The Mother Road

There may be no more fabled road in the world than Route 66. Memorialized in song, television, and more, hitting the road on Route 66 is on the bucket list of many trailblazers.

Originally running almost 2,500 miles from Chicago, Illinois, to Los Angeles, California, Route 66 was--and remains--an American icon. From the Great Lakes to the grand Pacific Ocean, Route 66 is still very much alive and kicking at many stops along the way.

A Little History for a Long Road

One of America's original highways, Route 66 was established by the U.S. Highway System on November 11, 1926, with signage marking the evolving road sprouting in 1927. Route 66 evolved out of several earlier trails and roads, including a government-funded wagon road from the mid-1800s that followed the 35th Parallel, the Postal Highway, the Ozark Trails system, the National Old Trails Road, the Lone Star Route, and other early passages westward ho.

The catchy name "Route 66" was first proposed in Springfield, Illinois, and the city still proudly features many original sections. Tulsa businessman Cyrus Avery was also an early proponent of Route 66 and helped start the U.S. Highway 66 Association, which along with other similar entities, would help lead to much publicity for the new road and, eventually, the complete paving of Route 66 by 1938.

Route 66 was popular from its start and was even promoted as a great way to get to the 1932 Olympic Games in Los Angeles. It was also very popular with commercial trucks, due to its relatively flat nature-as well as those travelling west during the "Dust Bowl" of the 1930s.

Of course, many commercial establishments targeting and serving travelers opened along Route 66 during the late-1920s and through World War II and beyond. They ranged from accommodations and dining options to service stations, gift shops, wide-ranging attractions, and more. Though a majority have since closed, many now-classic places remain open on various sections of still-open Route 66.

Because of massive truck use during World War II and then the growth of the auto industry after the war (from 65,000 cars produced in 1945 to 3.9 million in 1948), America's highway system was in very run-down shape by the late-1940s. It seems ironic that America's need for mobility brought Route 66 to fruition, but it also spelled the road's demise in many ways.

After then-General Dwight D. Eisenhower saw the efficiency of Germany's autobahn system during World War II, he would go on as president to successfully lobby for a much stronger highway system in the United States. Though the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1944 envisioned a 40,000-mile-plus network of divided interstate highways, it wasn't until the mid-1950s when it really started developing in earnest.

Another Federal-Aid Highway Act in 1956 ultimately helped spell the demise of Route 66 as the road from Illinois to California. Interstate 40 west from Oklahoma City to Barstow would replace a major segment of Route 66, while more highways and interstates began replacing other sections--often paralleling Route 66 nearby.

The popular early-1960s television series called "Route 66" furthered the romance of the road just as it was being usurped by faster and more modern roads. So did John Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath," a bestselling novel with characters who took the newly-coined "Mother Road" from Oklahoma to California during the Dust Bowl. Published in 1939, the novel was made into a 1940 feature film of the same name and starred Henry Fonda as the iconic "Okie," Tom Joad. Along with The Mother Road, other names used for Route 66 over the years have included the Main Street of America and the Will Rogers Highway (Rogers was involved in early Route 66 publicity and more).

By the late-1970s, a large majority of old Route 66 had been replaced by modern roadways. On June 26, 1979, the American Association of State Highways and Transportation Officials finally recommended that the Route 66 designation be eliminated. It was officially removed from the United States Highway System six years and a day later, in 1985.

In another irony, many segments of the original Route 66 remain alive and well today, thanks to many preservation efforts by many individuals, organizations, and the National Park Service's National Register of Historic Places. Travelers should keep in mind that there is no official national highway called Route 66 anymore. However, the sections are now generally followed by clearly marked Historic Route 66 signs (typically brown) for those in search of the original. It's estimated that about 85% of the original Route 66 is "drivable" either as a preserved stand-alone section or as another marked roadway.

Averaging about 250 miles a day, with five to eight hours on the road, it would generally take two to four weeks to drive all of Route 66. From Illinois to California, every state features Route 66 possibilities awaiting exploration, making it relatively easy (if occasionally hard to follow) to get your kitsch and much more.


The 300-plus-mile southwest run of Route 66 between Chicago and St. Louis has many well-preserved sections. Many towns and people along the way have obviously worked hard to preserve The Mother Road in the Land of Lincoln. The state's current tagline, "Mile After Magnificent Mile," certainly holds true for Route 66 drivers.

Route 66 highlights in Illinois are numerous and can include many possibilities. As with many sections of Route 66 all the way to L.A., roadside nostalgia is abundant.

