Route 66 is Americana defined. The roadway has become mythical, invoking imagery of desert skies, sprawling national parks and a sense of freedom that attracts visitors from all over the world.
The original U.S. Route 66 highway system covered 3,940 kilometres (2,448 miles) and eight of America’s 50 States. Also known as Main Street America, the snaking stretch of road was a major path for migrants who pushed West, especially during the Dust Bowl of the 1930s.
Famously captured in author John Steinbeck’s literary classic The Grapes of Wrath, a time of great upheaval gave rise to the legend of Route 66. The story is known across the United States and beyond; a narrative of how the old route offered solace for many displaced Americans. What began on a dust covered dirt road grew into an encapsulation of American resilience worthy of historic preservation and reverence.
History remembers a time of great drought and severe dust storms that drove inhabitants from their homes and down the highway, helping to support the communities alongside Route 66 and giving rise to the nomad spirit that remains today.
But while the sentiment remains, you may be surprised to learn that the historic route does not…at least, not in its original form. Despite being a pop culture institution, with music and movies romanticising the association with rebellion and freedom, the original Route 66 is dead, and declassified in 1985.
If you’ve booked your Route 66 road trip adventure, you may be surprised to read this; rest assured, there are still expert guides and aficionados out there who know how to find the two-lane highways that once stood proud as part of America’s Mother Road. Some may be off the beaten path, existing alongside near-forgotten ghost towns across the heart of the country, but they remain, waiting to be discovered again.
This article is about the original U.S. Route 66, discovering what happened to her, and just how much of the original highway remains today.
What Happened to the Original Route 66?
The answer is unfortunately simple.
Urbanisation killed the original Route 66. Perhaps that is perfectly in line with the rebel spirit of the highway itself, conjuring imagery of an old gunfighter shot down for resisting change. Once serving as a conduit for migration, the mass movement of people into cities surrounding the two-lane highway eventually meant that its roads weren’t big enough. While there may be some irony in that fact, the truth of the matter is that population booms across the 8 states comprising Route 66 led to its demise.
The American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) ruled on June 26, 1985 to eliminate its designation. The writing had been on the wall since 1956 when legislation created the Interstate System. Over the course of the next three decades, five interstates bypassed segment after segment of Route 66, contributing to a dwindling driver presence that eventually decommissioned The Mother Road.
How Much of the Original Route 66 Still Exists?
Although the original Route 66 hasn’t been seen on maps since the eighties, over 85% of the original alignments of the highway are still drivable today. While it takes a trained navigator to know the roadways that constituted the original stretch of pavement, the landmarks and stunning views remain largely unchanged for drivers who know how to find them.
From the painted desert to the petrified forest national park, adventure seekers can still enjoy the original route as it was intended. A Route 66 road trip begins in Illinois, with Chicago’s cityscapes giving way to views of the plains as the road winds toward California. The original Route 66 ended where 7th and Broadway now sit in Los Angeles. The years have altered that pin on a map as well, with the intersection of Lincoln and Olympic Boulevard in Santa Monica now serving as the end of the line.
So now that we know the original length of U.S. Route 66, and we understand where it begins and ends, how do we break down its presence in each of the states it runs through?
In order to fully revive the original highway, let’s examine how much of Main Street America is drivable in each of the 8 states that encompass it.
Legends Never Die: Resurrecting the Route
Before tripping down Route 66 as it existed in the past, one needs to comprehend its associated geography. Here is a breakdown, state by state, of the length of highway that represents Main Street America:
- Illinois (484 km/301 miles)
- Missouri (510 km/317 miles)
- Kansas (21 km/13 miles)
- Oklahoma (695 km/432 miles)
- Texas (299 km/186 miles)
- New Mexico (640 km/400 miles)
- Arizona (645 km/401 miles)
- California (505 km/314 miles)
Across dirt roads and old highways, the Mother Road remains. And by embarking on a Route 66 Tours adventure, our guides will showcase the American legend the way it was once experienced.
Run the Historic Route with Route 66 Tours
Our guides have decades of experience organising adventures across the roadways that make up the original Route 66. We appreciate the effort it takes to trace the two lanes, hidden highways and interstate segments that recreate the route as it once was, and we have gone lengths to ensure you don’t have to spend any time scouring old maps to find it.
So let us take care of the navigation while you sit back and enjoy the ride/drive. We’ll chart a course for adventure that allows you to take in all the wonders of Main Street America, cruising down Route 66 as it once was.
Our all-Aussie tour guides will take you through old Route 66 on the roads that spawned the legend – at a pace that allows you to make the most of the experience. Averaging only 285 kilometres/177 miles per day, we take our time to focus on the journey, and not simply the end destination.
To learn more about the Route 66 Tours experience, we encourage you to check out our testimonials page. We’re proud to showcase the adventures our friends and family have enjoyed over the years, and — with many of our relationships building over the course of multiple repeat tours — we can confidently claim to travel Route 66 the right way.
The way it was meant to be seen, the way it once was and forever remains in our hearts.
Route 66 Tours offers a variety of options to suit your seasonal adventure needs. Between our larger Plus Tour and compact Express offerings, there’s something for everyone looking to experience the majesty of the Mother Road.
We’re currently booking for our 2023 Fall Route 66 Plus Tour, running from Oct 11th – Nov 6th. Together, we’ll leave Las Vegas for a once-in-a-lifetime trip down memory lane. Your 26-night cruise features a stop at historic places like Grand Canyon National Park before reaching Chicago. We’ll take the road less travelled back, touching down in eight great American States before returning to the West Coast.
When you’re ready to embark on the trip of a lifetime and experience North America’s most famous highway, contact us to strike out for an adventure.