By USA specialist Rob
A road trip of epic proportions, Route 66 is one of the most iconic drives in the USA. Its origins are deeply rooted in the development of the country from east to west, crossing eight states and three time zones. This road trip will take you through traditional towns, cosmopolitan cities and past some of the most obscure attractions in the country.
The original road no longer exists in its entirety, but the popularity of the route holds strong, and you can take a number of highways and freeways to reduce driving time across the sections that are no longer maintained.
Sandia Mountains, Albuquerque
A pragmatic note, when considering driving Route 66
It’s easy to let Route 66’s reputation eclipse the reality of the drive. If you’re planning to drive the route in its entirety, it’s important to bear in mind the length of time it will take and the vast distance you’ll cover. I wouldn’t recommend driving the route in less than three weeks as otherwise the journey would feel rushed and you’d struggle to make the most of the sights and activities along the way, including any detours.
If you’re short on time, you could drive just parts of Route 66, flying in-between. I suggest driving from Chicago to St Louis, then flying to Albuquerque, where you can get back into a car for the final stretch to Los Angeles. This way, you’ll still experience most of the route’s main highlights while skipping long days of driving through farmland and desert landscapes.
Also, be prepared to stay in a mix of accommodation. Outside the cities, you’re only likely to find relatively simple motels or chain hotels. While they won’t match the standards of high-end properties, they’re perfectly comfortable after a day on the road.
The USA is an excellent destination for self-drive trips, so if you’re unsure about Route 66 there are plenty of other options to consider.
Chicago, the starting point for Route 66
Starting the road trip in Chicago
Chicago is the starting point for most Route 66 tours. The city warrants a couple of nights’ stay as there’s plenty to discover, from live music venues and museums, to the sculptures of Millennium Park and the sandy beaches of Lake Michigan. In a city famous for pizza, I’d also suggest a stop at Pizzeria Uno, Chicago’s first deep dish pizza restaurant.
You won’t need a car to travel around Chicago as it’s an easy city to explore on foot. Once you’re ready to begin the drive you can pick up your hire car downtown before making your way to the start of the route, which is just around the corner.
Springfield State Capitol Building
Driving from Chicago to Springfield, Illinois
From Chicago, it takes two and a half hours through prairies and farmland to reach Springfield, the capital of Illinois.
Despite its proximity to Chicago, Springfield feels a world away, its red brick architecture an interesting contrast to the Windy City’s sprawling high rises. I’d recommend spending a night here after a day exploring.
Springfield was the hometown of Abraham Lincoln before he became president. The street he lived on, including his own house, has been claimed by the National Park Service and restored to reflect the era in which Lincoln lived there with his family. It’s well worth a visit, as is the State Capitol building where you can often witness congress in session.
Gateway Arch, St Louis
Springfield or Branson?
From St Louis you have two choices: to continue along Route 66 to another city called Springfield, noted for its classic cars which line the streets outside old-fashioned motels, or to detour slightly through the undulating Ozark Mountains to the city of Branson.
Branson offers a more revealing experience in my opinion as it sits within America’s ‘Bible Belt’. Here, hotel receptions have bibles open on suggested readings for the day, and Mormon families put on shows to entertain the masses. During my stay I watched a performance by the Haygood family, whose sons played country music on various instruments while the daughters sang. The act felt a bit like a variety show as granddad Haygood also graced the stage to perform magic tricks. These shows are also particularly patriotic. During the interval, all veterans in attendance were asked to stand and were given a round of applause.
It’s on the road from St Louis to Branson that a lot of Route 66’s weird and wonderful attractions are located, such as the world’s largest rocking chair and the world’s largest catsup, or ketchup, bottle.
Oklahoma State Capitol Building
Driving to Oklahoma City
The countryside is flat and green as you make your way to Oklahoma City. Four hours from Branson, this compact metropolis is my favourite destination on Route 66 for its friendly locals and tasty food, which is an eclectic mix of Deep South Cajun dishes and Mexican fare.
Base yourself in Bricktown, an area so-called because the streets are made of red bricks rather than tarmac. It’s a pretty and relaxed area; the canal that dissects it is lined with restaurants where you can listen to live country music and enjoy a glass of wine.
