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Every traveler worth their proverbial salt has most likely dreamt about making the great American road trip. If you haven't done so already, I suggest you do. For sure, no roadway lends itself better to fulfilling this cross-country dream than Route 66. It is, after all, the best-known and most nostalgic scenic byway in the nation.
"America's Main Street" was commissioned in 1926 and soon became one of the nation's main traffic arteries, connecting together great swathes of rural America. The reputation surrounding Route 66 first began during the years of the Great Depression when trucking was America's dominant method for shipping goods. In 1939, John Steinbeck gave this stretch of road its first great moniker, dubbing it "The Mother Road" in his novel The Grapes of Wrath. But it was during the 1940s when Route 66 first emerged as an important part of American culture.
During the booming, post-war years, the American population seemed to have no shortage of hard-earned money to spend, with the travel and tourism industries being among the biggest benefactors. Across the nation Americans hit the road, and the Bobby Troup song "Get your Kicks on Route 66" became a popular rallying cry for the burgeoning motorist population. It wasn't long before the small business entrepreneur sank their teeth into the Mother Road and up sprang countless motels, hotels, burger stands, juke joints, and most every other roadside attraction imaginable. Each location tried to outdo the next with unique designs and wacky attractions - all in the endless pursuit of separating the tourist from their money. The Route 66 legend was born.
At its peak, the Mother Road amounted to nearly 2,500 miles of American highway connecting eight states, from Illinois to California. Today, the practicality of Route 66 has vanished. Interstates I-55, I-44, I-40, I-15, and I-10 move travelers along superhighways, zipping past anything and everything along the way. However, while Route 66 may not be as practical as it once was, none of the shiny new interstates, with their fancy rest stops and megaplex gas stations, can improve on the experience of RVing along its fading blacktop. Much of the road has survived as Route 66, as have some of the businesses that used to flourish along the route, and it still welcomes travelers between Lake Michigan and Southern California.
If you're looking to properly travel Route 66, it's wise to pick up an authoritative guide, and you won't have trouble finding several. While some stretches of Old 66 are clearly marked, sometimes the road seems to vanish without warning. Like any great road trip, it's important to plot your course ahead of time and following Route 66 is no exception. To any RVer in search of Americana, Route 66 is like a long-lost friend, always there for you and ready to share an adventure.
With all its nostalgia, there's no better place to start a cross-country road trip than in Chicago, Illinois, the route's traditional eastern starting point. Old US 66 begins right on the shores of Lake Michigan in downtown Chicago. One of America's most-beautiful cities, Chicago has simply everything; the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field, old-fashioned hamburgers at the world famous Billy Goat (as glorified in the famous "chee-burger, chee-burger" skits from old "Saturday Night Live" fame) and skyscrapers. To be sure, there are blues clubs, tourist points galore and no shortage of places to eat, drink, and be oh-so-merry. Before departing on Route 66, take some time casually strolling about the Chicago's magnificent waterfront or Michigan Avenue, known as "The Magnificent Mile" for its unrivaled posh shopping. This is also a city of world-class museums, with The Field Museum, Museum of Science and Industry, and the Chicago Art Institute chief among them.
From the lakefront, Old Route 66 runs west and meets up with I-55 outside the city limits. Throughout Illinois, Route 66 zigzags back and forth with I-55. Heading south, past the town of Lincoln, sits one of Route 66's authentic must-sees or, rather, must eats. The Dixie Trucker's Home & Route 66 Museum in McLean has fed many a weary traveler since the Mother Road's inception in 1926 and earns the distinction as the oldest truck stop in the state. It's also the "official" Route 66 Hall of Fame, although the business recently sold after a 75-year run. (New owners are said to be keeping the business intact). Dixie's is a great place to fill up before continuing south and heading into the heart of "Lincoln Country" in southern Illinois.
