American Road Trip

Cruise through historic towns and make new memories on Route 66

By Glenda Winders // Photograph submitted by Jim Farber

If you ever plan to motor west, travel my way, the highway that’s best.”

So encouraged Bobby Troup, who wrote the classic “(Get Your Kicks on) Route 66,” and his advice is just as sound as it was when he wrote the song in 1946. Much remains to be discovered in the western part of the country, and sometimes the journey is just as fun as the destination. Wouldn’t now be a good time to pack up, buckle in and head down America’s most historic highway?

One of the original highways in the U.S. highway system, the route came into being in 1926, although it wasn’t completely paved until 1938. The route covers 2,248 miles from Chicago to Los Angeles, and you’ll want to stop at many spots along the way or leave the road for nearby attractions. Some plan for two to three weeks for this type of adventure; however, you can jump on or off the route, and back again, with many choices to suit your interests.

Jim Farber has done the route more than once — sometimes in sections and once from start to finish — and then he curated “Route 66: The Road and the Romance” at the Autry Museum of the American West in Los Angeles, his hometown. He recommends buying the “EZ Route 66 Guide for Travelers” by Jerry McClanahan, now in its fourth edition. The spiral-bound guide offers mile-by-mile driving instructions and includes history and points of interest — watch out for the giant alerts!

“Driving the route is a challenge,” Farber says. “It’s not that easy because the road has been realigned in places and it’s basically driving more than 2,000 on surface streets. But you’re experiencing the mystique of moving from the industrial East to the Western horizon and going from Main Street to Main Street in the major cities and the small towns of America, the communities that were bypassed when the Interstate system went in.”

Requiring patience and a penchant for navigation, it’s the great American experience — an unforgettable trip through the country’s landscape and history.

Jump on via Missouri

            Cross the Mighty Mississippi on the Chain of Rocks Bridge and arrive in lively St. Louis. Take a trip to the top of the Gateway Arch for a bird’s-eye view of the city, and don’t miss the City Museum, a four-story indoor playground for visitors of all ages. Climb in a tree house, crawl through caves and slither down slides. Take in a circus show and ride a Ferris wheel on top of the building. The Magic House is also a great place for kids, or visit the St. Louis Art Museum, the Missouri Botanical Garden or the St. Louis Zoo. During baseball season, take in a Cardinals game at Busch Stadium.

            This city of more than 304,000 offers every variety of cuisine, but don’t leave town without stopping for a treat at Ted Drewes Frozen Custard, with one location right along your route. It was opened by a tennis star in 1930, and today you can still feast on a peanut butter “Muddy Mississippi” cone; a cherry and hot-fudge “Cardinal Sin” sundae; or a pineapple, banana, coconut and macadamia “Hawaiian” concrete.

Next stop: Cuba, where 12 murals depict U.S. history. If you stay overnight here, consider the Wagon Wheel Motel, the oldest continuously operated motel on Route 66, whose iconic neon sign, designed by John Mathis in 1947, still only faces east.

“This trip is all about discovery,” Farber says. “It’s not about getting there fast. It’s about finding natural wonders, man-made novelties and roadside attractions.”

Cuba’s novelty is the Guinness-verified World’s Second-largest Rocking Chair at 40 feet tall. See it outside the Fanning Outpost souvenir stand. Then stop at Missouri Hick for wild-cherry-smoked barbecued ribs or chicken.

In Rolla, pay a visit to Ed Clark’s Museum of Missouri Geology to see a replica of the state dinosaur, a mammoth tusk and part of a meteorite found nearby. Continue your exploration at the Route 66 Museum and Research Center, then stop for a snack at A Slice of Pie. Spend the night at the Manor House Inn, right on your way, which opened in 1903. They’ll cook breakfast for you the next morning or give you a voucher for the nearby Elm Street Eatery.

Travel on through the Ozark Mountains and watch for the signs to Devil’s Elbow Bridge, which was bypassed in one of the road’s realignments. Next is Missouri’s capital, Springfield, where the U.S. highway commission met and decided on 66 as the number for the highway. Here you’ll want to save time for a visit to the History Museum on the Square, a delightful space with exhibits devoted to the pioneers, the Civil War, transportation — and Route 66. Plan to stay at Best Western Route 66 Rail Haven. Although it’s part of a chain, the interior design is distinctly mid-century, and the breakfast and service here earn it rave reviews. In Joplin, cruise past Route 66 Mural Park and two murals that celebrate your historic route.



You’ll drive for 11 miles in Kansas and then drop into Oklahoma. Stop for lunch at Waylan’s Ku-Ku Burger, a landmark for travelers on this route. In Catoosa have a look at the Big Blue Whale, another bit of man-made kitsch to check off your list of Route 66 must-dos.

