A Route 66 road trip is a driving adventure along what is probably the most famous road in the world. Historic Route 66 spans over 2,400 miles and crosses 8 states, starting in Chicago, Illinois and terminating at the Pacific Coast in Santa Monica, California. Given its “66” designation in 1926, it became a well-traveled highway, bringing together people from all walks of life. John Steinbeck would refer to Route 66 as “the mother road, the road of flight” for those trying to escape the Dust Bowl and ravages of the Great Depression in the 1930’s. Later it would support a countless number of vacationing families from the Midwest heading to the Grand Canyon or Disneyland. As more Americans took to the highway, a roadside culture would spring up along Route 66—motels, diners, gas stations, tourist attractions—to cater to a population that was increasingly mobile.
Today it is that classic road side culture and the appeal of the open road that continues to attract tourists. Route 66 has inspired songs, films, TV shows, books, and even a clothing brand. Even though Route 66 was officially decommissioned in 1985, people from around the world come to drive this mythic highway, stay in vintage motels, gawk at odd roadside attractions, and eat American road food. For some travelers, it is a trip back in time to revisit a road they once traveled on a family holiday, whereas for others a Route 66 road trip is the ultimate symbol of Americana. This summer, Laurence and I drove Route 66 from one end to the other in a bright green JUCY campervan and loved it! We’ll share information on how to plan your own Route 66 road trip, decide when and where to go, and share advice based on our own Route 66 road trip experiences.
What is Route 66?
Essentially, Route 66 is a historic highway in the United States that ran southwestwardly from Chicago, Illinois to Santa Monica, California, crossing 8 states and covering over 2,400 miles (3,900 km). From east to west, it runs through parts of Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California.
Over the years, the route was continually improved, repaved, changed, and re-routed so there is no one single “Route 66” but a number of alignments. For instance, one early Route 66 alignment in New Mexico went through Santa Fe, but in 1937 Route 66 was re-routed to bypass the state capital so today’s travelers can choose which alignment of Route 66 they would like to follow at such points. The route is no longer officially designated or signed as Route 66; however, more than 80% of this original route can still be driven today with the help of Route 66 guidebooks and maps. Route 66 has become a symbol of early roadside America, and tourists drive it today for its history, sites, and nostalgia.
Note that most U.S. states have a Route 66 or Highway 66; however, the “famous” Route 66 refers only to this historic route that ran from the Midwest to California.
The history of Route 66 spans almost 100 years, but here is a brief history. In 1926, the U.S. federal highway system designated the number 66 to the route that ran from Chicago to Santa Monica. The route was simply a series of pre-existing roads and the Route 66 designation was meant to ensure adequate and consistent markings and signage for the route as it crossed state and regional boundaries. The route would be fully paved by 1938, and Route 66 would become the most traveled route between the Midwest and the West Coast.
Over the years, it would be traversed on foot by those participating in the Bunion Derby, driven in desperation by Dust Bowl migrants headed to California for a better life, hitchhiked by World War II soldiers, and used by thousands upon thousands of vacationing Americans in the 1950s and 1960s on their way to visit wonders like the Grand Canyon and Disneyland. Along this busy road would spring up motels, diners, gas stations, car repair shops, and all sorts of tourist traps that would become part of a distinctive roadside culture that reached its height during the 1950s and 1960s. Along this route, you could pay to see live rattlesnakes, tour caves and Jesse James hideouts, visit Native American reservations, ride horses, watch a Wild West show, and marvel at giant dinosaur statues.
Sadly and ironically, it would be the popularity of the road that led to its eventual demise and the rise of the current federal interstate system. Interstates are designed to get people from Point A to Point B as quickly and efficiently as possible, which means bypassing towns when possible, having a minimum speed, and having minimal exit points. As interstates such as I-40 were constructed that bypassed many of the small towns and cities that had grown up alongside Route 66, the small businesses along most of this route suffered considerably (as they did all over the country).
In 1985, Route 66 was officially decommissioned as a route and the route signage was removed. Today, a number of advocacy, tourism, and preservation groups seek to protect the history, remaining pavement, and local businesses along this historic route. Efforts by advocacy groups, government funding, and portrayal in films, such as Cars, have helped to increase tourism along the route. However, despite these efforts, The World Monuments Fund added Route 66 to its Watch List of endangered sites in 2008. Current travelers along Route 66 should consider how being good patrons to the small existing businesses along the route can help sustain them for future visitors.
What Will I See Along Route 66?
