Established in 1926, Route 66 was one of the original highways of the U.S. Highway System. It ran from Chicago, Illinois through the Midwest, into the American west, and ended at Santa Monica, California. Those migrating west or simply catching the sights of the west drove along the route, also known as Will Rogers Highway, the Main Street of America, and Mother Road. As travelers flocked to communities along Route 66, iconic restaurants, lodging, attractions, and more were developed — and many still remain today.
For decades, road trippers have delighted in all that Route 66 has to offer. Although the route was officially decommissioned in 1985 and largely replaced by the Interstate Highway System, Route 66 and its sights still have broad appeal.
Whether you find yourself driving the entire length of Route 66 westward or simply get to enjoy a portion of the Mother Road, there are many essential sights you just can’t bypass. Plan your trip around enjoying these important Route 66 landmarks, historic restaurants and lodging, attractions, and even state and national parks along the way.
Route 66 Historic Lodging
If you’re taking a long road trip, chances are you’ll need a place to stay. Stop off at these historic Route 66 hotels and motels to enjoy the nostalgia and history while you rest. From iconic tipis to classic neon signs, these spots offer a good night’s rest in true Route 66 style.
Tucumcari, New Mexico was one of the main stops along Route 66. Today, the city is still a well preserved example of the charm the Mother Road. Since 1939, the Blue Swallow motel has served guests on the road with hospitality. Easily recognized by its neon road display, the Blue Swallow Motel boasts 100% refrigerated air, TV, and inspection of the historic property. The rooms have been restored and original architectural features remain including a pink stucco façade and distinctive attached garages. Across the street is the Tee Pee Curios, a quirky gift shop.
Wigwam Village Motels were a chain of seven motels established in the 1930s, most located along Route 66. Only a few remain and one of the best surviving Wigwam Village Motels is in Holbrook, Arizona. Each individual room is shaped like a tipi, featuring a two doubles or one queen bed and a full bathroom, cable TV, heat, and AC. There is also a classic car display in the parking lot outside of the units. The wigwams are a popular stop along Route 66 — when else can you sleep in a tipi? The motel recommends reserving your wigwam two weeks in advance.
Things to See and Do on Route 66
Route 66’s attractions are a major part of the road’s undying appeal. There are eclectic sights on Route 66 that you just won’t see anywhere else in America — or even the world. Vintage Cadillacs half buried in the ground and covered in spray paint, ghost towns, unusual statues, and more are among the delights awaiting travelers on Route 66.
Since 1974, 10 Cadillacs in Amarillo, TX have been half buried nose first in the ground at the same angle as the Great Pyramid of Giza. The art installation was commissioned by eccentric Millionaire Stanley Marsh 3. Cadillac Ranch is visible from I-40, but to really appreciate the sight, you’ve got to get out of your car and see them up close. Visitors are encouraged to enter the installation through the unlocked gate and take a turn at spray painting the Cadillacs. Nearly empty cans of spray paint can often be found on the ground, but if you’re determined to make your mark, bring your own just to be on the safe side. Just don’t be upset when your mark is inevitably replaced by the steady stream of spray paint wielding visitors within minutes or hours.
Part of the beauty of Route 66 is that you can go anywhere and do anything in your car. And at the 66 Drive In in Carthage, Missouri, you can watch a movie. Though few old fashioned drive ins still exist (and even fewer along Route 66), the 66 Drive In is a great spot to watch a movie along your journey. The theater opened in 1949 and continues to show movies from spring until fall. There’s even a playground for kids. Plus, you get two movies for the price of what you’d pay for one matinee at an indoor theater!
Built on a pond on Davis family property, the Blue Whale of Catoosa is a swimming hole that operated from 1972 to 1988. It was popular for its iconic blue whale installation and slide and as a spot for picnicking and fishing. Visitors continue to flock to the whale as an attraction and the Davis family keeps the grounds maintained and the gates open.