The must-visit in Claremore is the Will Rogers Memorial Museum and Birthplace Ranch. Then it’s on to Tulsa. Some 30 highway markers here designate the Mother Road, and since the highway has been realigned in this area, you’ll have the opportunity to take a short detour known as the Mingo Greenway to see the original path. At the Interpretive Plaza, get out to stretch your legs and read the historical markers and informational plaques.

This is the home of Cyrus Avery, called “the father of Route 66,” who laid out the original route and the numbering system that meant highways were consistent from state to state. Be sure to look for the Route 66 Rising sculpture at the intersection of East Admiral Place and South Mingo Road that marks the spot where he once owned a tourist court and service station.

The city is famous for its art deco architecture, so don’t miss the Decopolis Tulsa Art Deco mini museums and the Philbrook Museum of Art. Several music legends have called Tulsa their hometown. Pay homage to one of them at the Woody Guthrie Center and another at the Bob Dylan Center, or catch a performance at the Tulsa Performing Arts Center. At Route 66 Historical Village, learn about the history of the state’s transportation and oil industries.

Make sure to have a meal at Mother Road Market, a non-profit food hall where young chefs can test their wares. When you’re finished eating, play a round of Route 66-themed miniature golf on their back patio. Spend the night at the Campbell Hotel, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and perhaps have a massage in their spa before you get back on the road again.

Farber says the scenery between Tulsa and Oklahoma City is some of the best of the route, so drive leisurely and allow plenty of time to stop and look around. In Arcadia stop at the 66-foot-tall bottle in front of POPS restaurant for a cold bottle of sarsaparilla.

Call in at Chandler for the Route 66 Interpretive Center and at Stroud for a bite at the Rock Café. The restaurant was named for the local sandstone, and proprietor Dawn Welch was the basis for the character Sally Carrera in the animated film “Cars.”

Once you’re in the capital, check out the Capitol Complex for its historical significance. Then it’s off to the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum for Native American artifacts, cowboy clothes, Western art and much more, followed by the American Banjo Museum to see instruments and hear them play.

Elk City is known for its museums — the National Route 66 Museum, the Old Town Museum, the National Transportation Museum, the Farm and Ranch Museum, and the Blacksmith Museum. Have a peek at what you’d like and then keep driving toward the Lone Star State.

Take a break in Texas

            You’ll come first to Shamrock, where you might want to stop for the Pioneer West Museum, housed in the former Reynolds Hotel and adjacent to the restored Magnolia Gas Station. The Conoco Tower Station served as Ramone’s Body Art in “Cars” and “Cars 2,” and the adjoining U-Drop Inn now serves at the city’s visitor information center.

You might want to stay longer in Amarillo to see all it has to offer. Of course you’ll want to take in the Cadillac Ranch, where 10 Cadillacs are partially buried and angled to resemble the Great Pyramids of Giza. Their original finish was gone long ago, and visitors now are encouraged to bring their own cans of spray paint to make their marks on this installation.

The Route 66 Historic District is the city’s shopping district. Alley Katz Antiques and the Sixth Street Antique Mall are here, and so is the Route 66 Store, where you’ll find memorabilia from the highway’s heyday.

            Palo Duro Canyon, the second-longest in the country, offers a chance to get out of your car and enjoy this natural attraction by way of hiking, biking, zip-lining and horseback-riding. If you have a mind to sleep under the stars, you can also pitch your tent here.

Not the camping type? Bed down at the Big Texan Motel, Airbnb or RV Ranch, and if by chance you’ve brought your horse, they’ll put him or her up, too. This is all next to the Big Texan Steak Ranch, home of the infamous 72-ounce Steak Challenge. If you can eat a 72-ounce steak — along with the accompanying shrimp cocktail, salad, bread and baked potato — the meal is free. If you fail, you pay the $72 price. Another popular place for a meal is the Golden Light Café. Servings are large here, too, and the specialty is the Flagstaff Pie — a full platter of Fritos smothered in chili.

Experience the Culture in New Mexico

            Tucumcari is home to the New Mexico Route 66 Museum, where you’ll find photos and vintage memorabilia such as a jukebox, gas pumps and automobiles. It also features some 100 murals.

This is a city of neon, so be sure to stay overnight and enjoy the show. A good place is the Blue Swallow Motel, with a neon sign of its own. It opened in 1939 and still has the flavor of the route’s golden age, but the owners have updated it with contemporary amenities.

When the road passed through Santa Rosa, motels, service stations and restaurants sprang up, and many of them have been kept much as they were for travelers to enjoy today. While you’re here, enjoy the Route 66 Auto Museum. And if you’re a diver, visit the Blue Hole, an 80-feet-wide and 80-feet-deep artesian well where divers can hone their skills before heading out to sea.