Route 66 stretches across 8 states so you will cross through stretches of desert, mountains, farmland, large metropolitan cities, and small towns. You’ll pass a wide variety of landmarks, landscapes, parks, waterways, and cultural attractions along the way. Cities are certainly important stops on the itinerary but it is in the smaller cities and towns, often along their Main Street, where you find the businesses and people that provide the image many people have of Small Town America.
In many towns, there might be nothing to do expect stroll its Main Street, eat at its diner, and visit an old steam engine. A road trip along Route 66 is not necessarily jam-packed with must-see sights, but the drive itself is the experience. Route 66 was developed to be a the way for people to get from Point A to Point B, but today Route 66 is the destination itself.
Some of the most iconic things to see along the route are the buildings and signage of the numerous roadside cafes, motels, gas stations, and tourist attractions along this route. A large number of the original businesses are no longer operational, but in many places you can still eat in the same diner, sleep in the same motor court, and do a guided tour of the same cave as those who traveled Route 66 in the 1950’s. Spending time in the car, eating a hamburger and ice cream soda at a classic diner, visiting a fun classic tourist trap attraction, and sleeping in a simple but clean family-run motel are the hallmarks of a Route 66 trip.
Sadly, many of the businesses that sprung up to support the Route 66 traffic are long gone, leaving behind ruined buildings, dark neon signs, crumbling motels, and even isolated ghost towns which have also become noteworthy attractions themselves. Natural wonders such as the Mojave Desert, Painted Desert, the Petrified Forest, Meramac Caverns, and the mighty Mississippi River are along this route, and detours can get you to many more natural wonders such as the Grand Canyon.
Other popular attractions include classic cars, old bridges, quirky roadside statues and art installations, restored old gas stations, drive-in movie theaters, painted murals, Old West shows and attractions, old city theaters, and historical railroad attractions. Giant statue highlights include a giant blue whale, dinosaurs, a soda bottle, giant cowboys, a large cross, the famous Muffler men, the world’s largest concrete totem pole, and the world’s largest rocking chair. There are also a number of Route 66 museums (most states have at least one) and other speciality museums along the route (focusing on everything from barbed wire to Jesse James to cowboys to motorcycles).
Of course it is your trip to plan as you wish, and you can also make deviations and detours from Route 66 to visit other attractions off the route that fit your interests, whether it be listening to country music in Branson, Missouri, searching for aliens in Roswell, NM, gawking at the Grand Canyon in Arizona, gambling in Las Vegas, or visiting Disneyland in Anaheim, CA. If you are planning to include the California coast in your trip, you can check out our Pacific Coast Highway road trip guide as we drove the Pacific Coast Highway prior to beginning Route 66.
When is the Best Time to Travel Route 66?
Most people drive Route 66 between early May and late September, and this is generally considered the best time to travel the route. This is the most traveled time period partly due to convenience (school and work holidays) and partly due to the fact that these months generally present the best weather conditions. You’ll also find most of the attractions open for business during this time period.
One of the challenges (and thrills) with Route 66 given its large expanse is that is crosses deserts, plains, mountains, and grasslands and six climate zones (ranging from desert to mediterranean to alpine climates). I would advise avoiding the winter months from mid-November to mid-February as you’ll likely find cold temperatures along much of the route (yes, it does freeze in places like New Mexico and Texas!), potential mountain road snow closures in the Western States (California, Arizona, New Mexico), and bone-chillingly cold winds in Chicago. In addition to cold temperatures and potential poor road conditions, many of the smaller Route 66 attractions (and some of the bigger ones) close down in the winter months or have reduced hours making it harder for winter travelers to get the most of their Route 66 experience.
Some people also advise to avoid the months of July and August not only because of the heat and humidity, but also because they are the busiest months on Route 66 with the biggest crowds, most children, fewest discounts, and highest prices. We actually did our road trip in July/August and although we did experience high desert temperatures (over 110 F degrees in Needles, CA for example), humidity, and rain during the route, we did not find the tourist sights or roads to be very crowded and did not have trouble finding motels or campground vacancies along the route. Very few people drive the route from one end to the other, and even fewer do it by faithfully sticking to the old route so we very often had the road to ourselves.
The busiest section was probably the section in Arizona between Topock, Arizona and Williams, Arizona so I would expect potential slow traffic and crowds on this section of the route. The larger cities are always busy and expect slower traffic there as well no matter when you are traveling. For those wanting decent weather (hopefully!) but looking to avoid crowds and the high desert temperatures, consider May, early June, September, or early October.
