A Route 66 road trip is one of the great road trips in America. Known as The Mother Road and the Main Street of America, Route 66 was the main thoroughfare through the United States for decades. This historic route runs from downtown Chicago, Illinois to Santa Monica, California, covering a total distance of about 2,400 miles (3,900 km). The Mother Road was one of the original highways within the U.S. Highway System and became an iconic symbol of American culture and cross-country road trips.
ultimate route 66 Road Trip Guide
Built in 1926, Route 66 was a road of dreams passing through eight states all the way to the west coast. John Steinbeck gave Route 66 its name “The Mother Road” in the Grapes of Wrath following the Joad family as they traveled west along Route 66 after being driven from their home. Along the way, they discovered that The Mother Road was crowded with other migrants. Read more about road trips at 25 Best Road Trips in the World
Dust Bowl, Depression, and War
During the Great Depression, Route 66 was filled with people dreaming of a better life in the West as they escaped the drought-stricken southern plains known as the Dust Bowl. Route 66 was a road of lost dreams but also hope as people drove to Santa Monica taking the shortest distance between Chicago and Los Angeles looking for a better future.
During World War II soldiers and military vehicles used this road extensively as it was the most direct route through the country from Chicago to Los Angeles.
Route 66 Hey Day
As the depression faded away, families flocked to Route 66 to take their summer vacations to see the Grand Canyon and other iconic sites in California and Arizona from the 1950s to the 1980s.
Soon the Mother Road became known as the Main Street of America filled with neon signs, gift shops, gas stations and fun memorabilia. Route 66 was a rip-roaring good time through the 50s to the 70s. In 1984 the last segment of the highway was decommissioned and the old route of Route 66 was no longer. People were now in a hurry driving the Interstates to their destinations.
Businesses along Route 66 closed and the historic buildings fell into ruin.
Where does Route 66 Start?
Starting in Chicago, Route 66 passes through eight states. The states of Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and ending California. There are plenty of things to see along the driving route as each section passes through several major cities and small-town America along the way.
The original starting point was downtown Chicago at Jackson Boulevard and Michigan Avenue in 1926. In 1933 it was changed to Jackson Boulevard and Lake Shore Drive along the shores of Lake Michigan.
Where Does Route 66 End?
The official ending point of Route 66 is at Lincoln and Olympic Boulevards in Santa Monica. Highway 1 ends at these boulevards therefore, that is where the route officially ends. Santa Monica Pier is just a mile away and the official End of Trail sign was erected here in 2009 to commemorate the spiritual ending of route 66. I mean who wouldn’t want to go all the way to the Pacific Ocean right when driving route 66 right?
Since that sign was erected, Santa Monica erected official signs at Olympic and Lincoln Boulevards making it another fun place to go before heading to Santa Monica Pier for fun and festivities.
Things To See On Route 66
If you aren’t planning on driving the entire old route 66 to Santa Monica Pier on the Pacific Ocean, we have broken down the best things to see along the Mother Road by section.
Car rentals can be booked one way if you don’t have your own. So there is no excuse not to drive this historic highway if you find yourself in America. (Or at least a portion or two). Since it spans across America, there’s a good chance you will be somewhere close to Route 66 during your United States travels.
1. Route 66 Illinois
Route 66 begins in downtown Chicago at Lake Michigan and there is a sign indicating the original historic route begins at the corner of West Adams Street and Michigan Ave where 78-98 E Adams St, Chicago, IL 60603, United States.
If you are driving the other way, you’ll find the Route 66, Historic Route Ends sign at the corner of Jackson Boulevard and Lake Shore Drive.
While in Chicago there are plenty of things to see and do, and we suggest spending at least 2 days in the city before starting your drive along route 66. Make sure to go to Navy Pier so that you can say your Route 66 trip went from Pier to Pier. Navy Pier to Santa Monica Pier offers the ultimate bragging rights. Who wouldn’t wan to drive from Lake Michigan and drove all the way to the Pacific Ocean. Read more at: 21 of the Best Things to Do in Chicago
Things to See on Route 66 in Illinois
You can’t miss visiting the capital of Illinoise Springfield and there are plenty of historic sites to see in this city. So make a a day of it.
Springfield Illinois is also where you’ll find the home of Abraham Lincoln that has been restored. It is also free to enter and you can visit the Lincoln Tomb, Abraham Lincoln’s final resting place. Don’t forget to stop in to see the Capitol Building in Springfield.
