There are 4.12 million miles of paved road in the United States. But America’s favorite and most famous thoroughfare is Route 66, a once-continuous highway connecting Chicago to the beaches of Los Angeles.
One of the original U.S. Highways, Route 66 was signed into law in 1927. Its construction was a monumental effort, linking rural communities through eight states, and became known as The Mainstreet of America. Although it wasn’t fully paved until 1938, Route 66 was the route taken by an estimated 210,000 Americans migrating to the west in overloaded jalopies to find opportunity and escape the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. And in 1939, John Steinbeck told their story, and immortalized the route in his novel “The Grapes of Wrath,” calling it The Mother Road.
The American road trip was born and in post-war America, Route 66 became cluttered with tail-finned optimism, families headed for the coast, stopping at every neon sign, roadside eatery, and kitschy motel. Although much of the road was replaced by Interstate 40 decades ago, many of those attractions survive today, along with much of the original Route 66, and its nostalgia remains a road trip destination for Americans and tourists from around the world.
Built in 1909, the Santa Monica Pier is the spiritual start/finish line of Route 66. A popular filming location for movies and television production, today the massive double-jointed pier contains Palisades Park, a family amusement park, with a full-size Ferris wheel and an aquarium. Famous for its large neon archway, which was built in 1938, the Santa Monica Pier can accommodate, but the pier parking lot can fill up quickly, so get there early.
Roy’s Café and Motel is located in the Mojave desert town of Amboy, California, an old mining town about 200 miles from the Pacific. This recently restored stop, which features an ornate Googie-styled sign, was originally opened by Roy Crowl in 1938 and has appeared in many movies and TV productions. In the 1940s it featured a 24-hour garage, a restaurant, a motel, and cabins for weary travelers. There isn’t much around Roy’s, but don’t forget to take a picture with the Route 66 sign painted on the highway.
On your way to Roy’s, stop and see the Wigwam Hotel in San Bernardino, California. It opened in 1949 and was originally part of a chain featuring Native American tepee-style rooms. If you miss it, however, there’s another that survives. The Wigwam Village Motel #6 in Holbrook, Arizona, is open for business, and the owners often decorate the parking lot with vintage cars for a little extra visual nostalgia. Your friends on Instagram will like it.
Five miles west of Joseph City, Arizona, the Jack Rabbit Trading Post is hard to miss thanks to a series of famous billboards you’ll see on the way. Owned by the Jaquez family, to visit the Jack Rabbit is to step back in time to the glory days of Route 66. The store is the perfect place to pick up some souvenirs and don’t forget to take a picture of the kid’s sitting on the giant fiberglass jackrabbit beside the front door.
One of the more famous and picturesque motels on Route 66 is The Blue Swallow Motel in Tucumcari, New Mexico. Restored in the 1990s, the L-shaped motel has 12 rooms and has been in operation since 1940. Its beautiful neon sign is one of the most recognizable on The Mother Road, and its pink stucco and garage units, some with their original wood overhead doors, make it truly unique. Room prices range from $74.95 to $124.95 a night.
Bring your mud shoes and your spray paint and leave your mark at Cadillac Ranch. An art installation in the middle of a working cow pasture just west of Amarillo, Texas, Cadillac Ranch is possibly the most famous attraction on Route 66. Constructed in 1974, it features 10 classic Cadillacs from the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s buried up to their doors, tail fins pointed at the big Texas sky.
East of Amarillo you’ll find the Conoco Tower Station in Shamrock, Texas. The art deco café and gas station from the 1930s is now a tourism office and has been wonderfully restored to its former glory. The building was featured in Pixar’s animated hit “Cars” and shouldn’t be missed, especially at night when it’s lit gloriously with neon.
In 1927, Phillips Patroleum chose the town of McLean and Route 66 as the location for its first Phillips Service Station in Texas. Restored in 1977, the tiny station, which resembles an English cottage with a steep pitched roof, still stands today. Also, don’t miss the Devil’s Rope Museum just up the street.
Clinton, Oklahoma, is a home to many Route 66 attractions, including aging motels and service stations, but it’s also the location of the first official state-run Route 66 museum in America. Packed with images and artifacts, including vintage cars from the road’s heyday, The Oklahoma Route 66 Museum is a wonderful place to learn its history. It’s open seven days as week.
While getting your kicks on Route 66, stop at the Dairy King in Commerce, Oklahoma, and enjoy a Route 66-shaped cookie. Once a Marathon gas station, the small cottage with a red gabled roof retains its vintage appearance. While enjoying your cookie walk, across the street to the Hole in the Wall Conoco Gas Station, and check out baseball great Mickey Mantle’s Boyhood Home, which is in the same town.
A wonderful stop to experience an original section of Route 66 is the Bush Creek Bridge in Riverton, Kansas. Also known as Rainbow Bridge, the elegant structure with two steel arches became part of Route 66 in 1926. Although no longer open to traffic, visitors can still walk across the bridge on its original concrete slap of roadway.
Opened in 1925, The Eisler Bros. Old Riverton Store is said to be the oldest continuously operating store on Route 66. Virtually unchanged over the last 94 years, the small structure features a glass enclosed porch and tin ceiling. Stop in for some groceries or a Route 66 souvenir.
In Missouri, it’s all about the 1950s, starting with the 66 Drive-In Theater in Cathage, a small enclave in the state’s southwest. It opened in 1949, operated until the 1980s, and then reopened in 1998. Don’t miss the neon sign and the art deco-style ticket booth.
After the film, take the kids to the Circle Inn Malt Shop in Bourbon, Missouri, which has been serving up smiles since 1955. Originally built by Bud and Marie Ware, it’s now owned and operated by the family’s third generation. Joshua Ware took over in 2015 and continues to renovate the historic building, while satisfying the hunger of visitors from around the world.
In Collinsville, Illinois, you find what is said to be the world’s largest catsup bottle. Standing 170 feet tall, the Historic Brooks Catsup Bottle Water Tower was erected in 1949 in front of the company’s catsup plant as a form of advertising their delicious condiment. It’s now known the world over. Let’s get some French fries.
One of the most picturesque bridges on Route 66 is the historic Chain of Rocks Bridge in Madison, Illinois. Construction of the steel and concrete structure, which features a narrow 40-foot-wide roadway, began in 1927 on both sides of the Mississippi, and its 10 spans opened in July of 1929. Initially the bridge was to be straight, but became curved with a 22-degree bend in its center, and its unusual shape is still part of its appeal. It’s no longer open to vehicle traffic, but the bridge is open daily and can be crossed by bikers and pedestrians from 9 a.m. to dusk.