Obviously, the best time to drive Route 66 is the time you have available, and if you need to set out at a less than opportune time of the year, just be prepared and be flexible. No matter when you plan to set out on Route 66, plan ahead with the expectation that you will experience a range of temperatures and climates. During your trip, I’d advise checking the weather conditions each day as snow, hail storms, landslides, tornadoes, thunderstorms, flooding, and dust storms are all possible along this route!
Should I Drive Route 66 Westward or Eastward?
There is of course no correct way to do a road trip, not even an epic one like Route 66. You’ll see essentially the same things no matter which way you go (guides will actually suggest sometimes driving both ways in a town to experience both eastbound and westbound sections of Route 66 if there is a split because of one-way roads).
I would first base this decision on logistics (e.g., where you are based, best flight or car rental deals, weather), practicalities (e.g., weather), and any time-limited sightseeing priorities (e.g., a museum open for only 6 months of the year, a concert in Chicago you want to be at on X day). For example, we drove it eastbound from California to Chicago as we were based near San Francisco and it logistically made the most sense to start there.
However, if you have no logistical issues making you lean one way or the other, I would choose to drive Route 66 westward, from Chicago, Illinois to Santa Monica, CA. This is the traditional way that Route 66 was originally developed and it also follows the westward expansion of the entire country.
Where Specifically Does it Start and End?
Route 66 goes from Chicago, Illinois to Santa Monica, California. In Chicago, the official starting and ending points for Route 66 are a bit confusing as they changed over time and there are now one-way east bound and westbound lanes making it even more tricky. For those starting in Chicago, you can start at Jackson Blvd at Michigan Avenue or Jackson Blvd at Lake Shore Drive. However, to confuse you a bit, the current Route 66 begin sign is located on Adams Street at Michigan Avenue so you’ll want to stop there.
For those drivers ending in Chicago, the ending point is marked at the intersection of Jackson Blvd and Michigan Avenue (Route 66 sign is on Jackson Blvd), although another ending point was at Jackson Blvd and Lake Shore Drive. To take a photo of either of the Route 66 signs, you’ll want to find a place to park and walk to them if you can. The signs are located up tall poles (one next to a bus stop) to prevent vandalism/stealing, but this inconveniently make it more challenging to take photos next to them!
Santa Monica is a bit more simple. The ending (or starting) point is at the intersection of Lincoln Boulevard and Olympic Boulevard in Santa Monica. However, unless things have changed, you’ll find no signs or indication of Route 66 here. For a more satisfying end (or beginning) to your Route 66 road trip drive a bit further to the Santa Monica Pier, the entrance is located at Colorado and Ocean Avenue. Then take a walk to find the 66 to Cali shop where you’ll find the “End of the Trail” Route 66 sign as well as a fun Route 66 gift shop.
How Do I Find and Stay on Route 66?
Bad news is that you can’t just go to Chicago and follow Route 66 signs westward to California. Since the route was decommissioned in 1985, the signs were removed and the route was removed from official maps. The road is also no longer contiguous as parts of the old Route 66 are now closed, deteriorated, or paved over. Some states have kept the 66 designation for parts of the highway, but only as state roads.
Good news is that as time goes on, more signs are being put up along the route to denote the Historical Route 66 and some maps are including parts of Route 66 as a tourist or scenic highway. However, these sorts of signs and denotations are not consistent along the route, and are sometimes conflicting, so the best way to find the route and stick to it is with the help of a good guidebook or Route 66 specific map (see our list of Planning Resources towards the bottom of the post).
Most GPS units will not be able to follow Route 66 although we found ours useful to figure out which road we were on. That said, there are Route 66 GPS downloads made by River Pilot that are designed to provide Route 66 turn-by-turn directions; these are compatible with a limited number of GPS units and have mixed reviews so do some research before ordering. We did not use them during our trip.
Today, it is estimated that over 80% of the original Route 66 in some form or the other is still driveable and with the help of some good Route 66 planning aids, you can easily find and drive it. It is up to you how faithful you want to be in keeping to the original route as most people skip over sections to save time and hop on the Interstate, whereas others try to be as faithful as possible. For instance, there are many times when you can actually see the interstate from historic Route 66 and you are simply traveling alongside it on a slower local road.
Note that a few sections of Route 66 are not in great driving shape, may run onto private land, or may be impassable in bad weather conditions so keep this in mind and just drive safely. Guidebooks will often warn you about these sections and provide helpful advice.