If you’ve never seen a forest of trees made out of bottles, here’s your chance. In the California desert right along Route 66 is Elmer’s Bottle Tree Ranch. Elmer Long used his deceased father’s collection of bottles and two hundred scrap metal trees to create these beautiful bottle tree sculptures. Visitors can hear the bottles and wind chimes in this relaxing, artistic spot. It’s much larger than you may be imagining and you may even be the only one there. Elmer himself sometimes comes out to share stories and history of the site.
When Route 66 was active, Glenrio was a popular stopping place as a midpoint between Amarillo, Texas and Tucumcari, New Mexico and 10 miles from the Chicago-LA midpoint on Route 66. When Interstate 40 was built, the community was bypassed and tourism suffered. Businesses were moved to nearby communities in Texas and New Mexico. Only two residents remained in 1985 and the town has long since been abandoned. Today, travelers enjoy visiting Glenrio’s ghost town sights including the still intact main street, Little Juarez Café, old motel, post office, and gas station.
Henry’s Rabbit Ranch Home has a little bit of everything. Originally built as a Route 66 visitor center, the attraction now boasts a constantly expanding collection of real rabbits, historic vehicles, road memorabilia, signs, and more the visitor’s center resembles an old classic filling station and sells Route 66 gift and collectible items. There’s even an homage to another Route 66 attraction, Cadillac Ranch, with Volkswagen Rabbits buried in the ground.
What’s a road trip without a gas station and restaurant? Built in 1936 in Shamrock, Texas in the Panhandle area, the Tower Station and U-Drop Inn and Tower Café was on Route 66. It is one of the most remarkable pieces of architecture remaining on Route 66. It has an Art Deco style with two towers inspired by the image of a nail stuck in soil. The site has a gas station on one side and a café on the other. The business fell into disrepair after Route 66 was decommission and it was closed in the late 1990s. However, the Tower Station and U-Drop Inn was placed on the National Register of Historic Places and later historically renovated and adapted into Shamrock’s chamber of commerce, museum, gift shop, and visitor’s center. Though no gas is available at the Tower Station, a Tesla high power electric vehicle charging station has been on the site since 2014.
In northern Arizona is the world’s best preserved meteorite impact site. It is located just off Interstate 40 near Winslow, Arizona. About 50,000 years ago, an asteroid collided with Earth at approximately 26,000 miles per hour. the result is a crater that is more than one mile across and more than 550 feet deep. A popular Route 66 attraction, the Meteor Crater continues to be an international tourist attraction. Travelers visitor to enjoy observation trails, an interactive discovery center, gift shop, and more. Many also stop by nearby Winslow, Arizona, to take photos at Standin’ on the Corner Park inspired by the Eagles song “Take it Easy.”
The Blue Hole is a desert oasis, one of seven sister lakes connected underground. Part of the Santa Rosa Sink, The Blue Hole always has water even in an area that sees little rain. It is very deep, is surrounded by rock, and has exceptionally clear and pure water that completely renews itself every six hours It is always a steady 62 degrees. In the 1970s, The Blue Hole was a popular recreation area. It has now expanded into a diving and conference center. The Blue Hole is particularly popular among divers for its depth and beauty.
A landmark statue along Route 66 in Wilmington, Illinois, the Gemini Giant greets visitors as they enter the city. He stands just outside the Launching Pad Drive In restaurant. This statue is one of many Muffler Man advertising statues erected in the sixties. The Gemini Giant holds a rocket ship and wears an astronaut helmet that looks like a welding mask. He is named after the Gemini space program.
Famous Route 66 Restaurants
You’ll have to stop and eat somewhere along the way on your road trip. These famous Route 66 are known for their food, sights, and service. Some come acclaimed for their nearly impossible food challenges. Enjoy your food with a side of Route 66 history at these iconic restaurants.
Yes, everything really is bigger in Texas, and Texas food is no exception. Home of the 72 ounce steak challenge, The Big Texan offers a free steak dinner to anyone who can eat the entire 72 ounce steak meal with sides in one hour or less. Fail, and challengers pay $72. Thousands have accomplished this feat, but far more have failed. You can’t miss it: there are signs for miles, the building is painted bright yellow, and there are statues including a large bull and cowboy. Since its beginning in 1960, the steak ranch has also introduced a large gift shop, brewery, Texas shaped swimming book, and even a motel and RV park for humans and horses alike.
