Route 66 in California

  • 01 of 07

    About Route 66 in California

    Route 66, Amboy, California, USA
    Route 66 Near Amboy, California. Kylie McLaughlin / Getty Images

    The iconic cross-country highway called Route 66 stretched toward the sea when it reached California. It passed through the Mojave Desert, over the mountains and ended at the Pacific Ocean when it reached Santa Monica. It's a road with a lot of appeal and one that many travelers like to follow, even though it disappeared from the state highway system in 1985.

    What to Expect on Route 66 in California

    If you've strolled along Route 66 in Williams, Arizona or cruised the neons along Albuquerque's Central Avenue, don't expect to find anything comparable in California.

    In the eastern part of California, the Interstate highway often bypassed towns along the Mother Road, leading them to inevitable decline.

    Further west, San Bernardino and Los Angeles County civic leaders made changes fueled by dreams of growth and funded by state money earmarked for redevelopment. Their well-meaning projects all but obliterated the old Route 66 landmarks. Today, you'll find that Route 66 signs...MORE outnumber the remaining sights.

    Following Route 66 Through California

    In California, Route 66 ran from the Arizona border near Needles through Barstow, across San Bernardino County, into Pasadena and south into Los Angeles, a distance of about 270 miles. Today, drivers making the same journey travel on I-40, I-15 and I-10. 

    If you'd just like to see a few interesting reminders of earlier days, this is your guide. Get oriented first with a map of Route 66 in California, or just dive right in. This guide is divided into sections:

    • State Line, Needles to Barstow
    • Needles to Barstow Side Trips
    • Barstow
    • Barstow and Victorville to Pasadena
    • Route 66 in Los Angeles

    If you want to focus on exactly where every square inch of asphalt ran and when it ran there, following tortuous routes to drive on as much of it as possible, this guide may not be for you.

    However, the highway department has conscientiously signposted every possible exit from I-40 that leads to a section of Historic Route 66 and the California Route 66 Preservation Association has a mile-by-mile guide and some nice historic photos to go along with it.

    And if you want to know all the details of where Route 66 went in Los Angeles County, experts say Scott R. Piotrowski's "Finding the End of the Mother Road" is the definitive resource.

    Why Route 66 Is Still Famous

    For much of the early twentieth century, Route 66 was the way most people got to California. After its creation in 1926, it was the way west for migrants escaping the Dust Bowl, hoping to find work in California's fields and factories. After World War II and the beginning of America's new car culture, it carried vacationers who wanted to tour The West, visit a new-fangled attraction called Disneyland or see the Pacific Ocean.

    In 1985, it was removed from the United States highway system, replaced by wider, more modern Interstate Highway, but in those six decades it gained a status few strips of asphalt enjoy, passing into the fabric of our culture. It was the backdrop for John Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath, the topic of a song by Bobby Troup and the backdrop for a 1960s television show. Steinbeck called it the Mother Road - and the name stuck.

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  • 02 of 07

    Route 66 in California: State Line, Needles to Barstow

    City of Needles on Route 66, California, USA
    Entering Needles California on Route 66. nik wheeler / Getty Images

    Following the direction that most early adventurers took toward the Golden State, this tour starts at the California/Arizona border and goes west toward Los Angeles. To reverse it, just start from the bottom of the page and work up.

    Route 66 in California: State Line to Needles

    Modern I-40 replaces old Route 66 across the Arizona-California border. The landscape is stereotypical desert: dry and uniformly brown-hued. Even the Colorado River — which forms the state boundary — is barely noticeable.

    Early travelers must have wondered why anyone wanted to settle in this dry place. If they came by in the 1950s or 60s and were fans of the Twilight Zone television series, they may have imagined Rod Serling's opening narration as I did: "There's the signpost up ahead. Your next stop, the Twilight Zone."

    Route 66 in California: Needles

    Needles is a prickly name for a little town - apparently acquired not in reference to a sewing implement but to the sharp, rocky peaks above the...MORE valley.

    Follow the Historic Route 66 signs through town and you'll find a few remnants. Most notable is the Route 66 Motel, whose sign makes a nice photograph.

    The most interesting piece of yesteryear in Needles predates the Mother Road. Near the railroad tracks, you'll find the shell of the elegant El Garces Hotel, built in 1908 to serve travelers on the Santa Fe Railroad and considered the best of entrepreneur Fred Harvey's chain.

    Route 66 in California: Needles to Barstow

    The easy way to get from Needles to Barstow is I-40. It runs through the same countryside as old Route 66.

    The next page describes two side trips which more closely follows the original Route 66.

