Arguably the most famous road trip in the world, driving across the country on Route 66 is as embedded in U.S. culture as the American Dream. In fact, its popularity originally grew from migrants looking for a better life and traveling west during the Dust Bowl in the 1930s, when it was one of the main arteries connecting the west coast to the heartland. Later, the endearment for Route 66 was immortalized by the often-covered song of the same name and the Pixar movie, "Cars."
Throughout the 20th century, the much faster Interstate Highway System was built and threatened to shutter Route 66, and it was even decertified as an official U.S. highway. However, thanks to its popularity, the roads were saved and it's been designated a Historic Route.
Because it's no longer an official highway, the exact Route 66 isn't always clear on maps. Many sections that aren't well-maintained or drive through busy city centers often have bypass or alternate routes that are available—usually on the nearby interstate—to help maintain the flow of traffic. But if you want to exclusively drive Route 66 in its entirety, prepare yourself to travel through eight states and cover 2,448 miles of the Mother Road.
Planning the Route
Going from east to west, Route 66 starts in downtown Chicago and ends at Santa Monica Pier in Los Angeles, but don't be fooled into thinking you can just show up and set off. The route is not easy to follow, often making unexpected turns, switching numbers, changing names, and nonsensically weaving through city streets. In the era of Google Maps, it's hard to imagine being genuinely lost, but GPS apps will naturally re-route you to the nearest interstate and aren't especially useful for navigating Route 66.
Between the lack of signage and spotty data coverage, investing in a hard copy of a Route 66 guide is essential for making this trip. Not only is every turn mapped out, but you'll also get alternate route suggestions, food and hotel recommendations, and historical anecdotes about the route. It's a small price to pay for a lifesaving resource.
Time On the Road
Driving cross-country on Route 66 is much slower than driving cross-country on interstate highways and you should set aside at least two weeks to complete the journey. You could do it faster if you drive eight hours a day or longer, but you'd be spending the entire trip behind the wheel and miss out on all of the cultural offerings along the way. Plan to drive about 100 to 200 miles per day, and have an idea of cities you want to stop in and attractions you can't miss. One of the best parts about a road trip is flexibility and being able to make last-minute changes, but you'll be overwhelmed if you set off without at least a rough itinerary.
You can also speed up the trip if you're willing to forego driving on the actual Route 66, at least for parts of the journey. Route 66 is no longer contiguous, so in some instances, you'll be forced to drive on other highways. But you can save time by driving on the nearest interstate highway, especially when they bypass busy city centers. There are even long stretches where Route 66 is literally adjacent to the interstate and you can watch other cars fly by since their speed limit is higher.
How much you're willing to compromise your Route 66 experience is up to you, but remember, most of the charm is on Route 66 itself and this trip is about the journey. If you're in a hurry to get to your destination, you probably wouldn't choose Route 66 to begin with.
When to Drive Route 66
The best time for embarking on this odyssey is after the weather has warmed up and the rains and frost of winter have already subsided. Many of the most rural parts of Route 66 are unpaved roads or not well-maintained, and bad weather can make them undrivable. Summer is the most popular time since more people are on vacation, but motels in small towns are more likely to fill up. Plus, you'll have to face extreme heat, especially in the arid Southwest with triple-digit temperatures.
Tornadoes can occur at any time of the year, but May and June are known for being tornado season along the Oklahoma and Texas parts of Route 66. Although the chance of encountering one on your drive is highly unlikely, it's better to be informed and prepared if you come across stormy conditions.
Highlights of the Route
On a trip that stretches on for over 2,400 miles and several days, a directory of sites and attractions along the route has already filled several books. Designing the trip to stop where you want and see what you want to see is part of the fun, but it requires a significant amount of research and travel planning. Read through a variety of sources to find an eclectic list of pitstops and, of course, be open-minded while driving and explore as you go.
Spend at least a couple of days to enjoy Chicago before you set off. That way, you aren't rushed or stressed before starting the big trip across the country.
While driving through the town of Pontiac, don't miss out on the Route 66 murals painted all over the downtown buildings, ranging from the 19th century to the 21st century. Many of the original small-town eateries that used to line the highway have been shut down over the decades, but in Litchfield, you can visit the oldest restaurant on Route 66 that's still running. Ariston Café has been serving travelers since 1924 and is now on the Register of National Historic Places. Don't miss out on this iconic spot.
Henry's Rabbit Ranch in Staunton, Illinois, is one of the early quirky spots you'll encounter along the route but by no means the last. You'll find vintage Volkswagen Rabbits as well as live rescue bunnies at Henry's, giving drivers just a taste of the peculiar attractions that await them.