How Much Time Should I Allow for a Route 66 Road Trip?
This really depends on how much you want to see, how much time you are willing to drive each day, and how faithful you want to be to the historical Route 66. Also you will need to account for any detours you plan to make which can take up a lot of time (e.g., detours to Grand Canyon or Las Vegas, NV).
For those who want to be faithful as possible to the historical Route 66, drive extra alignments, and stop at all the main attractions, you’ll need at least 2 weeks to drive the full route (not accounting for detours); however, it will be a bit rushed at 2 weeks. Four weeks seems to be the recommended amount of time to drive the route faithfully at a fairly leisurely pace and have time to do all the stops. If you have less than 2 weeks, I’d highly recommend choosing a section of Route 66 to explore, and you can always come back and drive the rest at another time. So many people drive Route 66 multiple times in their lives as the route seems to have an appeal that pulls you back again since it is always changing.
For those wanting to do the full road trip from Chicago to Los Angeles but are not so concerned about faithfulness to the route and just want to be sure to hit the highlights of Route 66 can do the drive in less time. You can actually get from Chicago to Los Angeles via Interstates along the route with about 48 hours worth of driving or less. That said, you’ll want to make plenty of stops and drive portions of the old Route 66 along the way. I’d suggest at least 8 days to 10 days to do this sort of trip for those who do not mind Interstate driving. The Interstates can save you a lot of time, but just remember that those driving Route 66 are often searching for an atmosphere that exists away from the Interstates so be sure to include some good stretches of Route 66 to get this experience.
Our summer Route 66 road trip lasted 18 days but we spent 1 night in Page, AZ, 2 nights at the Grand Canyon, and an extra day or so in Albuquerque, NM visiting a friend. So we basically had 14 full days and nights along the route and we drove the route as faithfully as possible, sticking to the existing old sections of Route 66 and not getting onto the Interstate unless there was no alternative. We stopped at just about all of the notable attractions, visited most of the Route 66 related museums, and made a countless number of stops to take a photo or take a look at vintage signs, motels, abandoned drive-in theaters, etc. along the route.
We also made a few minor side trips along the route. But to accomplish the above, we typically started driving between 8:00am to 9:00am and drove until around night fall (generally 7:30pm to 8:00pm) every day. We’d stop for all notable (and most minor) stops with typically an hour or less allocated for a lunch stop, but dinner was usually made in the RV before going to bed each night. It was a great road trip and we saw so much, but we drove a lot most days and never had time to spend more than one night in any place. On days when we wanted to spend a lot of time in one place, we’d make up for it by driving later into the night or getting up earlier the next day.
So yes it is possible to do a Route 66 road trip in 2 weeks, drive the route faithfully, and visit most of the attractions along the way, but it means a quick pace and long days of driving. For the average traveler with two week, I’d recommend slowing down more and either use the Interstate more to save time or skip some sections of the route so you can more fully appreciate the section you are driving.
I Don’t Have Time for The Full Route, What Section Should I Drive?
Most people who travel on Route 66 do not travel the full route. And even among those who say they’ve traveled the full route between Chicago and Santa Monica, often don’t follow it faithfully, jumping on the Interstate highways to save time between major destinations. If you have limited time, I would choose a section that fits in with your interests (e.g., vintage motels, Wild West, quirky roadside attractions, railroads) or that fits in with your other travel plans (e.g., a visit to Las Vegas or a family visit in Texas). Below is but a short list of suggestions:
Cowboys & Wild West: There are a lot of Old West oriented stops, and I’d recommend considering the Oklahoma to Arizona section. A must-stop is the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City. Will Rogers birthplace is in Oologah, Oklahoma, the Will Rogers Memorial is in Claremore, OK, and the annual Will Rogers Memorial Rodeo is held in Vinita, OK each summer.
In Texas, Route 66 drivers may want to pull over for a steak at the Big Texan Steak Ranch and consider visits to the Devil’s Rope Museum in McClean, the American Quarter Horse Association Heritage Center and Museum in Amarillo, the Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum in Canyon, and the National Cowgirl Hall of Fame in Hereford.
The historic Old Town of Albuquerque and Santa Fe are both great places to buy Western wear in New Mexico. In Arizona, you might want to make a pitstop at Wild West Junction in Williams, Arizona and stroll thorough Oatman, Arizona which was a true Old West mining town and now holds Old West shows in the middle of the street in the summer. If you end up in California, I’d highly recommend a stop at the Calico Ghost Town.