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  • 03 of 07

    Route 66 in California: Needles to Barstow Side Trips

    Roy's Cafe in Amboy on Route 66
    Roy's Cafe in Amboy on Route 66. Kevin T. Levesque / Getty Images

    The Ghost Towns

    Past Needles, old Route 66 diverges from I-40 and parallels the railroad tracks. Some folks call this the "ghost town" section, and with good reason: Little remains of Goffs, Essex, Danby, and Summit.

    If you want to see what's left, exit I-40 at US Hwy 95 north, then go west on Goffs Rd. It will return to I-40 near the town of Fenner, where you can rejoin I-40 or continue to connect with National Trails Highway near the town of Essex.

    National Trails Highway Through Amboy

    If you bypassed the ghost town section, exit I-40 onto Mountain Springs Rd. west of Needles. It will soon change names to National Trails Highway, named for the coast-to-coast highway the predated Route 66 and now following most of the Mother Road's remains.

    A desert oddity that has little to do with Route 66 is the unusual graffiti along the dirt bank on the north side of the highway. Made of rocks, some of which appear to have been carried here from somewhere else, it goes on for miles.

    In...MORE the 1930s, Roy and Velma Crowl owned the entire town of Amboy. Today, Roy's namesake motel sign still cheerfully points to the old motel, which sits half-renovated. After almost slipping away, the town has a new owner who has managed to re-open the store next door. And the old motel's sign got a facelift when a television commercial was filmed there.

    Just down the road is the Amboy Crater, once a tourist attraction on Route 66. It's been 10,000 years since it erupted, but the desert floor is still strewn with its black lava.

    Other towns once stood west of Amboy: Bagdad, Siberia and Klondike, but they are no more.

    Old Trails Road crosses I-40 near Ludlow and you won't miss much if you get on it there.

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  • 04 of 07

    Route 66 in California: Barstow

    USA, California, Route 66, Barstow, Route 66 Motel
    Classic Neon at the Route 66 Motel in Barstow. Alan Copson / Getty Images

    If you continue on Old Trails through Daggett toward Barstow, you'll pass the California Inspection Station that features in John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath. Built as an agricultural inspection station, it's used today for equipment storage. You may remember the poignant scene when the fictional Joad family begs the inspection official to let them pass because Grandma needs a doctor, a bit of deception that allowed the family to enter California together, even though the old woman had died an hour before.

    When 1930s migrants reached Barstow, about two-thirds of them turned north to look for work in agriculture. The rest headed for Los Angeles, as did most post-World War II tourists.

    With so many people flooding into Los Angeles and few jobs to be found, the migrant workers didn't get a warm reception. For a few months in 1936, the Los Angeles police sent officers to the border with orders to turn back people with "no visible means of support." You can read...MORE about it here.

    At Barstow, I-40 ends, merging with I-15 which follows Route 66 to Los Angeles, more or less.

    Exit I-40 at Main Street to see Barstow's Route 66 landmarks. The unique McDonald's at 1161 E Main Street (at I-40) is more modern but fun - made from railroad cars - and it houses a small collection of vintage photographs.

    Traveling along Main Street north, you'll pass old motor courts and motels including the El Rancho Motel (112 E. Main St.), built in 1943 from wooden railroad ties from the Tonopah & Tidewater railroad line.

    A small detour on 1st Street across the railroad bridge leads to the Route 66 "Mother Road" Museum, housed in the restored Casa del Desierto, once a Fred Harvey hotel.

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  • 05 of 07

    Route 66 in California: Barstow and Victorille to Pasadena

    Bottle Tree Ranch on Route 66 Near Victorville
    Bottle Tree Ranch on Route 66 Near Victorville. Moment Editorial/Getty Images / Getty Images

    Route 66 in California: Barstow to Victorville

    The quick route southwest from Barstow is on I-15. To go into Victorville, exit at CA Hwy 18 east, then turn right onto D Street.

    If you take National Old Trails Hwy (W Main in Barstow) instead through Lenwood and Oro Grande, you'll cross a 1930 steel truss bridge over the Mojave River just before reaching Victorville, where the road becomes D Street.

    You'll also pass the Bottle Tree Ranch shown above.

    Route 66 in California: Victorville and the Cajon Pass

    In Victorville, you'll find the Route 66 Museum at 16849 D Street. Turn onto 7th Street, which passes through downtown and past the New Corral Motel at 14643 7th Street. This original main street retains some of the old small town character it must have had at the Mother Road's zenith. Keep following 7th Street and signs for I-15 to get back on it.

    West of Victorville, the road runs over Cajon Pass, the last mountain climb before dropping into the Los Angeles basin. Midway up...MORE is the Summit Inn, a nicely-kept roadside stop that's been around since the early days. Take the Oak Hill exit to reach it.

    The old route went through the town of Devore, but staying on I-15 is easier and you won't miss much.