The Cozy Dog Drive In is also located in Springfield Illinois a route 66 icon that has been in operation since 1949. It’s home to the original hot dog on a stick.
Illinois is also home to 3 muffler men statues. On your route make sure to stop in Wilmington, Atlanta and yes, Springfield to see these giants. In its heyday, route 66 saw giant statues strewn along the route advertising businesses such as tcar repair shops and restaurants along the historic route.
Route 66 Hall of Fame Museum in Pontiac is worth a stop where you can peruse its thousands of Route 66 artifacts and memorabilia.
In Pontiac, Illinois, there is the Illinois Route 66 Hall of Fame and Museum showcasing the history of route 66.
Odell Station in Odell Illinois is one of the historic places to stop along the route. This service station has been restored and you can stop in to talk to the volunteers about the drive ahead.
2. Route 66 Missouri
The main city in Missouri is St. Louis and it will welcome you with its gateway arch. Missouri is the largest city on Route 66 between Chicago and downtown Los Angeles.
In Missouri, you’ll be crossing the Chain Rocks Bridge as you cross the mighty Mississippi River. The historic bridge connects Illinois and Missouri on route 66.
The Meramec Caverns are limestone caves that you must stop at. They are not only one of the popular roadside attractions along historic route 66, but they are also one of the most popular attractions in Missouri.
In Springfield Missouri, there is a car museum where you can see vintage cars that drove this route faithfully. There is another Route 66 Museum in Lebanon.
Did you know there is a Cuba in the United States? Cuba Missouri was named after the Caribbean Island and is located in Missouri. It is officially designated Route 66 Mural City depicting scenes from the Route 66 heyday.
And finally, you’ll be passing through Joplin Missouri since route 66 goes directly through its downtown. Its historic buildings will take you back in time transporting you to the days of the Mother Road. Stop at its murals for some great photo opportunities
3. Route 66 – Kansas
Kansas is the shortest section of Route 66 with only 13 miles of the Mother Road cutting through the southern portion of the state.
If you are a fan of the Pixar movie, Cars, stop at Cars on the Route, and the old gas station and gift shop that sells snacks, and movie memorabilia. I didn’t see Cars, but apparently, some of it took place on route 66.
If you have kids, they’ll recognize the tow truck Tow Tater from the movie. Besides the tow truck, there is an old jalopy and a fire truck, so make sure to stop there.
Baxter Springs has the Coopers Dry Goods Store and diner dating back to 1865 and the historic Bush Creek Bridge. There are the usual old gas station, corner stores, and museums along Route 66.
4. Route 66 – Oklahoma
The opposite of Kansas, Oklahoma has the longest section of Route 66 with 400 miles of the Mother Road slicing through the state.
In Oklahoma, you’ll pass through the cities of Tulsa and Oklahoma City along the historic route. But there are many roadside attractions and historic sites to see as well. Tulsa city is definitely proud of its route 66 heritage and as you drive along the main street of America, its East Gateway welcomes you to a places that really embraces its history.
The Blue Whale of Catoosa is one of the most famous attractions on route 66. This giant blue whale marks a popular swimming hole for people driving route 66 in the 1970s and in the 2000s in was restored to its former glory.
There are a couple of museums along this route – The Oklahoma Route 66 Museum in Clinton, Oklahoma and the National Route 66 Transport Museum in Elk City showing artifacts celebrating the spirit and history of route 66.
Be sure to see the old vaudeville theater, the Colman Theatre in Miami, Oklahoma. And make sure to Grab a classic soda pop at POPS in Arcadia.
Other Route 66 Attractions in Oklahoma
Oklahoma has done a great job restoring its historic sites and buildings and there are several stops that you can enjoy along this stretch. Some of the quirkier roadside attractions include.
- The Round Barn in Arcadia dating back to 1898
- Pops in Arcadia that stands out with its huge landmark, a neon soda pop bottle standing tall out front.
- The World’s Largest concrete totem pole in Chelsea
- Afton Station is another good stop that is a restored service station that has a gift shop where you can buy memorabilia and some good maps and books about route 66.
5. Route 66 – Texas
Once you enter the Lone Star State there are plenty of things to see on Route 66. The 200 mile stretch of the Mother Road offers something for everyone. Read next: 29 Best Things to do in Austin, Texas
The Cadillac Ranch is one of the most iconic stops on route 66. Located in Amarillo the Cadillac Ranch is popular due to its 10 Cadillacs standing nose down that are covered in graffiti. If there is one landmark to see in Texas, it’s the Cadillac Ranch.