Chicago is the first (or possibly last) Route 66 option, though even die-hard road warriors tend to start their exploration where there's less Windy City urban sprawl in down near Joliet. Those who do head to the Chicago area will definitely want to check out Henry's Drive-In in Cicero, where Al Capone and others hung out during Prohibition times. In Berwyn, look for historic glass block markers recalling Route 66 and the modest and well-done Berwyn Rt66 Museum. Few know when driving it that I-55 out of the city was actually paved over the original Route 66.

On the way to Joliet, try to time passing through Willowbrook for fried chicken and more at Dell Rhea's Chicken Basket. Industrial Joliet proper still features many of the buildings that lined Route 66 in its heyday.

Next, Highway 53 parallels I-55 and features several stops. For a bite of history, there's the Polk-A-Dot Drive-In in Braidwood. This section also features two old service stations that are great photo stops in Dwight and Odell.

Pontiac is well worth a stop, thanks to the excellent Route 66 Hall of Fame Museum, with its many exhibits-including a mural tribute to Route 66 artist Bob Waldmire, plus the 1972 VW camper and old school bus famed "RV Bob" traveled and lived in. Waldmire was the inspiration for the character Fillmore in "Cars" and his voice was that of George Carlin. Pontiac is also home to the Pontiac Oakland Automobile Museum, the International Wall Dog Mural and Sign Art Museum, more than 20 outdoor murals, and the Old Log Cabin.

Bloomington-Normal, home of M*A*S*H's character, Colonel Henry Blake, is also the home of Beer Nuts, the popular snack, Steak 'n Shake, and State Farm. For pizza and more, it's hard to beat Lucca Grill, which opened in 1936.

The drive from Bloomington-Normal to Springfield is best-known for a stop at Funks Grove. This historic maple syrup (they spell it "sirup") camp offers free tasting and many options for sale. Further south, Dixie Truckers Home is a fabled decades-old stop for all sorts of Route 66 explorers--not just 18-wheelers.

The bustling Illinois capital city of Springfield has many Mother Road highlights and much more, including many options for Abraham Lincoln aficionados and a Frank Lloyd Wright design (the Dana-Thomas House). Route 66 hotspots include a stop at must-see Shea's Gas Station Museum, a movie at Route 66 Twin Drive-In, and a corn dog at the "birthplace" of them--Cozy Dog Drive-In, which was founded by artist Bob Waldmire's father in 1949.

The route further southwest features a number of colorful stops, including the Sky View Drive-In and the Ariston Café in Litchfield, the old Shell Soulsby Service Station in Mount Olive, Cahokia Mounds State Historic Park (with a view of the 100-mile-distant Gateway Arch in St. Louis on a clear day), the "World's Largest Catsup Bottle" water tower in nearby Collinsville, and the historic Chain of Rocks bridge leading into the "Show Me State."


Along with St. Louis's Gateway Arch (built from 1963 to 1965 as a memorial to westward expansion proponent Thomas Jefferson and westward-heading pioneers), there's another St. Louis proper stop that makes it worth taking some of the original Route 66 sections through the city. Ted Drewes Frozen Custard right on Route 66 on Chippewa--Ted Drewes has been a St. Louis legend since 1929. Other St. Louis area Mother Road highlights include fried chicken at Hodak's, Eat-Rite Diner, Italian fare in The Hill district, great food, atmosphere, and live music at Blueberry Hill, the Gardenway Motel, and Route 66 State Park in old Times Beach.

Most Route 66 explorers opt for I-44 out of St. Louis and then take the exit for Meramec Caverns between Gray Summit and Stanton. With ties to Jesse James, these iconic roadside caverns along the Meramec River were advertised all along Route 66 after they opened in 1935 and they remain open to this day.

Next comes Cuba, with its well-preserved Phillips 66 gas station, lots of great murals, the fun Wagon Wheel Motel (one of many great places to take a short break from RV life), and tasty Missouri Hick Bar-B-Q next door.

Fanning is next, with its US 66 Outpost and the "World's Largest Rocking Chair" out front. Rocking and rolling on to Rolla, this small town features their version of "Stonehenge," a half-scale replica that could only be found on Route 66.

The drive through the pretty Ozark Mountains (mostly on I-44) features one of the better Route 66 "detours," thanks to the ten-mile stretch of original roadway that leads to and from the 1923 Devil's Elbow Bridge over the curving Big Piney River. Next, there's the Old Stagecoach Stop Museum in Waynesville.

