them tour you through the historic buildings and around the grounds. It really is like stepping back in time!
110 West Fremont Street, Burgaw, NC, US
Specializing in breakfast, brunch, and lunch, Alley Cat is a local joint that serves up hearty diner food in an authentic environment. Fill up on staples like biscuits and gravy, grits, omelettes, coffee and more with the friendly locals and take a load off before the final leg of the journey.
I-40 ends in Wilmington, NC, near the Atlantic Ocean. Good thing, too, because Wilmington is a great vacation destination! Home to Wrightsville Beach, a lovely RiverWalk, parks, gardens, museums, and tons of beachy cafes, bistros, and eateries, you can easily spend a few days relaxing here and soaking up the coastal Carolina vibes!
There's no bad time to road trip I-40, and thankfully, snowy weather isn't too much of a concern, because the route is mostly pretty far south (although if it happens to snow, be prepared for the road to not be treated properly, as they're not used to dealing with snow and ice here.) Oklahoma sees its fair share of tornados, though, and never underestimate how hot it can get in the desert between Texas and California. Always bring plenty of water and make sure your car's AC is in good working condition!