Old Route 66 soon ends and you'll be pressed to jump back onto I-55 before entering the Prairie State's capital of Springfield. Old Route 66 is still visible in many parts of the city, but is broken up into smaller sections that criss-cross the capital. Springfield is probably best known as Abraham Lincoln's birthplace (complete with the National Historic Site designation to celebrate it) and also where he made a name for himself as a speaker and as an honest, fair-minded politician. For history enthusiasts, Springfield is a wellspring of history dedicated to the "Great Emancipator."
Just north of St. Louis, before passing out of Illinois, make a stop at Collinsville, Illinois, where a section of Route 66 passes by a true American roadside attraction. Less than a mile outside of town proudly stands the World's Largest Catsup Bottle, a bottle/tower rising nearly 180 feet from the ground. As if that weren't enough, Collinsville is also home to another bona fide original, the Bull Durham tobacco sign, painted in 1908 but only recently exposed. Assuming you can pull yourself away from this marvel, leave I-55 south of Mt. Olive and pick up SR 157 to follow Old 66. This route leads directly to St. Louis, where it once again joins I-55.
Route 66 runs parallel with I-44 once you cross into Missouri, or "Missoruh," if you're speaking native. South of St. Louis, in the town of Villa Ridge, is the Tri-County Truck Stop, your chance to fill up at what has been dubbed "the world's largest roadside restaurant."
Head south and you'll find one of the route's most wondrous natural spectacles, Meramec Caverns in Stanton, which just happens to be the largest single cave formation in the world. Jesse James liked the spot so much, it was believed he used it as one of his original hideouts. At least, that's how the legend goes. The caverns are part of the Meramec State Park, which is a great place to stop and take in the underground sights. And just try leaving without a Meramec Caverns bumper sticker. It's nearly impossible. Like South Dakota's famed Wall Drug, these stickers appear everywhere from Alaska to Florida, displayed like a badge of honor by true road adventurers.
Okay, so it's not directly on Route 66, but from Meramec Caverns, consider taking a little detour to a kitschy favorite, Branson, Missouri. While the city offers more than thirty great music venues, it also contains plenty of glitter and flash, rivaled only by parts of Las Vegas. If the bright lights of Branson don't suit your taste, continue on into the nearby Mark Twain National Forest. It's home to Missouri's finest natural landscape and we promise you won't find a single neon light in the place.
Don't blink or you may miss your Kansas experience. From Joplin, Missouri, Route 66 heads away from I-44 where it cuts through the southeast corner of the state for around twelve miles. The town of Galena offers a few sections of well-marked Old 66 and could possibly serve as a quick photo op. But before you'll know it, you'll be heading south and crossing into O-k-lahoma.
The Mother Road continues to run parallel to I-40 throughout much of Oklahoma. Nearby the towns of Miami and Afton contain some original sections of the route still in service. Because of the state's financial troubles in the 1920s, Route 66 was built as only a one-lane highway throughout much of the northeast part of the state. This part of 66, affectionately called the "Sidewalk Highway" (for good reason!) can still be driven today.
While many of Route 66's great roadside attractions have either fallen into disrepair or disappeared completely, the Blue Whale water park, located in the Tulsa suburb of Catoosa, is a shining example of what a few bucks and a little restoration will do. This family water park boasts a giant blue whale in a swimming pond, complete with water slides for the youngsters. Consider this a great place to refresh after a long, hot summer's day of driving through the Sooner state.
Another favorite stop is Oklahoma City, equal parts modern town and historic cowboy setting. No stop in this city is complete without spending an afternoon at the National Cowboy Hall of Fame, home to some of the nation's finest western artwork.
West of Oklahoma City you can use I-40 to pick up the trail, er, we mean, road. In Clinton, brush up on your knowledge of Americana at the Oklahoma Route 66 Museum. And remember, there may be a test later. Restored in the 1990s, today the museum is a true authority on the history of the roadway.
Route 66 continues westward out of Oklahoma and across the Texas panhandle through cities like McLean and Amarillo.
As you depart Texas, Route 66 enters New Mexico where it all but parallels I-40. Your first major stop should be the town of Tucumcari, an authentic western town bustling with the pride of the old southwest. Don't even think about driving past the Mesalands Dinosaur Museum, which boasts the world's largest collection of life-sized, bronze, historic skeletons and real fossils.