Look for the Route 66 Museum at the Laclede County Library and the Munger Moss Motel in Lebanon. Phillipsburg features stops at Redmond's World's Largest Gift Store (we'll take their word for it) and Redmond's Candy Factory on the way to Springfield-which one of the better city stops on Route 66.

Traces of the original roadway are still visible in downtown Springfield along Kearney Street, Glenstone Avenue, College and St. Louis streets, and on Missouri 266 to Halltown. Gleaming chrome in mom-and-pop diners, the stone cottages of tourist courts, and the many service stations along this route saw America fall in love with the open road. Springfield also mixes its past with the future, as historic Route 66 borders downtown's Jordan Valley Park.

Explorers coming through Springfield can choose from two Route 66 options: driving through the colorful downtown area (recommended), which is the site of the city's square and several historic events, or bypassing the city on the north side (and essentially missing almost all that Springfield has to offer). Downtown's Route 66 Information Center is a great place to pick up a Route 66 scavenger hunt, learn about Route 66 history and other things to see and do in Springfield, and even pick up a souvenir from your trip.

The city's sprawling Bass Pro Shops Outdoor World is the first and largest Bass Pro retailer in the world. The store features more than 300,000 square feet of retail space, an art gallery, huge aquariums, firing range, the NRA National Sporting Arms Museum, a four-story waterfall, Hemingway's Restaurant, and a coffee shop for fueling up on caffeine before hitting the road again.

In Paris Springs, look for the restored Guy Parita Sinclair Station. Carthage was the home of Marlin Perkins, host of Mutual of Omaha's "Wild Kingdom." Look for Boots Motel and Iggy's Diner. Finally, an original stretch of Route 66 leads into Kansas through Joplin.


Though just over 13 miles in length, the typical Route 66 drive through Kansas has several excellent options. In Galena, look for the Kan-O-Tex station (now referred to as "Cars on the Route"), with many "Cars" film connections. Next, Riverton stops can include Nelson's Old Riverton Store (formerly Eisler Brothers Grocery and Deli), which also served as a source of inspiration for the "Cars" film, and Marsh Arch Bridge (also known as Rainbow Bridge). In Baxter Springs, be sure to check out the Phllips 66 station, which serves as a museum and info center, and the Route 66 Soda Fountain.


At 400-plus, "The Sooner State" offers up more original drivable Route 66 miles than any other state. Beginning in the east, the bucket list of roadside attractions include the murals of Quapaw; the Coleman Theatre and Waylan's KuKu Burger in Miami; the boyhood home of Mickey Mantle in Commerce; the Afton's Buffalo Trading Post and Afton station; a nearby one-lane "Sidewalk Highway" stretch; Vinita's Clanton's Cafe; Foyill's restored Totem Pole Park; Claremore's Will Rogers Memorial; and, just 15 miles outside Tulsa, Catoosa's much-photographed Blue Whale.

Route 66 zooms right through Tulsa proper, and though the city has blossomed around and over the Historic Route 66, drivers will find great stops at Praying Hands statue at Oral Roberts University, the huge Golden Driller statue, the Meadow Gold sign, the New Atlas Grill in the 1922 Atlas Life Building, The Campbell Hotel, a historic boutique offering right on Route 66, and Weber's Root Beer.

West of Tulsa and just west of Sapulpa, the 1920s Rock Creek Bridge is definitely stop-worthy, as are towns like Bristow and Stroud, where the Skyliner Motel and stone Rock Cafe still welcome travelers (owner Dawn Welch inspired the character of 'Sally' the Porsche in "Cars").

Next, Chandler features the Route 66 Interpretive Center, a Phillips 66 station, the Lincoln Motel, and Seaba Station Motorcycle Museum. Heading toward Oklahoma City, look for the giant round red late-1800s barn and, soon thereafter, soda pop-crazed POPs--home of 12,000 soda pop bottles and hundreds of soda pop flavors (like bacon, corn, and peanut butter). You can't miss it, just look for the 66-foot-tall soda bottle bedecked in LED lights.

Rhyming with "pretty" in the classic song, Oklahoma City features comprehensive Route 66-oriented coverage at the Oklahoma History Center, with possible other stops including 66 Bowl, Milk Bottle Building, and the Gold Dome Building. Before departing, Ann's Chicken Fry House is known to serve delicious Chicken Fried Steak.

