Route 66: America's Main Street
Chicago to Santa Monica
Est Driving Time21-25 days
Leg 1 Chicago to St. Louis
Est Driving Time5 hrs, 30 mins
Before you so much as look for the exit from the city, get your fill of Chicago and everything it has on the menu. It’s one of the biggest cities in the US, and has a rich history and culture that should not be skipped. Try to catch a ball game at Wrigley Field to get in the spirit of a true Chicagoan, take your pick of the smaller (but free) Lincoln Park Zoo or the larger Brookfield Zoo, and see as many museums as you have time for, such as the highly rated Art Institute of Chicago, the Chicago History Museum or the Museum of Contemporary Art. Catch the Windy City on a nice day and spend it roaming the fair ground that is the Navy Pier, as well as Grant Park. Of course, to get a view of it all from above, make your way up the 94 floors (the elevators work just fine) of 360 Chicago - the building formerly known as the John Hancock Observatory. While you’re up there, turn to the southwest and see how far the eye can reach - you’ll be spending the next few weeks driving Route 66 in that direction until you reach the Pacific Ocean!
When you leave Chicago, take the Interstate 55 (I-55), to the southwest.
The old route includes plenty of cheesy-but-great ‘giant men’, the first of which is the Gemini Giant. You’ll have to take a quick detour off the I-55 for a snap of this Space Age Muffler Man who’s a relic of the Launching Pad Drive-In from 1965. Known as the Gemini Giant, he’s dressed and ready for space, and is even holding his own rocket. And before you make it to the town of Lincoln (the first in the US to be named after Abraham Lincoln), you’ll come across another Muffler Man on Arch Street in Atlanta, IL. This one is holding a giant hot dog, and is known as ‘The Bunyon’. Photos with both of these giants are a must for any Route 66 photo album (or Instagram account)!
The Cozy Dog Drive-in slogan reads: “Try em’, you’ll like em’!” - and it doesn’t get much more accurate than that. Of all the eateries on Route 66, this is one of the most famous. That’s because this is the initial birthplace of the corn dog, one of America’s most beloved fast foods. You can find these treats all over the country at state fairs, but there’s only one place you can try the original.
Continue south down the I-55 at a pace slow enough to work up an appetite for your next stop at the Ariston Cafe. Many (including the cafe owners) will tell you that the Ariston Cafe is one of the oldest, if not the oldest, restaurant on the entire route. It has been around since 1924 and has inhabited its current spot since 1935, although it wasn’t until 1992 that it was inducted into the Route 66 Hall of Fame. These days, you can devour up a tasty lunch, take a few snaps of you in this historic location, and purchase some souvenirs from the small store on-site.
Have you ever wondered where you might find the World’s Largest Catsup Bottle? Whether you were wondering or not, it’s on old Route 66 (further down the I-55) almost at St. Louis. The bottle stands tall at 170 feet, and is actually an old water tower built back in 1949. It was once saved from demolition and is now a solid American icon and holds a spot on the National Register of Historic Places.
Just 10 minutes from the Catsup Bottle is the Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site. Back in 1250, this site was so heavily populated that it had more people than London during the same time period, and today you can still see the remains of this extremely sophisticated native civilisation. Here, on the 2,200 acres you’ll find dozens of ancient mounds, including Monks Mound, which is the largest pre-Columbian earthworks in the Americas. The mounds were believed to be used for everything from temples to public gathering spaces, and the sheer size and quantity of those found on the Cahokia site would have taken thousands of people many years to build. One study suggests that the Monks Mound alone took countless builders at least 20 years to complete (although it was originally thought that this 10-storey structure took closer to 250 years).
Keep following the I-55, and you’ll arrive in St. Louis in no time.
Leg 2 St. Louis to Tulsa
Est Driving Time6 hrs
St. Louis is one of the major cities found along the bank of the Missouri River, and along Route 66. Perhaps its most iconic attraction is the massive 630-foot Gateway Arch that can be seen from all over the city. It represents St. Louis’ role as a gateway to the west, but the best part is that you can take a ride to the top within the arch and see as far as 30 miles out on a clear day. Thrillseekers and families will love the Six Flags Theme Park in town, which is packed full of rides for the daring. Then there is Forest Park, once home to the World’s Fair and now one of the biggest urban parks in the US and a magnet for as many as 13 million visitors every year. And of course, it wouldn’t be Route 66 without some sort of delicious treat, so make your way to the 80-year-old Ted Drewes Frozen Custard shop for some of the tastiest frozen desserts on America’s Main Street.