Just west of Tucumcari, jump off I-40 and back onto old Route 66, which turns into Will Rogers Drive as it enters the town of Santa Rosa, the "City of Natural Lakes." Set along the Pecos River, Santa Rosa is home to several pristine artesian lakes, the origin of Santa Rosa's nickname. These bodies of water offer unique opportunities for scuba diving (yes, scuba diving), as well as many other water activities. The town itself abounds with history and has great opportunities for shopping, too.
The tiny town of Moriarty is a few moseying miles down the road. If Pueblo and other Native American ruins are your thing, the surrounding area is chock-full of them, granting period buffs a snapshot into past times and older cultures.
West of Moriarty lies one of the Route 66's true gems; the city of Albuquerque, a main route hub since 66's inception. Whether it's via the Sante Fe Railway, or the Mother Road, you shouldn't pass through New Mexico without a stop at this Southwestern cultural capitol. Set along the picturesque Rio Grande River, the city is one of the most interesting in all of America, delivering an endless array of activities, art, history, (hot) food, and culture galore. Take a ride on the Sandia Peak Aerial Tramway, the world's longest aerial passenger tramway, which rises more than 10,000 feet above the picturesque Rio Grande Valley. Nature lovers should check out the natural Southwest at the Rio Grande Nature Center State Park, the Rio Grande Botanic Gardens, or the Rio Grande Zoo (notice a theme here?). The Albuquerque Isotopes AAA baseball team now features one of the prettiest stadiums in the minor leagues. Also, be sure to get yourself some quality red or green chiles (or both, known as "Christmas") on whatever you eat. You are in the chile centrum of the world, after all. When in Albuquerque, it's best to do as the locals do.
Continuing west, your next stopover should be near the town of Grants. Western New Mexico is where you'll find some of the Southwest's most impressive landscapes, and herein lie several terrific examples in the El Malpais National Monument and the El Morro National Monument. Native American ruins are an impressive display at the nearby Chaco Culture National Historical Park.
The state's last worthy Route 66 stop is likely the town of Gallup, "The Gateway to Indian Country", because it is surrounded by Native American reservations. The city is a shopper's paradise of Native American wares.
Entering Arizona, Route 66 follows the old Santa Fe Railway which passes through the heart of authentic Arizona. Here, the Mother Road shadows I-40, giving you ample opportunity to slow down and appreciate the region's history and sights, or to take the interstate to quickly arrive at your next destination along the route.
At the town of Navajo, you'll find yourself bookended by the magnificent Painted Desert and the Petrified Forest National Park. Simply put, these are two of America's premier parks where you can figuratively walk back into time and find yourself surrounded by the remnants of trees more than 200 million years old. Put this down on your itinerary as a must-stop. Both parks offer endless hiking opportunities throughout some of the Southwest's most impressive desert landscapes. p.s. - Bring lots of water.
Down the road a ways you'll find yourself in Holbrook, home to some serious Route 66 Americana. The town is a veritable trove of attractions, featuring the Museum of the Americas and International Petrified Forest Dinosaur Park. Tour these spots in the rig or stretch those legs for some serious hiking among the many giant dinosaur statues towering over this classic desert landscape.
Had your fill of dinosaurs? Keep heading west until you reach the town of Winslow. Made famous by a song from the Eagles, you too can be "standin' on a corner in Winslow, Arizona." If standin' around doesn't suit ya, of course, try a visit to the Old Trails History Museum in downtown Winslow.
It's just a short trip off Route 66 to Meteor Crater, home to, well, a great, big meteor crater. To some there's a fine line between a crater and a hole in the dirt, but it's worth a look in either case. Some 20,000 to 50,000 years ago (these things are hard to tell, after all) a meteor slammed into Earth and left a really, really big divot. The biggest beneficiary of the impact seems to not be to the scientific community, but rather the site's thriving tourist industry. Regardless, Meteor Crater is probably the world's finest, preserved meteor crater and quite a unique sight.