Located in Arcadia, OK along Route 66, the original POPS Soda Ranch can’t be missed. Really — you’ll see it from afar with its signature 66 foot high soda bottle along the road. The soda ranch has more than 600 interesting soda flavors to try including peanut butter and jelly, buffalo wing, and sweet corn. Glass soda bottles also line the glass walls of the restaurant. If you’re hungry for more, they also have shakes, burgers, and entrees available.
If you’re looking for Route 66 kitsch, you’ll find it at Delgadillo’s Snow Cap Drive In. This historic eatery was built in 1953 by Juan Delgadillo on an extremely limited budget. It was primarily built from scrap lumber sourced from the nearby Santa Fe Railroad yard. Though Delgadillo died in 2004, the eatery is still in operation and known for showmanship and humor. Art cars, hand painted signs, humor, and kitsch abound.
Route 66 Road Features
Sometimes, the appeal of the road is not what’s at the end of the road or even along the way, but the road itself. These Route 66 road features offer a more interesting way to travel than your average interstate.
The Chain of Rocks Bridge spans the Mississippi River from St. Louis Missouri to Madison, Illinois. It was once used on the original Route 66 with a 22 degree bend in the middle. The bridge spans a stretch of the Mississippi River that is particularly dangerous to navigate due to its chain of rocks below. The rocks are typically not visible today except in low water conditions due to a dam built in the 1960s. Today, the Chain of Rocks Bridge no longer carries vehicle traffic and is used for pedestrians and bikers across the river. The bridge is particularly notable for its castle like water intakes near the bridge.
Driving east on old Route 66 (now Highway 333) just outside Albuquerque is a musical road. Rumble strips in the roadway are arranged to play the tune of “America the Beautiful” when vehicles drive over them at 45 miles per hour. Drivers will see signs reminding them to reduce their speed. The project was completed to get drivers to slow down in the area.
THE BEGINNING AND THE END: GRANT PARK – CHICAGO, ILLINOIS AND SANTA MONICA PIER – SANTA MONICA, CALIFORNIA
Route 66 ran from Grant Park in Chicago, Illinois all the way to the Santa Monica Pier in Santa Monica, California. Traditionally, travelers driving the length of Route 66 began at Grant Park and ended in Los Angeles, heading west to explore the United States. Both locations have signs indicating the end of Route 66 and both are popular attractions regardless of their history with route 66. Grant Park has been a major landmark for decades and has recently been the site of Lollapalooza and Barack Obama’s 2008 election acceptance speech. The Santa Monica Pier is beloved for its iconic entrance, shops, fresh seafood, aquarium and multiple attractions.
State and National Parks Along Route 66
America’s park system is an incredible gem, and Route 66’s stretch passed nearby many of the nation’s best park lands. Travel Route 66, and you’ll be within miles of these state and national parks with natural wonders, history, and recreation. Do yourself a favor and take the detour.
One of the major draws near Route 66, the Grand Canyon is a national landmark. 226 miles long, up to 18 miles wide and over a mile deep, the Grand Canyon has been nearly two billion years in the making. The Colorado River flows through it, cutting channels into tock layers among the Colorado Plateau. Camping, lodging, shuttle buses, hiking, mule riding, rafting bicycling, and more are available. Time your visit right, and you can catch beautiful sunrise and sunset views.
Located in Arizona with areas running parallel to Route 66, the Petrified Forest National Park is a sight to behold. The park is home to fossils, particularly fallen 225 million year old petrified trees. The park was popular during the days of Route 66 and remains so today as visitors enjoy sightseeing, hiking, and photography. Petrified Forest National Park is also home to part of the famed Painted Desert, which is as beautiful as it sounds. These areas are gems of the landscape of western America.
Known as the Grand Canyon of Texas, Palo Duro Canyon is the second largest Canyon in the United States. The canyon is colorful and scenic. Visitors can explore by foot, bike, horse, or car. There is camping and more than 30 miles of trails for hiking, biking, and horse riding.
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