Isolated, Apocalyptic Feel: I would drive through California’s Mojave Desert as there are several parts where you can get that isolated feel with very few tiny towns here and there. This was the end and most dangerous section for most drivers of historic Route 66 as water was scarce, distances long, and old cars could easily overheat in the desert heat. Some sections of Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas can also give you this feeling, such as the section from Amarillo, TX to Albuquerque, NM.
Birthplace & History of Route 66: I would suggest the Illinois through Oklahoma section. The route obviously begins in Chicago but Springfield, Missouri is considered the official birthplace of Route 66 (there is a plaque in Park Central Square) as this was where the meeting was held where Route 66 was officially designated as such.
Oklahoma also factors heavily into the creation of Route 66. The Father of Route 66, Oklahoma state highway official Cyrus Avery, is the reason that Route 66 had its longest stretch in Oklahoma (there is actually no reason the Route needs to run through Oklahoma at all!). You’ll find a lot of famous Route 66 sites in Oklahoma and you can visit the National Route 66 Museum in Elk City, Oklahoma to learn all about the history of this famous route.
Cars Film Lovers: The animated film drew inspiration from locations throughout Route 66. The town Radiator Springs is fictional and likely draws from a combination of towns rather than one specific one, although you’ll hear that many towns were “the town from Cars” whether it be Amboy, CA, Seligman, AZ, Gallup, NM, or Baxter Springs, KS.
The Texas to Arizona section probably most resembles the actual landscape in the film. I would suggest from talking to other travelers that Arizona best fits their picture of Route 66 based on the film. If you are looking for the picturesque waterfall in the film, it sadly does not exist on Route 66 although it may be inspired by Havasu Falls in Arizona (a 3-4 hour drive and overnight hike from Peach Springs, AZ). If you want to see the actual tow truck that inspired Tow Mater, add Galena, Kansas to your itinerary.
Old Motels: You’ll find them scattered along the route. If I had to choose one state, I might choose Missouri as you’ll find a lot of notable Route 66 motels, including the Wagon Wheel Motel in Cuba, Munger Moss Motel in Lebanon, and Boots Motel in Carthage. Tucumcari, New Mexico was once known as having a motel row with billboards along Route 66 advertising “Tucumcari Tonite”; however, while many of the neon signs have darkened it still has several old motels, including the Blue Swallow Motel, one of the most famous on Route 66.
Those interested in the historic Fred Harvey railroad luxury hotels, a few have been restored as hotels around Route 66 such as the La Posada in Winslow, Arizona, El Tovar in the Grand Canyon, La Fonda in Santa Fe, and The Castañeda Hotel in Las Vegas, NM is being renovated. If you want to sleep in a wigwam (tee-pee), you’ll want be sure to include San Bernardino, California or Holbrook, Arizona on your itinerary!
Big Cities: Those looking for big city highlights on a Route 66 road trip may be best served by starting in Chicago, Illinois and heading to Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. This will allow you to explore the Route 66 cities of Chicago, St. Louis, MO, Tulsa, OK, and Oklahoma City. Other places of notable size along the route are Springfield, IL and Springfield, MO. You’ll also get a good sampling of smaller town and rural landscapes along the way.
Avoiding Big Cities: You’ll notice the size of cities and towns generally decreases pretty rapidly after you leave St. Louis. For those who want to skip big cities, I’d suggest avoiding the Chicago to St. Louis stretch as well as the final stretch as you near Santa Monica and Los Angeles which are the two main areas where traffic can get heavy and slow. Any section you choose in between will have few large cities. The only other large cities (depending on your definition of large) that you may want to detour around are Tulsa, OK, Oklahoma City, OK, Albuquerque, NM, Santa Fe, NM and Flagstaff, AZ. Many people driving Route 66 detour around the larger cities and often you can just hop on the interstate to get through them quickly or take a beltway to loop around them.
Best Landscapes: Depends of course on the type of landscapes you want to see, but I would say Arizona as you have the desert, petrified forest, mountains, caverns, and the Painted Desert. The whole stretch from the Mojave Desert in California through Texas has some great desert and Western landscapes.
Grapes of Wrath fans: This one’s a no-brainer, start in Oklahoma and follow “the mother road” to the California coast tracing the same route as the Joads. If you expect Oklahoma to be a giant brown, dusty prairie, you’ll be in for a surprise (in a good way!). Driving through the Mojave Desert can really help you imagine the challenging journey of those during the Dust Bowl and better understand the meaning of the phrase “California, or Bust!”.