After taking in the crater, proceed west to Flagstaff, one of the route's most famous cities. Like the town slogan says, "They don't make towns like this anymore," and it's true. The highest point along Route 66, Flagstaff is a great place to take a few days off from driving, set up camp, and enjoy the activities in and around the city. For nature lovers, the Coconino National Forest is a nice spot to unwind within a high-desert ecosystem. The winter months offer challenging skiing at the Arizona Snowbowl. Otherwise, enjoy a bevy of cultural and natural delights ranging from world-class orchestras and observatories to a fine selection of restaurants.
West of Flagstaff is one the most impressive natural wonders along the Mother Road, if not the world: The Grand Canyon, which lies just east of the town of Nelson. For decades, families from around the world have made pilgrimages to the "World's Largest Hole in the Ground" and for good reason. If you're not spellbound by the spectacular views (not sure how that's possible, really), venture down inside for a most unique camping experience. A bevy of local outfitters are more than willing to guide you down to the canyon floor.
Westbound out of Arizona, you'll find yourself traveling down the last stretch of Route 66 as it traverses the Golden State. Your first stop in California is the town of Needles, located along the Snake River, where water recreation abounds. The area is rich in Native American history, as well, in particular the Mojave tribe. Visit the Mojave's preserved Mystic Maze, top among various Native American draws, with the backdrop of the beautiful Southwest landscape. From Needles to Barstow, the Mojave Indian Preserve in the Mojave Desert is a sprawling expanse offering roadsters manifold outdoor pastimes.
The town of Barstow holds the distinction of being the only town along the route where the Mother Road actually runs down Main Street. It's also a hip, eclectic spot. In and around the city limits you'll find everything from a McDonald's made out of retired railway cars, Calico Ghost Town, and Rainbow and Owl Canyons. Point the rig west to Victorville for the California Route 66 Museum and yet another opportunity for your continuing education. Study hard, people, as yes, there still may be a test forthcoming.
San Bernardino is like a cultural oasis in this desert. Catch a first-rate play at the California Theatre of Performing Arts, immerse yourself in the local culture at the San Bernardino County Museum, or tour one of the town's several Victorian-era mansions. If you're looking for fresh air, the San Bernardino Mountains boast an array of outdoor diversions and loads of fresh, lung-pleasing oxygen. Fishing, swimming, hiking, touring an orchard or winery, or just relaxing are some of what is available to you in many of the surrounding communities.
Shoppers revel in Pomona's Antique Row and you should, too, for here, the white elephants abound! Expect to find more than 400 such shops jammed into two city blocks, making it "The Largest and Finest Antique Complex on the West Coast."
In Arcadia, stop by Santa Anita Park, one of America's top venues for thoroughbred horse racing. Put $2 on a long shot for us while you're there. Next, head all the way to Pasadena, a.k.a., "the City of Roses," and one of the Mother Road's final stops. The town is loaded with museums covering a variety of interests. Try out the impressive Southwest Museum or the Norton Simon Museum of Art. Those looking to appreciate California's lovely flora, shouldn't miss the city's impressive Botanical Gardens or the Los Angeles State and County Arboretum. If you've come to southern California looking to star gaze, you've got two great options: for the natural kind, visit Mount Wilson Observatory in the San Gabriel Mountains above Pasadena, or head down to Western Los Angeles and maybe you'll find the celebrity du jour along Wilshire, Sunset or Santa Monica Boulevards.
Los Angeles seems to us to be a very fitting end to a cross-country trip on the Mother Road. There's so much to do here you'll hardly have time to realize that your trip is now complete. Catch a Major League Baseball game at famed Dodger Stadium, peruse the famous star plaques in the sidewalk along Hollywood's Walk of Fame, or shop amongst the world's best retail stores just made for spending lots of cash. The options are endless in L.A. but if you've made it this far you might as well take it all the way to the end. Be sure to take Santa Monica Boulevard through West L.A. to Palisades Park. There, the old Mother Road, Route 66, simply ends. Or, if you turn the rig around and point east, it could be just the beginning.