Traveling West on Route 66 from Oklahoma City, stop in El Reno for Onion Burger's at Sid's Diner, Robert's Grill and Johnnie's Grill. In Hydro look for the original Lucille's gas station. Weatherford is where there's a replica called Lucille's Roadhouse, and Clinton is the childhood home of Toby Keith and home to the Oklahoma Route 66 Museum. Elk City has the Old Town Museum and the National Route 66 Museum, Sayre, was featured in "The Grapes of Wrath", and, finally, Erick's Roger Miller Museum (of "King of the Road" fame).


Running through about 200 miles of the Texan Panhandle region, Route 66 becomes seemingly even bigger than life at times in Texas. For Lone State starters, Shamrock welcomes Route 66 drivers with the former 1938 U-Drop-In (now their Chamber of Commerce, gift shop, and more) and the restored Magnolia Station at the Pioneer West Museum. Then, McLean features the Devil's Rope Museum, a barbed wire fence museum (really) with lots of Route 566 memorabilia. Next, Groom offers up a giant 200-foot stainless steel cross and a Leaning Tower of Pisa-like water tower.

Next, wild west-leaning Amarillo welcomes sign-reading Route 66 drivers to the Big Texan Steak Ranch for their "free" 72-ounce steak (you gotta' eat it all, plus certain sides, in an hour or it runs 72 bucks). There's also a tasty regular menu, a great gift shop, and the classic Big Texan Motel. Old Town Amarillo also features more than 100 shops, bars, and restaurants on original Route 66. About ten miles west of Amarillo sprouts famed Cadillac Ranch, with colorful Caddies set at an angle into the desert as if they were growing out of it.

Next, Vega awaits with its restored Magnolia gas station and the Boot Hill Saloon and Grill. Then there's Adrian, with its "halfway" sign east of town marking the "midpoint" of Route 66--approximately 1,139 miles to either Los Angeles or Chicago--and the friendly MidPoint Cafe and Gift Shop, home of tasty "Ugly Pies."

Glenrio straddles the Texas-New Mexico state line. It was once a mid-century must see until I-40 bypassed it in 1975. Being placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2007 has helped bring traffic back through town, with original Route 66 roadbed and 17 abandoned buildings--including the Little Juarez Diner, the State Line Bar, and the State Line Motel, where the sign reads "Motel, Last in Texas," for drivers headed west, and "Motel, First in Texas," for those heading east. Today, it's one of the country's best preserved mid-century "ghost towns."

New Mexico

Tucumcari is first from the east in "The Land of Enchantment" and it's hard to miss thanks to long ago, but still thriving, "Tucumcari Tonite" advertising campaign in both directions. Top Tucumcari highlights include souvenir shopping in a giant wigwam at Tee Pee Curios, several classic Route 66 motels, and the town's famous mural and sleek Route 66 sculpture nearby.

Next, Santa Rosa features the Route 66 Auto Museum and the Blue Hole, a well that was one of the Mother Road's early attractions. Just east of Albuquerque, Tinkertown may be worth the short diversion, thanks to more than 1,000 intricate stage sets of varied figurines.

Home of travel journalist extraordinaire Ernie Pyle, Albuquerque features Central Avenue, with mile after mile of varied establishments that are "so" Route 66 (like 66 Diner, Garcia's, Mac's La Sierra, 66 Malt Shop, HiWay House, among many). Bustling Old Town starts just a block north of Central.

The original Route 66 actually ran north of Albuquerque through Santa Fe until it was bypassed in 1937, so serious Route 66 road warriors may want to enjoy a fun diversion. Bernalillo makes for a nice stop along the way, with--of course--many possibilities awaiting visitors once in Santa Fe, including the Plaza, the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum, and lots of great only-in-Santa Fe food.

Back to the south and west of Albuquerque and Rio Puerco's Route 66 Casino, Grants has some still-classic Route 66 stops for grub (look for several Route 66 restaurants on New Mexico's fiery Green Chile Cheeseburger Trail). The rest of the very pretty western New Mexico drive leads to Gallup, including the Gallup Cultural Center in the old train station, Richardson's Trading Post & Cash Pawn, and the restored 1930s El Rancho hotel.


The Grand Canyon State offers some of the prettiest Route 66 exploration along the entire drive. The first stretch has easy diversions to Petrified Forest National Park and Painted Desert (including the Painted Desert Inn), several trading posts, and Holgrom's Rainbow Rock Shop, tasty restaurants, and the opportunity to sleep in a concrete teepee at Wigwam Village. Winslow is next, including the opportunity to go "standin' on the corner..." a la the Eagles version of Jackson Browne's song.