The original Route 66 went through a town called Times Beach, about 17 miles southwest of St. Louis. The entire town had to be bulldozed in the 1980s due to dioxin contamination and Route 66 was diverted, but today the Route 66 State Park sits on the same land. Not only does it provide a quick escape into nature, but the visitor center shares the fascinating story of this bygone town.
In Jerome, Larry Bagget's Trail of Tears Memorial is a rustic tribute to the Native Americans who crossed through the town nearly two centuries earlier after being forcibly removed from their homelands.
Route 66 slips into Kansas and then sneaks back out just 13 miles later, so quickly that if you aren't paying attention you might miss the whole state. There's not a lot to see on this short stretch, but the Kan-O-Tex gas station in Galena is a remnant of the neon lights and small-town businesses the route is famous for. It's closed down and can't fill up your tank here today, but it's fun to see. And if any passengers are fans of the Pixar movie "Cars," they're sure to recognize a certain tow truck parked at the station that was the inspiration for one of the film's most beloved characters.
Of all eight states that Route 66 passes through, Oklahoma feels the most like the embodiment of America's heartland. Here, you can visit McJerry's Route 66 Gallery in Chandler or the official Route 66 Museum in Clinton for learning more about the route or picking up some souvenirs. The Blue Whale of Catoosa, Oklahoma, is a giant man-made whale that has become one of the most loved and recognized bizarre attractions along Route 66.
Enjoy the scenic drive between Tulsa and Oklahoma City along Route 66 and make a stop in both or either city to experience Okie culture—they will be the last major urban areas you see for a while.
The Coleman Theater in Miami, Oklahoma, is one of the more elegant stops you'll make on this road trip. This Spanish Revival theater was built in the 1920s, hosting some of the earliest silent films and vaudeville shows. You can still visit it for a free tour or even to catch a movie.
Route 66 cuts straight through the Texas Panhandle for 186 miles, but with plenty of interesting stops and detours along the way. Two different auto-themed art installations are only 30 miles apart: VW Slug Bug Ranch in Conway and then the Cadillac Ranch in Amarillo. These wacky structures are made up of Volkswagen Beetles and Cadillacs stuck perpendicular into the ground, and travelers are encouraged to visit them and even add to the paint on them.
If you're looking for a place to stretch your legs, Palo Duro Canyon State Park showcases the Texas Plains and is a perfect place to stop for a hike or even to camp out for the night. It's about an hour detour off of Route 66, so plan accordingly if you want to stop here.
Now officially in the American Southwest, one of the first towns you'll pass through in New Mexico is Tucumcari. Here, the Blue Swallow Motel is a vibrant example of the quintessential Route 66 lodging and has amazingly been in business since 1939. Further along the route, you'll see signs for "The Blue Hole" in the town of Santa Rosa, a natural crystal clear swimming hole that is great for taking a dip or even scuba diving.
By this point, you may be feeling nostalgic for a big city. Thankfully, the route will take you directly through Albuquerque, which is New Mexico's largest city and cultural center. You can experience all kinds of things in Albuquerque, from tasting regional (and spicy) cuisine to learning about native Indigenous peoples in local cultural centers. The Sandia Peak Tramway is an obligatory stop when visiting Albuquerque, and is a welcome break from sitting in the car.
One of the most popular attractions for travelers on Route 66 isn't even off of Route 66. Grand Canyon National Park is about an hour detour off of the highway, but being so close to such a majestic natural wonder, you should allot time to visit. If you have a couple of days to spare, you won't regret spending them here.
You can enjoy more local landscapes that are closer to the route in Petrified Forest National Park, which is adjacent to a colorful area known as the Painted Desert. Just after the National Park in the town of Holbrook, book a night in one of the original Wigwam Motels—with their iconic tipi-shaped rooms—for a unique overnight stay. Built during the 1930s and 1940s, only three of these hotels still exist in the U.S.
After countless hours on the road and days of eating in the car, you've made it to the final stretch of the trip. If you aren't in a rush to get to the end, Death Valley and Joshua Tree national parks are about an hour north and hour south, respectively, and are worthwhile excursions to make.
Quirky pitstops are a hallmark of Route 66, and Elmer's Bottle Tree Ranch in Helendale is one of the best you'll see. This "forest" made of recycled glass bottles is a favorite for road trippers. Once you get to San Bernadino, Route 66 passes just a few blocks away from the First Original McDonald's Museum, a nostalgic piece of history that's fun for all ages and free to enter.
After getting through Los Angeles traffic, you'll emerge from your car at Santa Monica pier and wonder how the trip could have possibly gone by so quickly. Make sure to walk onto the pier and get a photo under the "Route 66 End of the Trail" sign. For the journey you've just completed, you deserve that and more.