Santa Fe is the history-filled state capital as well as an arts center, so plan for extra time here. Museums include the Palace of the Governors, Museum of Indian Arts and Culture, Museum of International Folk Art, the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum and many more. The Meow Wolf House of Eternal Return engages visitors in an experience that is part fun-house, part art installation, and Canyon Road tempts them with Southwestern art of every description.

The food here is good just about everywhere you go with New Mexico-style specialties at every turn. Good places to stay also abound. La Fonda, which has been open for 95 years, is the only hotel on the Plaza and the best place in the city to watch the sunset from its rooftop bar. El Dorado Hotel and Spa features Southwestern-style rooms, Hotel Santa Fe is located in the artsy Railyard District and is owned by Native Americans, the Lodge at Santa Fe sits on a hillside overlooking the city, and the list goes on.

The Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta is that city’s claim to fame. It takes place in the fall, but you can take rides all year round with companies such as Rainbow Ryders and Above and Beyond. The city is home to the National Hispanic Culture Center, the Albuquerque Museum of Art and History, and the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center, so there’s always plenty to do. ABQ Biopark offers an aquarium, botanical garden and zoo.

At Grants, be sure to drive through the giant neon Route 66 sign, then keep going to Gallup. This city calls itself “the Gateway to Native America,” and rightly so. Here you’ll find the Gallup Cultural Center and the Red Rock Park Museum, and you can also visit the Zuni Pueblo as well as Window Rock and parts of the Navajo Nation from here. Trading posts have long been a way of doing business, and there are plenty where you can purchase high-quality Native American art — Anasazi Traders, Andy’s Trading Co., Apache Trading Co., Desert Dove Indian Jewelry Store and many, many more.

Endless Arizona 

Your first stop here will be Holbrook, where you’ll want to leave the route long enough to visit the nearby Painted Desert and Petrified Forest. Several ‘50s-era motels will accommodate you nicely, but the Wigwam Motel is a national landmark and a fun experience, as well. The kitsch elements here are a giant dinosaur statue and Route 66 shield painted on a slab of limestone.

In Winslow you can literally stand on the corner at Standin’ on the Corner Park, established to honor the Eagles song, “Take It Easy,” which put the city on the pop-culture map. Also worth seeking out are the 911 Memorial, constructed from beams recovered from the World Trade Center, and Homolovi State Park, a research center that studies the migration of the Hopi and protects many of their artifacts. Also here are a museum and observatory. The park’s name is Hopi for Winslow and means “place of the little hills.”

Camp, RV, or bunk at historic La Posada. One of the most beautiful buildings in the Southwest, it was designed in the 1920s by architect Mary Colter but was the brainchild of Fred Harvey, whose chain of hotels along the Santa Fe Railroad “civilized” the West. Rooms here are appointed with Southwestern décor, and the food in the Turquoise Room restaurant reflects the local cuisine, too. Be sure to take a turn in the relaxing gardens before you get back into the car.

Stop at Meteor Crater, about 35 miles west of Winslow, and then arrive in Flagstaff. Things to do here include an audio walking tour that will take you to places along the original alignment of the highway. When you’re finished, stop for a beer at the Mother Road Brewing Co. The landmark Museum Club has long been a stop on the trip for country music and dancing. Keep your eyes peeled for the ghosts that locals say occasionally make an appearance.

            Seligman was the home of Angel Delgado, who had a barbershop on the historic route. When Interstate 40 bypassed their town, he and his wife, Vilma, established the Historic Route 66 Association of Arizona, thus once again putting their town on the tourism map. If you dare, stop for a meal at the Road Kill Café, where the motto is “you kill it, we grill it.” Spend the night at the Route 66 Motel, and then head onto Kingman and the comprehensive Route 66 museum at the Powerhouse Visitor Center. Also worth seeing are the Mohave Museum of History and Arts, the Metcalf Park and Locomotive Park, and the Kingman Railroad Museum. Hualapai Mountain Park will give you a chance to get some exercise on trails through the woods that offer spectacular views of the valley and the desert beyond.

While you’re here, have a casual meal at Mr. D’z Route 66 Diner or tuck into a steak at Dambar and Steak House. The place to go for the night is El Trovatore Motel, a staple of the route since before World War II that has been renovated and now offers modern amenities.

Chill in California 

You’re almost there! You may not want to stay long in Needles or Barstow because they are often among the hottest places in the country on summer days. But take a pass through the Route 66 Mother Road Museum and stop at the Bagdad Café. This eatery was the subject of the movie of the same name, and you’ll want to post your business card alongside the thousands of travelers who have been here before you. Then it’s on to Los Angeles and the end of the line, the Santa Monica Pier. Have a celebratory seafood dinner at The Albright or drive a short distance to Mel’s Drive-in for one last hamburger and milkshake in ‘50s ambience. Enjoy the sea and a good night’s sleep at the Ocean View Hotel before you wake up tomorrow and head home.