When you leave St. Louis, you will no longer be travelling on the Interstate 55. This time, turn your motorhome’s wheels to the I-44 and head towards one of the biggest attractions of of the entire trip.
Missouri is known as the cave state, and the largest caves in the country are found just off the old Route 66 when you take a left at Stanton - the Meramec Caverns. They have been called the oldest attraction on Route 66, as they are believed to have been around for some 400 million years. There are 4.6 miles of caves in this system across seven levels, and you can see about a quarter of it on a guided tour. According to some stories, this is where infamous American outlaw and bank robber Jesse James and his gang would hide out to evade authorities. As well as a tour through the caves, you can also hire a canoe to float down the scenic Meramec River for a scenic and relaxing experience that will give you a whole new perspective on the surrounding landscape. Plus, you can stay at the on-site campground and enjoy a meal at the restaurant before continuing on.
The town of Rolla is a little further down the I-44, and is home to a number of Route 66 attractions. Take a step back in time at the Old Towne Antiques store and restaurant, or pick up a bargain at the Rolla Antique Mall, which is a bit like a flea market for collectibles and memorabilia - much of which is related to Route 66. Similarly, the Mule Trading Post also specialises in antiques and souvenirs. If you’re travelling with kids, set aside a morning or afternoon for a stop at Kokomo Joe’s Family Fun Center, where you can play mini golf, drive bumper cars, play in the arcade or work up a sweat in the laser tag arena.
For most of the attractions on Route 66, you’ll have to leave the comforts of your motorhome to take a look around. At the Wild Animal Safari, however, you get to stay right where you are! This experience is an animal park featuring 70 species such as giraffe, baboons, bison and timber wolf, but rather than viewing them in enclosed areas, this park allows the animals to live in a natural habitat. You can therefore either drive through in your own vehicle, or take the optional free tour bus for a closer look. Note that extreme heat or cold do cause the park to shut down, so double check the website before you go if you’re travelling in mid-summer or winter.
The wonderful thing about Route 66 is that some of the attractions are older than the road itself, while others are still popping up along the way. Such is the case with the Mural Park in Joplin. The park was only dedicated in 2014, but has already become a popular photo spot with road trippers. Located near the corner of Seventh and Main (where two major routes of Route 66 intersect), the park includes one half of a 1964 Corvette embedded a wall, as well as old-style murals. It’s also got a large blue neon backlit ‘Route 66’ shield, and an old-school rpm record. Much of Joplin’s history and growth can be attributed to its position along the road, so these murals are a tribute to that past and an investment in the future as new travellers discover the town.
The Route 66 Vintage Iron Motorcycle Museum is a mix of all the things there are to love about America’s Main Street. It’s a throwback to older times with vintage vehicles in pristine condition, featuring beautiful old machines that you can just imagine out on the road eating up the miles. As well as motorbikes, the museum is home to memorabilia from the heyday of Route 66, and you can pick up more souvenirs - particularly vintage motorcycle gear - from the gift shop on site.
By now, you’ll be coming to realise that you can always expect the unexpected on Route 66. This is the only way to explain how the massive Blue Whale came to be one of the most recognisable attractions along the road. Only a little northeast of Tulsa is the Blue Whale in Catoosa - the lasting remains of an animal-themed tourist attraction from the 70s. While the park itself was left to decay years ago, the massive whale has been restored to its former glory, and now awaits to grace Route 66 photo albums everywhere.
Leg 3 Tulsa to Amarillo
Est Driving Time5 hrs, 30 mins
Tulsa, Oklahoma is a hive of activity, with both contemporary attractions and throwbacks from Route 66’s rich past. It blossomed in the 20s and 30s during the oil boom, and much of the architecture and designs from that time remain to this day. To focus on attractions related to this strip of road through America, start with a visit to the Route 66 Village on Southwest Boulevard, which is an open-air museum that makes you feel like you’ve taken a step back in time to see the town in its former glory. Cain’s Ballroom has been around since 1924, and while it was once a dime-a-dance hall, it’s now a historic, premiere performance venue. The Tulsa Art Deco Museum is worth visiting just to see the structure itself, but what’s inside includes much more from this bygone era.
Leaving Tulsa, continue following the Interstate 44 on to Oklahoma City.