Until now you may have driven every day , so I’d suggest spending two nights in Oklahoma City to break up the journey. There are a number of places to explore, from the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum, to the Oklahoma Sports Hall of Fame.
A ranch in Amarillo
Oklahoma City to Amarillo
Heading into the Texas Panhandle, the prairies of Oklahoma give way to a drier landscape. This section of the drive is a touch uninspiring and I’d recommend jumping on the freeway to eat up the miles. The Interstate 40 (I-40) will take you to the next stop along the Route 66 drive – Amarillo - made famous by the Tony Christie song.
Amarillo is just over a five hour drive from Oklahoma City, and although there’s not an awful lot to see here, it’s a good place to break up the journey for one night. One point of interest, and a place widely recognised as a highlight of Route 66, is the Big Texan Steak Ranch. This restaurant is advertised for hundreds of miles along the road and people travel from far and wide to take part in the 72 ounce steak challenge on offer here. Regular diners are seated on canteen-style tables and benches, while challengers are placed on a pedestal with a timer behind them. They have an hour to eat all of the steak as well as accompanying sides in order to receive their meal free of charge.
The restaurant is an experience in itself, with cowboys playing guitars, as well as an arcade and a gift shop. But the food is also very good quality and, not surprisingly, the regular sized steaks are delicious.
Visiting Cadillac Ranch
Ten miles outside Amarillo you’ll come across an unusual spectacle in a field adjacent to the road. Ten graffiti covered Cadillacs are buried nose first in the ground. What started as an art installation has become legendary along Route 66 and travellers, armed with their own spray cans, will leave a lasting reminder of their stop here.
Adrian: the mid-way point on Route 66
Reaching the mid-way point on Route 66
The mid-way point of Route 66 is marked by a road sign in the tiny town of Adrian. Adrian is little more than one street and a quintessential small town café, where a jukebox plays in the corner and various American number plates hang on the walls. Pick up some half-way point souvenirs from the café gift shop to mark reaching this point of the journey before continuing on to Santa Fe in New Mexico.
Bandelier National Monument
Entering Santa Fe you feel as if you’ve been transported to the Mediterranean, such is the contrast of the city compared to its Texan neighbour. The Spanish influenced old town square and Pueblo-style adobe architecture, with its sandstone coloured walls and rounded edges, provide a beautiful setting and I recommend stopping for a two night break here.
There’s plenty to visit, including art galleries, museums and antiques shops. You’ll also have the opportunity to learn about native American culture at Bandelier National Monument. Here, old Pueblo dwellings have been carved into the soft rock cliffs.
Santa Fe is a large producer of chillies, and you can buy them dried almost everywhere. When eating, you’ll always be asked, ‘red or green’, referring to chillies and how spicy you’d like your meal.
Route 66 through Albuquerque
The Sandia Mountains rise up around you as you drive from Santa Fe to Albuquerque, and if you drive through around sunset you’ll witness the light casting a red glow on the rocks.
Around an hour and a half’s drive from Santa Fe, Albuquerque is a sprawling city where there are a number of Mexican and Spanish museums to explore.
If you’re visiting in October you’ll see the sky filled with hot air balloons as part of the Albuquerque Balloon Festival.
Petrified Forest National Park
Albuquerque to Winslow
From Albuquerque you’ll travel into Arizona as you make your way to Winslow. En route you pass through the Petrified Forest National Park, where there have been numerous paleontological discoveries. The forest’s name derives from the fossilised wood found here. Throughout the area you’ll see normal looking tree stumps, but with fossilised insides of inorganic material such as pyrite or opal.
A quick stop in Holbrook, just outside the national park, is also worthwhile as the town is home to the Wigwam Village Motel, another of Route 66’s famous sites. While I wouldn’t recommend staying here (there are much nicer accommodation options in Winslow) you can’t miss the opportunity for a quick photograph. It’s also possible to purchase a piece of your own petrified wood in Holbrook.
One night in Winslow to break up your Route 66 holiday is enough. If you’re familiar with the Eagles, you’ll recognise Winslow from the song Take It Easy (“Standin’ on the corner in Winslow, Arizona”).