Plus if you like the art installation at the Cadillac Ranch, you must visit the VW Slug Bug Ranch that plays homage to the famous attraction. The VW Slug Bug Ranch features 5 VWs buried nose deep into the ground just like the Cadillac ranch but .
While visiting the Cadillac Ranch, stop into Amarillo for a day or two to enjoy the city. This is where you can find a vintage motel and get your kick on route 66 for the night.
The Big Texan Steak Ranch is another iconic stop on Route 66. Feeding 500 thousand people a year (mostly coming from a Rout 66 drive) the Big Texan Steak Ranch is famous for its 72 ounce steak dinner challenge. Are you up for it?
Other Texas Route 66 Attractions
Mid Pointe Cafe in Adrian. Did you know that when driving route 66 in Texas, you have made it halfway from Chicago to Los Angeles? Grab lunch at the Midpoint Cafe which is the oldest continuously running cafe on the route. Snap a photo as you’ve driven 1139 miles already and you have 1139 to go!
Devil’s Rope Museum in McLean will take you through a photographic journey of the history of the Dust Bowl. This museum showcases vintage memorabilia from the Mother Road including vintage gas pumps and a museum dedicated to barbed wire. You heard me correctly, barbed wire was called Devil’s Rope and you’ll find a complete collection of barbed wire (I never knew there was before) and fencing tools.
The Conoco Tower Station is a neon-lit, Art Deco Tower that dates back to the 1930s and keep an eye out for the leaning water tower in Groom
Check out more Texas Travel
6. Route 66 – New Mexico
The major city in New Mexico is Albuquerque. Albuquerque, New Mexico has plenty of historic attractions and you may want to spend the night here as there is a vintage motel that is still in operation. The El Camino Motel will definitely take you back in time. Read more: The Very Best Historic Sites in New Mexico
Things to see in New Mexico – Route 66
Tucumcari has a good portion of Route 66 attractions in New Mexico with a dinosaur museum, roadside motels, and old gas stations. The Teepee Curios gas station in Tucumcari has a large concrete teepee out front and as you cruise through New Mexico, you can stop here to browse its gift shop.
It is in Tucumcari that you’ll also find the Route 66 Monument. The classic Cadillac fin is a popular photo stop on route 66 in New Mexico.
Santa Rosa has the Route 66 Auto Museum of New Mexico. It is free to enter with a donation and showcases vintage cars, and scenes from the Mother Road.
The Blue Hole in Santa Rosa is worth stopping at when driving through New Mexico. The crystal clear waters of this blue pool make it a popular diving destination.
Santa Fe, New Mexico was a popular stop on the earlier Route 66 alignments and has a few things to see including the La Fonda Hotel, one of the oldest hotels in the United States. Read more: The Very Best Historic Sites in New Mexico
7. Route 66 – Arizona
Arizona has a lot of Route 66 Attractions that are well preserved and is definitely worth a stop as you drive the main street of America. Read our full Arizona Road Trip
Williams, Arizona, is considered the best preserved stretch of Route 66 and here it feels as if time has stood still. It has historic gas stations, quirky cafes and historic buildings.
Jack Rabbit Trading Post is located in Joseph City and has been a Route 66 staple since 1949. Original owner Jim Taylor put a statue of a black rabbit in a black convertible and the Jack Rabbit Trading Post was born.
Winslow Arizona – I cannot believe we didn’t make it to Winslow Arizona. I love the Eagles and I’m always singing “Standin’ on the corner of Winslow Arizona…” from Take it Easy.
If you are looking for a unique place to stay in Arizona, make your way to the Wigwam Motel in Holbrook. During the migration west along the Mother Road, the Wigwam Motel chain was a prominent chain. Today, only three survive and two are located along Route 66. One is in Holbrook and the other Wigwam Motel is in California.
The Grand Canyon is not on the original Route 66 but it is located just north of Main Street America and is worth the detour to see this natural canyon clocking in 277 miles (455 km) long, a mile (1.6 km) deep. It lives up to the hype. In fact, it was during the 1950s that families made their way along route 66 to see the Grand Canyon that was formed by the Colorado River slicing through and eroding the canyon for thousands of years.. When we visited the Grand Canyon, we stayed in Williams Arizona and took day trips to the Grand Canyon.