    Route 66 in California: Victorville to Pasadena

    In San Bernardino County, Route 66 travels west toward the ocean, running along the base of the mountains to Pasadena. Along much of the route to Pasadena, old Route 66 is now named Foothill Boulevard. To join it in San Bernardino, take I-215 south, exit at Mt Vernon and follow it south.

    To reach theoriginal McDonald's location at 1398 North E St. in San Bernardino, turn left off Mt. Vernon at Base Line St, then left again on North E Street. Built before the burger chain was bought by Ray Kroc, it's now owned by Juan Pollo Restaurants and operated as a museum. Reverse your route to return to Mt Vernon and continue south. At West 5th Street, turn right. After making a small jog, the road will become Foothill Blvd.

    The Wigwam Motel, which could be the best-preserved Route 66-era lodging in California is at 2728 W. Foothill.

    San Bernardinans like Route 66 so much that they celebrate it every September with the Route 66 Rendezvous.

    Urban redevelopment took a particularly harsh toll on Route 66 sights in the Los Angeles basin. Sadly, only a few bits of roadside architecture remain. Here and there, an observant eye may pick out bedraggled motor courts nearly elbowed out by strip malls, but these are among the most interesting things you'll see along Foothill:

    • Fontana: Bono's Big Orange, one of only a few surviving roadside stands that once sold juice to thirsty travelers
    • Rancho Cucamonga: An old 1920s gas station sits abandoned at the northwest corner of Foothill and Archibald, but a local group is working to restore it to its original condition.
    • Monrovia: The old gas station at 722 Shamrock Avenue (at Walnut) is better-preserved and still has its pumps. The Aztec Hotel with its decorated facade is at 311 W. Foothill. It was built in 1925 along Route 66. 

    From Monrovia, you can continue on Foothill Blvd or take I-210 to Pasadena.

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  • 06 of 07

    Route 66 in California: Los Angeles

    Santa Monica pier, Route 66
    End of Route 66 at the Santa Monica Pier. Nigel Killeen / Getty Images

    Route 66 Through Los Angeles

    Route 66 followed various streets through Pasadena, but this route will give a quick look at the city. Exit I-215 at Sierra Madre Blvd south, then follow E. Colorado Blvd. west (left) through town along the Rose Parade route, turning south onto S. Arroyo Parkway.

    The First Freeway

    Going south from Pasadena, Arroyo Parkway becomes CA Hwy 110, the first "freeway" in the United States, which became part of Route 66 when it opened in December 1940.

    At one time, Route 66 ended in downtown Los Angeles near Clifton's Cafeteria at the corner of Broadway and 7th, but it was later extended.

    Santa Monica Boulevard to the Sea

    Purists say the corner of Lincoln and Olympic in Santa Monica is the end of the route, but the Santa Monica Pier carries the title of "official" end of Route 66. Going west from downtown, today's Santa Monica Boulevard takes you there.

    Exit 110 at US Hwy 101 north, then exit at Santa Monica Boulevard west to follow old Route 66...MORE through West Hollywood, where local businesses keep alive the old road's tradition of great neon signs.

    Santa Monica Blvd. will take you through Beverly Hills, West Los Angeles and the city of Santa Monica on the way to the ocean. Turn left when you reach Ocean Avenue to reach the "official" end at the Santa Monica Pier.

    In ever-changing Los Angeles, few businesses remain from the old days, but along the way, you'll pass Barney's Beanery (8447 Santa Monica Blvd.) has been around since the early days and Formosa Cafe (7156 Santa Monica Boulevard) has been operated by the same family since it opened in the 1930s. Irv's Burgers at 8289 Santa Monica Blvd was also a Route 66 stop, but they have now moved down the street to 7998 Santa Monica Blvd.

    A few other ways to explore Route 66 in Los Angeles:

    • The Peterson Automotive Museum on Wilshire Boulevard celebrates the automobile, including a permanent exhibit about car culture in southern California. The museum is a good place to see some of the vehicles that earlier travelers would have driven.
    • Neon is a big part of the Route 66 scene and you can see some of it at The Museum of Neon Art in Glendale. They also offer nighttime tours of the city's best bright lights (although most are a bit younger than the Mother Road).
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  • 07 of 07

    Map of Route 66 in California

    Route 66 in California: Needles to Santa Monica
    Route 66 in California: Needles to Santa Monica. Adapted from Google Maps

    This Route 66 map shows the Mother Road's route through California, including a driving route that follows I-40, I-15, Foothill Boulevard and south through Pasadena to today's "official" end at the Santa Monica Pier. It also shows three side trips that follow the old road's path.

    I know - it's a little small, but you can use it to get an idea of the general route. If you want to get turn-by-turn driving directions and point-to-point driving distances, you'll find an interactive version of this Route 66 map here.