You’ve heard about travelling down the open road and now you’ve got your eyes set on experiencing what the country is like in America. You’ve heard about the famous Route 66 and now you want to plan your trip. As your route begins to take form, think about what stops you want to take along the way. As the “main street” of postwar America, Route 66 spans across the centre of the country running 3,940 kilometres in total.
In this blog, we will uncover the towns and attractions that will make your trip as memorable as the Route itself.
Top towns on Route 66
Travellers hoping to dive into American heritage can still follow along Route 66 and discover preserved ghost towns, breathtakingly wide-open heartland, and rich American history inside historic hamlets.
As someone who is just starting on their route through the “Mother Road,”, a nickname coined by John Steinbeck in his novel ‘The Grapes of Wrath’, you can begin your journey in Illinois and make the trek a typical early automobile traveller would have made in the 1930s toward California. Your journey should begin in Chicago and end in Los Angeles (L.A.).
Along this route, here are the top towns on Route 66 and what they have to offer:
Journey beginning: Illinois
As the established starting point for Route 66, Chicago has historic memorabilia scattered throughout the city. Travelling from Chicago, Illinois toward your next destination (St. Louis, Missouri) there are several cities and small towns worth checking out:
- Chicago: Chicago is a city in Illinois where you can enjoy a deep-dish pizza as you take a selfie in front of the Cloud Gate sculpture, also known as The Bean, in Millenium Park.
- Wilmington: Wilmington features the Gemini Giant, which represents NASA’s promotion of their 1961 – 1966 Gemini spacecraft. This area of Illinois has been inhabited since the last Ice Age by the Potawatomi Tribe, who lived along the Kankakee River.
- Pontiac: Best known for its murals, Pontiac is also known for its Hall of Fame museum and the old Pontiac Trail. It was first established by the Paleoindians tribe.
Rolling along your route, your next big city stop will be St. Louis, Missouri, where you will first set eyes on the famous St. Louis arch. The St. Louis arch was established in the 1960s to honour early explorations by Lewis and Clark — two pioneers who were guided by Shoshone indigenous woman, Sacagawea.
As you make your way toward Kansas, you can stop at these incredible destinations:
- St. Louis: Get your kicks at the Route 66 state park or the Chain of Rocks bridge that features historic infrastructure that was, for a long time, a staple of Route 66 travellers.
- Springfield: This historic Route 66 destination is home to classic early 1920s-style in places like the Best Western Route 66 and the original Steak ‘n Shake.
- Joplin: Like other Route 66 small towns, Joplin has classic vintage rest stops and gas stations. Unique to Joplin is Bonnie and Clyde’s hideout during their reign of robberies between 1932 and 1934.
The shortest portion of the route, Kansas, is about 21 kilometres of your drive. On your way to Oklahoma, you’ll travel through:
- Galena: As the oldest mining town in the Southwest, Galena is located in Cherokee County and was home to the Galena Mining and Smelting Company.
- Riverton: The smallest town along the route in Kansas, Riverton is home to the oldest store still operating on the route: The Williams’ Store.
- Baxter Springs: Baxter Springs gained popularity after Disney/Pixar released the film Cars and gave a special thanks to “Dean & Paula Walker, Baxter Springs, KS” in the closing credits.
Oklahoma has both historically significant sights and quaint small-town attractions any traveller will love. At about halfway through your journey now, Oklahoma is where businessman Cy Avery, also known as the Father of Route 66, coined the nickname “Main Street of America.”
- Tulsa: Snap a Route 66 selfie at Tulsa’s East Gateway archway. Mingo Greenway, a detour at 11th Street and Mingo Road, will point towards the original route and includes historical markers.
- Oklahoma City: Like Tulsa, Oklahoma City has preserved many of its original buildings and attractions.
- Clinton: In Clinton, you can explore the Route 66 museum, its timeline and important events in local history.
Texas, known as the Lone Star state, will welcome you with its southern hospitality, barbeque, and flatlands. Although you’ll only travel across the panhandle of the country’s second-largest state (695,660 square kilometres), you will hit some iconic landmarks along the way. You’ll enter Texas at Shamrock, where you will continue your journey toward your next destination, New Mexico.
- McLean: Trying to keep their Route 66 heritage alive, McLean was not bypassed by I-40 until the 1980s. McLean has some of the best Route 66 museums with well-preserved artifacts and the Devil’s Rope Museum.
- Amarillo and Cadillac Ranch: For a truly Texas-style art installation, check out Amarillo’s Cadillac Ranch to capture a snapshot of the 10 Cadillac cars buried nose down into the flat earth with their fins reaching high into the sky.
If wide-open spaces and a single road that stretches almost as far as the eyes can see is your ideal, then the New Mexico stretch of 783 kilometres will be the most stunning part of your trip. The best places to stop along the way in New Mexico are Santa Rosa and Tucumcari.
- Santa Rosa: Home to the Route 66 Auto Museum and the oldest archaeological stone tools in the country, Santa Rosa is a Route 66 top stop destination.
- Tucumcari: This is a great place to stop for the night as it features quaint hotels and the famous Del’s Restaurant.
Arizona has some of the oldest, and longest, drivable parts of all Route 66 where you’ll experience the arid desert that spans the Colorado River and the bedrock mesas the state is known for. You’ll also pass through:
- Williams: Known as the last part of the old road that was bypassed by the I-40 highway, Williams is still both a shout out to the 1950’s cruising strip and features old western-style establishments.
- Kaibab Plateau: A trip to Arizona is nothing without a stop through the Kaibab Plateau toward the Grand Canyon, which is only an hour away from Williams.
- Kingman: For those interested in exploring the Mother Road per its original routes, the Powerhouse Visitors Center in Kingman provides a comprehensive guide that can help travellers jump back to before the route got its name, when the town was a trading post for natives, a mining town for ore and how it played an integral part for Route 66 travelling.
To the coast
Through its long history, Route 66 has changed and shifted to meet the modern needs of travellers. The original Route 66 terminated where 7th and Broadway now sit in Los Angeles, California. Today, the official end of Route 66 is set at Lincoln and Olympic boulevards in Santa Monica. You can take your final travel picture at the new Santa Monica 66 sign at the end of the Santa Monica pier.
At the end of your travels, you should check into the historic Wigwam Village Motel for a different take on a roadside attraction you haven’t seen before along your route. Before there were covered wagons, Route 66 and the land it was built on was home to native people. Take a step in their footsteps at this unique motel experience.
Planning your road trip adventure
Excited to get started on your journey? Choose Route 66 Tours as your go-to for more information, insights and travel advice before starting your epic road trip adventure. Contact us today to learn more.