To plan more for your Grand Canyon trip read our guides:
Detour to Las Vegas – Route 66
Las Vegas may not officially be on Route 66 but how can you not pop into the city when you are so close? Many people visit the Grand Canyon from Las Vegas, so after you have spent a couple of days exploring this natural wonder, make your way to the mother of neon lights Las Vegas. It’s the perfect compliment to a drive along America’s main street. Read more: Off the Strip – Things to do Outside Las Vegas
Route 66 – California
The final stop on the great American road trip. This is where dreamers ended their trip along the Mother Road in Santa Monica in search of the American Dream. Let’s go through some of the sites to see which are specific to Route 66 in California. Read more: 16 Best Cities in California
The Wigwam motel chain was built in the 1930s and 1940s. Today of the three surviving motels are located on historic U.S. Route 66. You’ll find one Wigwam Hotel in Holbrook, Arizona, and the other between Rialto and San Bernardino, If you are looking for a unique place to stay, the Wigwam Motel is a great choice.
What road trip would miss stopping at McDonalds and while in San Bernardino you can hit up another popular route 66 attraction? The McDonald’s museum is located in San Bernardino and is a free museum that you can explore.
Bottle Tree Ranch is a quirky work of art in Helendale that was a popular stop on route 66. Unfortunately, it is now closed as its owner passed away, but hopefully it will reopen in the future.
Calico Ghost Town in the Mojave Desert. This old mining town in the Mojave Desert dates back to 1881. It was a huge silver mine and today you can take a mining tour watch old west shows and enjoy the views of the surrounding desert.
The Mother Road Museum in Barstow has displays about the Mother Road history.
Hollywood – It’s now time to spend a few days exploring Los Angeles Check out – 25 Best Things to Do in Los Angeles – Hollywood, Hikes, And More
Santa Monica – End of the Trail
Santa Monica Pier this is the spiritual end of Route 66 because you can dip your toes in the Pacific Ocean. There is a sign there that says Route 66 End of Trail and a mile in from Santa Monica pier at Highway 1 near Mels Diner.
So, now you have driven the complete route 66 from Chicago to Santa Monica Read More: The Ultimate California Road Trip Itinerary
About The Mother Road
Route 66 was a busy and exciting historic route through America that saw people traveling regularly to the west coast from middle America. But that all changed in 1985 when the need for speed was at the top of people’s lists. As the interstates came in, the old roads connecting the east to west coast, went out.
Those days are long gone and today, the 3940 km (2448 miles) route is a shadow of its former self with only pockets still clinging to a bygone era. Read: The 17 Best Hikes in Arizona
What Happened to Route 66?
Why did Route 66 crumble? In the 1980s, the highway system was built bypassing most of the towns located along the route. With tourists driving directly to the tourist attractions of Arizona and California fast and efficiently on Interstates instead of the slow backroads of Route 66, most towns along the historic Route 66 fell into disarray.
But over the years, some began to rebuild and pockets of nostalgia have cropped up throughout the route. The allure of the road trip still holds strong and it is at the top of many people’s bucket lists to take this driving tour across America.
The Joliet Area Historical Museum and Route 66 Welcome Center is dedicated to preserving the spirit of Route 66, describing the allure of the Mother Road and what makes Route 66 worth preserving. Make sure to see the statues of the Muffler Men that were used to promote car repair shops along the historic route.
And if you spend the night in this portion of Route 66, be sure to catch a movie at the Skyview Drive In Theatre in Litchfield. It’s one of the last remaining original drive ins on Route 66.
Quirky Roadside Attractions
Bloomington, Atlanta and Lincoln – Along this route you’ll find the weird Paul Bunyon hot dog statue, the world’s largest covered wagon, and Abe Lincoln holding an ax. There are soda shops and diners.
How long Does it Take to Drive Route 66?
You can drive the entire route 66 and it will take about 2 weeks (three weeks if you really want to take your time which we recommend). But you can do portions of Route 66 as well. There are many portions that you can drive. As we said, route 66 passes through 8 states with plenty to explore in each.
It’s not easy to navigate Route 66 with just Google Maps but there are apps and guide books to help you out.
It’s nice to have that extra security because at times, we felt completely isolated. There were moments where we barely saw another car on the route. We drove it at the end of summer during shoulder season so that may be the case. We often we wondered if we had taken a wrong turn, but luckily, quirky signs would always pop up to let us know we were going in the right directly.
If you are “driving west” like the Nat King Cole song, you’ll start in Chicago, Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and finally end in Santa Monica, California.
