Beginning in Chicago and finishing on the California coast in Santa Monica, Route 66, the 3,939.6- kilometer (2,448-mile) road, or the “Mother Road” as it is called in John Steinbeck’s novel The Grapes of Wrath, is considered to be the epitome of American driving experiences. Crossing eight states and three time zones, Route 66 passes through a stunning cross-section of American scenes, monuments, museums, and it is lined by hundreds of cafés, motels, service stations, and tourist attractions.
There is no perfect season in which to drive Route 66. Because of its sheer size, it’s likely to experience adverse weather conditions. If you’re planning to drive the route in its entirety, not less than three weeks are needed to make the most of the sights and activities along the way. Also, consider staying in a mix of accommodation ranging from relatively simple motels to renowned chain hotels.
Usually, Chicago is considered the starting point for most Route 66 tours and not the other way around, from Santa Monica to Chicago. A couple of nights’ stay is necessary in Chicago as there’s plenty to discover there, including live music venues and museums, the sculptures of Millennium Park. and the sandy beaches of Lake Michigan. From Chicago, it takes 2 1/2 hours through prairies and farmland to reach Springfield, the capital of Illinois. Despite its proximity to Chicago, Springfield has a different charm. Its red brick architecture makes an interesting contrast to Chicago’s sprawling high rises. Spending a night here is recommended. Springfield was the hometown of Abraham Lincoln before he became president.
Although the 504 kilometers of Route 66 that pass through Missouri have been replaced by bigger highways, and what remains is a bit cobbled, the state is still packed full of fantastic Route 66 diners and roadside attractions. From St. Louis, Missouri, there are two choices: to continue along Route 66 to another city called Springfield, or to detour slightly through the undulating Ozark Mountains to the city of Branson. 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. The Kansas section of Route 66 isn’t lengthy by any means. In fact, it’s just 14 miles long, but it’s absolutely worth a visit.
There are over 605 kilometers (376 miles) of Route 66 in Oklahoma, the longest drivable stretch of the Mother Road. There are so many charming towns, historic attractions, and quirky roadside wonders, and half a dozen Route 66-focused museums throughout the state, of which the Oklahoma Route 66 Museum and National Route 66 & Transportation Museum are a couple of the best. To break up the journey, two nights in Oklahoma City are advisable. There are several places to explore, from the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum, to the Oklahoma Sports Hall of Fame.
Heading into the Texas Panhandle, the prairies of Oklahoma give way to a drier landscape. Texas has about 150 miles of Route 66. A few highlights include Shamrock, Texas, which is home to the Conoco Tower. The mid-way point of Route 66 is marked by a road sign in the tiny town of Adrian, Texas. Adrian is little more than one street and a quintessential small-town café, where a jukebox plays in the corner and various American license number plates hang on the walls.
Spanish influence in Santa Fe
Santa Fe in New Mexico is your next destination. 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 neighbor. The Spanish-influenced old town square and Pueblo-style adobe architecture, with its sandstone colored walls and rounded edges, provide a beautiful setting, and a two-night break is recommended here. There’s plenty to visit, including art galleries, museums, and antique shops. Santa Fe is also a large producer of chilies.
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.
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 fossilized wood found here. One night in Winslow to break up your Route 66 holiday is enough.
A detour to the Grand Canyon
While the Grand Canyon is not technically on Route 66, a detour to visit it is a must. It takes around three hours to reach the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. This section is deeper and wider than the other rims and it is where most of the impressive views are located, as well as hotels. 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 in 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. It takes around four hours to drive from Las Vegas to the final destination on Route 66: Santa Monica, near Los Angeles.
Los Angeles is an expansive city and you’ll find yourself navigating some of the USA’s most recognizable 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’s 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 that you’ve completed the drive.