Huge Meteor Crater is a big hit in Meteor City, as is Meteor City Trading Post and its "World's Largest Map of Route 66," measuring 100 feet-plus and originally painted by Robert "RV Bob" Waldmire. Through Two Guns and Winona (memorialized by "don't forget Winona" in the famed song), Walnut Canyon National Monument makes for an easy diversion just before Flagstaff.

The outdoors-oriented town of Flagstaff features the famous Museum Club, the late-1950s Galaxy Diner, and the Hotel Monte Vista just off the Mother Road. Flagstaff also serves as a popular gateway to Grand Canyon National Park, which is about 80 miles north of Route 66. To the west of Flagstaff, Williams serves as another great gateway to the Grand Canyon, including the historic Grand Canyon Railway as a great way to get there and great beef at Rod's Steak House, in business on Route 66 since the mid-1940s.

Next comes Seligman, with stops like the Road Kill Cafe, the kitschy Snow Cap Drive-In, the Historic Route 66 Motel, and lots of great neon signage. Route 66 diverges far from I-40 here and goes to Grand Canyon Caverns and the Hualapai Indian Reservation's Peach Springs. "Grand Canyon West" is a nearby possibility, which is outside the national park and includes a cantilevered Skywalk out over the rim.

Kingman is next, including the excellent Powerhouse Route 66 Museum, which is housed in a converted electric plant and includes a relief map, other maps, and a chronological history of Route 66. Kingman's Visitor Center (in the Powerhouse) has a great Route 66 highlights brochure and can point visitors to Mr. D'z Route 66 Diner. Cool Springs and Oatman are next, with some seriously stark desert and mountain driving ahead to "The Golden State."


The final (or first) leg of Route 66 runs through Southern California and very different landscapes, just like the rest of the Mother Road. Needles is first, with high desert temperatures the norm and the Wagon Wheel Restaurant and El Garces Hotel (undergoing restoration) among several throwback Route 66 highlights. After Needles, there's a 75-mile original Route 66 diversion from I-40 running between Fenner and Ludlow, with the town of Amboy and Roy's Motel and Cafe a worthwhile highlight. Roy's in Amboy is the best and safest location to grab a photo of the classic Route 66 shields painted on the roadway.

After Ludlow, Newberry Springs features a California Route 66 landmark, the Bagdad Cafe, film location of the strange film of the same name. In Barstow in the middle of the Mojave Desert, the former Moorish-design Harvey House Railroad Depot, which was also a hotel, now houses an Amtrak depot, the Barstow Route 66 "Mother Road" Museum and the Western America Railroad Museum. Along Main Street (Route 66) you'll find a series of over 20 murals depicting the history of the region including the Native Americans, Spanish Explorers, early settlers and travelers along the Mother Road. They are all easily accessible with ample parking for autos and RVs. Be sure to see the Route 66 Motel and El Rancho Motel. Both are iconic properties along the Mother Road. Their neon signs are classic.

On the way to Victorville, Bottle Tree Ranch, with thousands of colored bottles hanging from natural and metal trees, is in Oro Verde. Victorville's California Route 66 Museum has lots of route 66 memorabilia, including remnants of now-closed Hula Ville, a one-time, and quite eclectic, art gallery and outdoor sculpture garden.

Next, the San Bernardino area features the location of the very first McDonald's, which is now a museum with Mickey D's and Route 66 items, concrete wigwams (they actually tepees) at the Wigwam Motel Village, and Bono's Giant Orange and Bono's Restaurant and Deli in Fontana. Monrovia is HQ for Trader Joe's and is also the home of the art deco-y and Aztec-y Aztec Hotel.

After the Huntington Library, Museum and Gardens and then Pasadena, the mid-1910s Colorado Boulevard Bridge leads to Los Angeles proper. Surprisingly, there are several intact Route 66 routings through Los Angeles, with possible pass-by opportunities including Dodger Stadium and Hollywood Forever Cemetery. Finally, Santa Monica is the last (or first) Route 66 stop. Old Route 66 officially ends at the Santa Monica Pier, where there's a brass plaque marking the official end of the fabled Mother Road, Main Street America, Will Rogers Highway, and other appropriate monikers. The plaque includes an ode to Rogers, "Mr. Route 66," who once served as honorary mayor in nearby Beverly Hills. With Route 66 running through the heart of both Beverly Hills and Hollywood before reaching Santa Monica, Rogers must have enjoyed some serious kitsch in those two LA LA Land outposts