Choosing Your Route 66 Transportation
Being Canadian, we just jump in our car and head southwest to drive route 66. But if you don’t have the luxury of driving to a starting point, you can check out car rental companies or even decide on an RV rental to enjoy this historic driving route. Some people have it on their bucket list to drive classic cars across the original route and there are classic car rentals that cater to this dream. You can also book one way rentals from Chicago to Santa Barbara. Compare prices at CarRentals.com
Another great idea is to rent an RV to experience the mother road. Cruise America offers RV rentals and can help you plan the perfect road trip itinerary.
If you don’t have your own car and need to fly into the starting point, there are plenty of car rental companies all along the route where you can rent everything from classic cars to convertibles.
Stops on Route 66
We have created a map of the stops on route 66 to help you decide. My brother called me an actually decided that he was going to drive to Chicago to begin his road trip and start driving West to see how far they could make it.
You may be flying into Arizona to see the Grand Canyon, or maybe visting friends in Oklahoma City or New Mexico and simply want to drive a specific portion. Whichever part of route 66 you choose, you’ll find plenty to see along the old route and we’ve highlighted the best things to see on route 66.
How to plan Your Route 66 Road Trip Itinerary
Planning a road trip along Route 66 can be an exciting adventure, but it also requires careful preparation. Here are some steps to help you plan your journey:
Determine Your Route
There are several possible itineraries for driving Route 66, so you should choose one that suits your interests and schedule. Consider the distance you want to cover each day and the stops you want to make along the way.
- Check road conditions: Some sections of Route 66 may be closed or have limited access, so it’s important to check the latest road conditions before you go.
- Think about time of year – Route 66 is a long road trip and temperatures and terrain changes drastically. In Arizona and the surrounding desert it can become extremely hot in the summertime but pleasant in the winter. In the northeast, winter snow can be a real factor and affect your route 66 travels.
- Make reservations: If you’re traveling during peak season, it’s a good idea to make hotel or campground reservations in advance to ensure you have a place to stay each night. A vintage motel on route 66 will sell out quickly so plan accordingly.
- Plan your budget: Establish a budget for your trip, including the cost of fuel, food, lodging, and activities.
- Prepare your vehicle: Make sure your vehicle is in good condition before you go, and consider bringing a spare tire, jack, and basic tools in case of an emergency. You can rent a car to drive a portion or choose one way rentals and drop it off when you get to your destination. Compare prices at RentalCars.com
- Pack smart: Pack clothes and gear suitable for the weather conditions, as well as a map or GPS device, a camera, and any other essentials you might need.
- Make a list of must-see sights: Research the attractions and sights along Route 66 that you don’t want to miss. We have given some great ideas for what to see on route 66, but with a highway spanning 2400 miles, we couldn’t cover everything.
By following these steps, you can ensure that your Route 66 road trip is safe, comfortable, and memorable.
Route 66 Signs And Quriky Roadside Attractions
As Americans migrated west looking for work, it captured the imagination of the nation. Luckily, a lot of the signs, quirky roadside attractions, and memorabilia have been preserved. One of the best things about driving Route 66 is to drive with no plans.
Go with the flow and stop when you see something nostalgic or historic. You’ll find a lot of roadside attractions along the route 66 and as tourists and Americans travel more to revisit a simpler past, more attractions are opening up.
All along the route from Chicago to California towns cling to a not so distant past and a few tourists who set out to recreate their own American Dream by driving along the iconic route making it the ultimate road trip.
The towns that were bypassed by the Interstates refuse to quit and attract visitors from around the world wanting to catch a glimpse of America’s glory days.
There are old cars on display, a soda shop and 50’s style gas stations, a colorful downtown and of course Route 66 signs and neon signs leftover ads from its heyday.
There are old motor hotels, The Road Kill Cafe, a Texaco Gas Station, and the old general store. If you are going to buy any souvenirs, buy them in Seligman because they have everything highlighting the historic Route 66.
It really is an amazing journey. The picturesque landscape with cows grazing in the distance and rolling hills surrounding our lonely stretch of road takes you back to a time when people didn’t stare at their phones and when family was first and foremost.
My favourite were the ads for Burma Shave. These quirky signs lined up in groups of five told a little tale with a silly punchline at the end, punctuated by a final sign advertising “Burma Shave”
A lot of times you’ll come across run down buildings and ghost towns. If it can’t attract tourists, towns completely shut down.
National Parks Along Route 66
Route 66 travels through some of America’s most beautiful scenery. You’ll want to take your time and make some detours to see the National Parks along the route. Here is a list you may want to consider.
We loved driving the historic Route 66. There has never been a better time to take a road trip across America. While people plan on staying closer to home, this is a great place to start.