Route 66 is about more than just getting from A to B. A trip along the Mother Road means stepping back in history and experiencing the mixture of cultures and characters that make America what it is. However, that doesn’t mean logistics aren’t important.
As you plan for the road trip experience of a lifetime, you’ll probably want to know how long America’s most famous route stretches out and how many days it’ll take you to make the journey. The answer will vary depending on your priorities and the amount of time you have available.
Many ways across the west
Before digging in to plan an extended trip down the Mother Road, it’s worth pointing out that other options for traversing the American west are out there — especially if you are extremely short on time. Interstate 40, the highway built to bypass much of historic Route 66, runs from coast to coast, including much of the same terrain as the original route. In fact, some parts of the Route 66 journey will require you to drive on I-40 (more on that below). Ultimately, it’s possible to travel from Chicago, Illinois to Los Angeles, California in as little as four days
You’ll find driving along the I-40 a much less rich and rewarding experience than Route 66. For an authentic experience, complete with a range of museums, historic places, diners, natural phenomena, scenery and every kind of quirky roadside attraction imaginable, you’ll need to take a meandering drive down Route 66.
Exactly how long is the Mother Road, however? That’s a more complicated question than you might think — with officials altering the course of the route almost as soon as it came into being.
The history of Route 66
The length of Route 66 has not remained consistent throughout its history. Almost as soon as the road was officially commissioned in 1926, alterations have needed to be made.
Route 66 was formed out of a series of auto trails that had been built by local groups and state governments. Unlike many of the routes on previously existing auto trails, Route 66 was explicitly designed to run through several smaller towns, giving farmers access to a major road to move crops on. Today, this lends Route 66 a part of its rural, off-the-beaten-path charm. Despite its winding nature, the road was still a major upgrade for speed and convenience over what had come before. According to the National Park Service, the completed road cut the driving distance between Chicago and Los Angeles by over 320 kilometres (200 miles).
Due to this ramshackle nature, however, alterations very quickly needed to be made. One of the most notable changes in the history of Route 66 took place in 1938 and took the city of Santa Fe, New Mexico off the drive entirely. The move was designed to provide a more direct way to get between the cities of Santa Rosa and Gallup.
While changes like the Santa Fe realignment make it incredibly challenging to declare a set length for Route 66 the original length of the entire route stood at about 3,939 kilometres (2462 miles). Notably, Route 66 was never the longest highway in America. Route 20, which was designated at around the same time as the Mother Road, traverses the length of the U.S. and is more than 1,500 kilometres (937 miles) longer. Route 66 was, however, the first highway to be completely paved.
Decertification and “historic” Route 66
One of the more confusing aspects of the Route 66 experience for the uninitiated is that the current Mother Road isn’t one continuous path — but a patchwork of multiple state roads, routes and interstate highways. In fact, Route 66 hasn’t been an official road since 1985, when it was fully decertified by the United States Government. This is the reason the Mother Road is often referred to as “historic” Route 66. Decommissioning began in some sections in just under 50 years, with Los Angeles County being the first to take its section of the road out of federal purview in 1965. The road was ultimately rerouted to Santa Monica, which is still considered the endpoint of Route 66 today.
Much of the historic route was replaced by the interstate highway system, most notably I-40. Two other interstate highways, I-55 and I-44, cover much of the rest of the region. These roads were designed to accommodate the growing population in the U.S. following World War II and featured more lanes and direct routes between major cities.
The years following the decertification of Route 66 saw various stretches of the road meet very different fates. In some cases, parts of Route 66 were simply rerouted to assist the flow of traffic in urban areas. In Oklahoma City, for example, a small section of the old route was cut off to make room for a freeway, leading to a realignment of other sections in the city. Other areas of the original route have ceased to exist entirely. In particular, significant stretches of the Arizona section of the old route are out of use, meaning that drivers must move to I-40. The Grand Canyon state does, however, also boast the largest continuous section of the old road — which includes the stretch from Seligman to Kingman.
Even with some parts of the road lost to history, Route 66 is still ultimately intact. The question is, how much time will you spend exploring its culture, nature, food and sights?
The quick trip
Unfortunately, it’s not always possible to get as much time off to travel as you’d like. This doesn’t mean that all your Route 66 dreams have to be dashed.
Route 66 has a lot to offer, even if you’re strapped for time. Two weeks spent on the Mother Road will introduce you to its unique character while allowing you to cross some of its most famous sites off your list. The most important part of a trip is ensuring you see all of the attractions that you want to see.
To make the most of your quick trip, make two lists. On one, write down the essentials that you must see, on the other, options you’d love to include. Calculate how long it will take you to see your bucket list options. Then, if you still have time to spare, look at your second list.
Choose options from this one that best fits into the road trip you’ve already planned. By doing this, you’ll hopefully achieve more than by taking up time to go out of your way to see one thing.
Making the most of your Route 66 road trip
If you have the time for an extended holiday, your ultimate American road trip along Route 66 shouldn’t be a rushed affair. Ultimately, to enjoy each day and get the most of the journey, you’ll want time to relax into the atmosphere of the road.
Putting aside approximately three weeks gives you the chance to stop and explore when the fancy takes you, as well as crossing off all items on both lists.
Having the extra week to play with also means that you can take more detours to see some of the other things that line Route 66, or linger longer in a place that you just can’t get enough of. From enjoying your time cruising along Route 66, to getting to experience the tiny details you might otherwise have missed, three weeks is the ideal length of time for your road trip along the Mother Road.
At Route 66 Tours, we know how important it is to ensure that a journey isn’t rushed. If you’d like to know more about experiencing the thrill of the open road, reach out to us today.