Oklahoma City is the biggest town along this leg, and it’s also something of a treasure trove for Route 66 fans. The town is known as a cowboy capital, so the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum is a must for old-school history buffs with more than 28,000 Western and American Indian artifacts and artworks. The Oklahoma City National Memorial is an emotional tribute to the city’s bombing in 1995 that changed the city forever. As for specific Route 66 attractions, the Milk Bottle Grocery is one of the most famous, with its massive milk bottle atop a tiny red brick building. The Tower Theatre closed down in 1989, but as part of a Route 66 Preservation Project, the venue is set to reopen for public use in 2016 while still keeping its retro facade and atmosphere. And it’s hard to miss Ann’s Chicken Fry House, with its pink Cadillac parked outside and 50s theme inside.
When you drive away from Oklahoma City, you’ll be saying goodbye to the I-44 and continuing on the I-40 towards El Reno to the west.
While El Reno has some great antique stores as a nod to Route 66 among other attractions, there’s really only one thing the town is famous for - hamburgers. On the first Saturday of each May, the city puts on the Fried Onion Burger Day Festival (it’s a thing), and cooks up a ginormous burger that weighs 750 pounds. There’s only so much burger a person can handle, however, so the festival also includes a car show, a craft show, and live entertainment. If you’re in town throughout the rest of the year, don’t drive through without stopping at one of the burger joints that sits on Route 66 and helps give the town its reputation. Sid’s Diner, Robert’s Grill, and Johnnie’s Grill have all been around for decades, each offering the fried onion burgers the town is known for.
Foss is a town that isn’t really a town. It once boasted a population of more than 500 people, but after the building of the I-40 bypassed the town, it quickly dwindled away. Slowly, the inhabitants of Foss packed up and left, leaving empty shells of houses throughout the town. Today, it’s a fascinating ‘ghost town’, an eerie place where you can wander around the ruins. The only places left standing are the old church that was built in 1894, and the prison.
Elk City in Oklahoma is roughly half way along Route 66 - the perfect place to check out the National Route 66 & Transportation Museum. The museum is like a Route 66 in miniature, as it takes you through the entire road trip of eight states, complete with information about attractions and history along the way. You can cruise down the route in a pink Cadillac from the 50s, or watch a drive-in black and white movie whilst sitting in a classic Chevy Impala. It wouldn’t be a Route 66 attraction without something ‘giant’, so don’t forget to grab a photo with the two-storey kachina doll, Myrtle, out the front of the museum. Also on site are the Old Town Museum with artifacts from early pioneer life, the Farm & Ranch Museum, and the Blacksmith Museum.
The Palo Duro Canyon State Park is only 30 minutes south of Amarillo, but it’s the perfect last stop on this leg of the trip. They call it the ‘Grand Canyon of Texas’, but while it might look similar, the Palo Duro Canyon has many attributes that makes it special all on its own. Humans have lived in the canyon for an estimated 12,000 years, and in that time, it was a hunting ground for large animals such as giant bison and mammoth. At 120 miles long, it’s a little under half the length of the Grand Canyon, but this 20-mile wide and 800-feet deep canyon is still sizable. Its name translates as ‘hard wood’ in Spanish, and today you can visit the park for camping, hiking, and biking - as well as sightseeing.
Leg 4 Amarillo to Gallup
Est Driving Time6 hrs, 30 mins
The Texan city of Amarillo is known as the ‘Yellow Rose of Texas’ and is famed for its ranches, steaks, and spot on Route 66. You can’t pass through Texas without dining on a steak, and when on Route 66, there’s no better place than the aptly named Big Texan Steak Ranch. This eatery has served up 72oz steaks for road trippers since 1960, and has even been voted as the best steak house in the state. Another iconic destination in Amarillo is the Cadillac Ranch, which isn’t a ranch at all, but an outdoor art exhibition that dates back to 1974. The story goes that the ranch is the brainchild of artistic hippies and a local billionaire who wanted to confuse the locals. The result was a series of cadillacs planted hood first in the dirt, each of which is now almost unrecognisable as they have been painted and tagged with spray paint by thousands of passing motorists on the Mother Road. Another Amarillo attraction is particularly fitting for anyone travelling Route 66 in a motorhome - the Jack Sisemore Traveland RV Museum. It’s an ode to all old forms of transport, but the RVs are especially fascinating! Before you leave, be sure to cruise down the historic Sixth Street district, where 13 blocks of the town have kept their Route 66 memorabilia including service stations, architecture, and road signs.
Tucumcari is a small town along Route 66, but it has a few points of interest for any Mother Road traveller. One of the highlights is the Mesalands Community College Dinosaur Museum that houses the world’s largest collection of full-scale bronze dinosaur skeletons - all of which were cast in the local foundry. Tucumcari is also where you’ll find the New Mexico Route 66 Museum, which is a display of the 604 miles of the road trip that pass through the state. Then there countless photo ops around the town, from the new Monument to the Mother Road, to the countless old road signs and motel signs along the main strip.