Taking a detour to the Grand Canyon
While the Grand Canyon is not technically on Route 66, I would recommend taking a detour to visit.
It takes around three hours to reach the South Rim from Winslow, a little longer if you make a stop at Meteor Crater just outside the town of Flagstaff. As the name suggests, Meteor Crater is a huge crevasse created by a meteorite that struck earth almost 50,000 years ago. There are plenty of alien connotations with the site and you can only get within a certain distance of it, further fuelling speculation.
I stayed in Flagstaff for two nights and took part in the Ale Trail, a tour which takes you into the town’s many breweries. The downtown area of Flagstaff is pleasant to explore on foot, and is home to a number of old fashioned shops, including Babbitt Brothers, who sell outdoor equipment.
The South Rim of the Grand Canyon is deeper and wider than the other rims and is where most of the impressive viewpoints are located, as well as hotels. I’d recommend staying for two nights to fully explore, either along the walking trails or on a helicopter tour. You’ll take off from Grand Canyon airport and fly over the green Kaibab National Forest. As the trees disappear the Grand Canyon opens up in front of you and you feel as if you’re going to fall off the edge of the world – a truly breath-taking experience.
Heading from the Grand Canyon to Las Vegas
As with the Grand Canyon, Las Vegas is not considered part of the original Route 66. However, it’s a city many people are keen to experience at least once and its proximity to the canyon makes it easily accessible.
You’ll re-join Route 66 at Williams, before continuing onto Las Vegas. En route is Seligman, a classic Route 66 town of traditional motels, diners, shops and flashing neon signs, and an interesting place to break up the five hour drive to Las Vegas. You can also make a stop at the Hoover Dam, just 40 miles outside the city where you can join a ranger-led tour or explore under your own steam.
The dusty desert surrounds you as you make your way to Las Vegas, which can be seen on the horizon for miles as you approach. The city is a vibrant concoction of neon lights, theatrically themed hotels and eye-opening experiences.
Santa Monica, the final destination on Route 66
From Las Vegas to Santa Monica
It takes around four hours to drive from Las Vegas to the final destination on Route 66: Santa Monica in Los Angeles. If you’d like to break up the journey you can do so in Barstow, the last of the main points of interest along Route 66, where you can visit the Mother Road Museum. The museum displays a collection of memorabilia related to this historic route and is a fitting stop as you near the end of your drive.
Los Angeles is an expansive city and you’ll find yourself navigating some of the USA’s most recognisable areas as you make your way to Santa Monica. A drive through Hollywood and Beverley Hills gives you a brief introduction to this Californian city, before the sandy beach and brightly lit Ferris wheel on Santa Monica pier signal the end of your trip.
The sign marking the end of Route 66 is located on the pier. Nearby The Last Stop Shop will provide you with a novelty certificate confirming you’ve completed the drive.
Spend two or three nights in Los Angeles to unwind after your drive through the heart of America and reflect on your time on this legendary route. For me, the highlight of Route 66 was the opportunity to visit places like Albuquerque and Amarillo, where small town American culture still thrives. The people I met – from Texan cowboys to Mormon communities in Missouri - are genuinely pleased to welcome visitors.
Abandoned car on Route 66
Practicalities of driving Route 66
- You need around three weeks to complete Route 66.
- There is no perfect time to drive Route 66. Due to its sheer size, you’re likely to experience some adverse weather conditions, whatever the month. Oklahoma can see heavy downpours during April, while Las Vegas and the surrounding desert can reach temperatures of 45 degrees during the summer. Throughout the winter months, Chicago can prove particularly cold.
- Road laws vary throughout the country, so check the speed limit when crossing into different states.
- Filling the car up is an interesting experience in the USA, as different gas stations follow varying procedures. While one may expect you to swipe your card in store before filling up, another station will want you to hand your card over to the attendant beforehand, then return to pay once you’ve filled up.
- Try to fill up when you’re on no less than half a tank. While there are quite a few gas stations along the route, it’s better to make sure your tank is full for some of the longer driving distances.