When you reach Santa Rosa, turn off the main road and follow the signs to the Blue Hole. This natural swimming hole appears out of nowhere like a mirage, and its crystalline clear water is a feast for the eyes as much as its cool depths are a refreshing balm for the body. It was once a fishery before becoming a recreation area, and now serves a dual purpose as a diving training spot and a swimming location for visitors. The water remains at a constant 62 degrees and is constantly refilling itself (every six hours) with fresh water from a vast underground system.
Back in 1934, a man named Roy Cline decided that the intersection between Highways 6 and 2 needed some sort of store. So he built one - a dual purpose fuel station and cafe. Four years later, he would do it again when the highway moved north a little and was renamed Route 66 and US25. And thus history was made. Cline’s Corners is now a massive space with a retail shop stocked every kind of Route 66 souvenir you can imagine, a restaurant, and a refueling station. The retail store - ‘The Curio Shop’ - is in fact New Mexico’s largest gift store!
Further along the I-40 is the fantastic Wildlife West Nature Park. All the animals that live here were rescued from trauma that often stems from human interaction. There are many types of animals here, and as well as seeing them and learning more about each one, you can also spend a day volunteering to help these creatures. It’s a great activity for the kids, and a wonderful way to give back during your Route 66 road trip.
After the Wildlife West Nature Park, you’ll drive through Albuquerque. It’s a good place to stop and stock up on supplies, and there are countless neon Route 66 signs scattered along the main street. Take a break here if you need it, then continue on the I-40 towards Gallup.
The small town of Gallup is part of the Route 66 system, but biggest drawcard in this area is easily the natural landscape. Head straight for Red Rock Park, where massive red cliffs tower on all sides, each of which was formed more than 200 million years ago. At various times of the year, the park is a place of festivals and performances, including the annual Lions Club Rodeo and Red Rock Balloon Festival. For the rest of the year, however, it’s a beautiful campground for travellers along Route 66. Stop here for scenic hiking amongst these ancient cliffs and try to time your visit with one of the many live shows in its 5,000-seat arena.
Leg 5 Gallup to Kingman
Est Driving Time7 hrs, 30 mins
Not long after you cross the border between New Mexico and Arizona, you can discover the otherworldly Petrified Forest National Park. The park is the result of more than 10,000 years of human history on top of millions of years of natural history. It’s a place where dinosaurs once lived, and despite its desert-like appearance today, was once a land covered in lush green forests. When volcanoes erupted and covered everything with ash sediment, the trees and all that lived among them them were entombed. Over time they became petrified, and now fossils are still being discovered from this ancient time. As well as these fascinating petrified logs, you can see a section of the Painted Desert not far from the forest, which is a spectacular creation of nature that looks a little like a layered cake - only it’s made of various shades of coloured rock. You can easily spend hours wandering the trails around the Petrified Forest and Painted Desert, so give yourself plenty of time to explore.
The Jack Rabbit Trading Post is one of those relics from Route 66 that has turned itself into a must-see attraction. It’s roughly five miles west of Joseph City in Arizona, just off the I-40 when you turn off on Exit 269. It’s a convenience store and curio shop that’s been serving Route 66 travellers since 1949, and the massive fibreglass jackrabbit is another photo opportunity for the young and young at heart alike.
Of all the meteor craters in the world, the one just off the I-40 near Winslow is the best preserved. This astounding crater is almost a mile across, and is more than 550 feet deep. It’s the unbelievable result of what happens when an asteroid travelling 26,000 miles per hour hits the ground - an event that occurred approximately 50,000 years ago. You can either hike the trails around the crater or stick to the indoor Interactive Discovery Center to watch a 3D animation of the impact and pick up a souvenir from the gift shop.
The Grand Canyon. It’s not just one of the biggest draw cards on Route 66, but one of the biggest attractions in all of the US. You will have to take a detour from the main route onto AZ64 and head north for an hour to reach the site, but it’s absolutely worth the trip. Approximately five million people visit this national park every year to see the immense 277-mile long, 18-mile wide and mile-deep canyon that’s a mecca for hikers, sightseers, and travellers everywhere. Archeologists have found thousands of resources within the park, as well as evidence of a dozen different cultural groups living within the park over the 12,000-year course of human history. There are several campsites and RV grounds located at the park, as well as amenities such as a small grocery store, so you can easily park up and spend a few days exploring this icon’s splendour.
A lesser known archeological site is the Grand Canyon Caverns, located off the I-40 but on Route 66 after you turn off at Seligman. These caverns are one of the original natural attractions on the Mother Road, and they are the largest dry caverns in the US. They’re found 200-300 feet under the ground, but you can get to them for a tour with an exploration elevator. A special opportunity awaits those looking for a new type of accommodation with the chance to spend the night in the “oldest, darkest, deepest, quietest, and largest suite room in the world” - the Cavern Suite. You can stay in this massive, ancient room, and see what it’s like to sleep in total darkness and silence underground! A new cave tour has opened in early 2016 (the first new tour since 1927) in a newly discovered section of the caves, so there’s plenty to see!
Leg 6 Kingman to Santa Monica
Est Driving Time5 hrs
Kingman, Arizona calls itself ‘The Heart of Historic Route 66’. It’s home to the Powerhouse - Arizona’s state Route 66 Museum - as well as the Mohave Museum of History and Arts. For spirit-lovers, the Desert Diamond Distillery is where you can taste hand crafted agave rums, and other craft rums and vodkas. For a beautiful campsite to spend a night or two, the Hualapai Mountain Park is just 30 minutes southeast of the township. The park is ideal for hiking, and it’s a good place to spot the local wildlife, too.
Rather than getting back onto the I-40, stick to the historic road that follows Route 66. This will take you past the iconic Cool Springs Station, a restored vintage gas station and gift shop. Interestingly, the building had fallen into disuse and disrepair in 1964, and was then featured in the Jean-Claude van Damme movie ‘Universal Soldier’ in 1991 - when it was blown up. The loving restoration of the station has once again turned it into a worthy stop on Route 66 where you can view the relics of the time and peruse the gifts in store.
Continue down the road to Oatman, an old gold mining town where the main street is still part of Route 66. The road once helped fuel the town’s growth, but after the I-40 was installed to tour south of the city, the travellers and their money disappeared. Today, it’s still part of the original route, which is why many road trippers prefer to take the old road rather than the new. That said, prepare for a road that isn’t as well maintained as the more modern interstate. The town will give you a sense of what the old wild west was really like, but the main attraction is easily the wild burros. Back in the day when oatman was a thriving mining town, miners would use burros (small donkeys) to haul supplies. When the road moved and the mining stopped, the resident burros were set free - which is why there are still many burros in the area that will come scavenging for food as soon as you arrive. The other attraction is the ‘real’ wild west shoot outs in the streets. Performed by actors, these cowboys put on a staged show several times a day over weekends, and will pass around a hat for charity after each one.
Once you reach the town of Needles (stop at the Wagon Wheel Restaurant for some fine Route 66 style dining), you will rejoin the I-40, heading west to Barstow. Barstow has its own Route 66 attractions such as the Mother Road Museum and the El Rancho Motel. From here, you’ll leave the I-40 behind and follow the I-15, heading southwest.
San Bernardino, California has the title of the 100th-largest city in the US, and is also home to a historic site that anyone will recognise - the very first McDonald’s restaurant. It’s no longer functioning as an eatery, but the site has been converted into a McDonald’s history museum that even those who don’t care for the burgers will find interesting. It includes various items related to Route 66 as a nod to its special location, as well as countless items laid out in chronological order that will take you right back to the beginning of this international brand.
Finally, follow the I-10 for the final couple of hours through Los Angeles and on to Santa Monica, the final stopping point on your epic Route 66 road trip. Take this opportunity to stretch those legs and cycle the bike path that takes you from Temescal Canyon to Washington Boulevard , passing underneath the Santa Monica Pier along its 8.5-mile route. The Santa Monica Pier is more than 100 years old, and has been a huge attraction for visitors before, during and after Route 66. In 1996, an amusement area called Pacific Park was added to the pier, bringing rides, concerts and eateries to the attraction. Take a walk along Venice Beach, stroll through the shops on the Third Street Promenade, and be sure to take one final photo at the brass plaque at the end of Santa Monica Boulevard where it meets Ocean Avenue, as this is the official end of Route 66, the Main Street of America.
America’s Main Street is one of history, nostalgia, and memories still to be made. The drive from Chicago to Santa Monica takes you through eight states and across three time zones, stopping at countless iconic cafes and restaurants, attractions and natural features along the way. It’s a bucket list item for both Americans and international visitors alike, and is one that is best seen from behind the massive windows of an RV for the ultimate in freedom and comfort.
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