Drive-in Movie Theaters: Most of the operational drive-in theaters along Route 66 are in the earlier part of the route between Illinois and Oklahoma, but a few are still up-and-running across the route along with a number of now abandoned ones. Here are some that were still showing films during our travels: Litchfield Sky View Drive-In in Litchfield, IL, 66 Drive-In in Carthage, MO,19 Drive-In in Cuba, MO, Admiral Twin Drive-In in Tulsa, OK, Winchester Drive-In in Oklahoma City, OK, Fort Union Drive-in in Las Vegas, NM, and Skyline Drive-in Theater in Barstow, CA. While not a drive in theater, The Route 66 Movie Theater in Webb City, MO has been showing films since 1945. Do check ahead before you plan to see a film as drive-in theaters seem to close down (and also open) a lot without much warning; most are also only open during the Spring and Summer months.
Roadside Attractions: There are fun, quirky and downright weird roadside attraction all across Route 66 (and America in general for that matter) and these change as old ones are removed and new ones spring up. Here is a very partial list of some of the more quirky roadside attractions in each state so you can have an idea of which state(s) might be must-see for your Route 66 road trip depending on your interests.
Illinois has the Muffler Men, Funk’s Grove, Henry’s Rabbit Ranch, a giant Abraham Lincoln on a covered wagon, The Fuller Dome, and the world’s largest ketchup bottle.
Missouri has the world’s largest rocking chair, the Jesse James Wax Museum, Red Oak II (art installations and restored Route 66 era buildings), and Meramac Caverns.
Kansas has the tow truck that inspired the Tow Mater character on Cars. Oklahoma has the world’s largest concrete totem pole, the Blue Whale of Catoosa, a giant oilworker, a round barn, a giant soda bottle, a giant cross, and perhaps the largest Route 66 shield in the world.
Texas has the Cadillac Ranch, VW Slug Bug Ranch, a “leaning” water tower, Big Texan Steak Ranch, a giant cross, and enormous balls of barbed wire at Devil’s Rope Museum.
New Mexico has museums dedicated to dinosaurs, Billy the Kid, and rattlesnakes, a giant roadrunner, the Blue Hole, a musical road, Tinkertown, Tee Pee Curios and the Continental Divide.
Arizona has a Wigwam Motel, dinosaur sculptures, the Jack Rabbit Trading Post with its giant jackrabbit, giant arrows, a geodesic dome, giant lumberjacks, Grand Canyon Caverns (not the same as the Grand Canyon National Park), frog rock, Giganticus Headicus, a giant meteor crater, wild burros, and lots of petrified wood.
In California, you’ll find shoe trees, the world’s largest thermometer, a giant hula dancer, the Bagdad Cafe of movie fame, a big orange, Calico Ghost town, Elmer’s Bottle Tree Ranch, the McDonald’s Museum, and a Wigwam Motel.
Longest Stretch of Uninterrupted Route 66: Currently the longest stretch of driveable historic Route 66 (over 150 miles) starts around Ash Fork, Arizona and ends in Topock, Arizona. This means that you don’t need to hop on the interstate at all during this drive. This is one of the most driven and busy sections of Route 66.
Grand Canyon and/or Las Vegas Bound: Consider driving the California-Arizona section. Las Vegas is convenient from around Needles, CA and the Grand Canyon is convenient from either Williams, AZ or Flagstaff, AZ.
Choosing Transportation for Route 66 Road Trip
It wouldn’t be a road trip unless you were driving, so either you’ll need to supply your own vehicle or motorcycle or you’ll need to rent one. If you are planning on renting, you should consider whether you want to stay in lodging along the way, bring camping gear to set up a tent at campsites along the way, or if you want to be able to sleep in your vehicle such as with a campervan or RV.
There are a lot of major rental car (Thrifty, Hertz, Alamo, Avis, Dollar, Enterprise, etc.) that have offices in both Chicago and Los Angeles so check around and compare prices. For a Route 66 road trip, you’ll probably want to look for a car or RV rental company that allow you to rent a vehicle at one end of your journey (e.g., Chicago) and return it at the other (e.g., Los Angeles). Those wanting to hire a classic car should expect much higher rental rates and may want to check out car rental companies that specialize in Route 66 classic car rentals like Ride Free. Those looking for a motorcycle rental for Route 66 might check out Eagle Rider and Ride Free.
For any type or rental, you’ll want to research what insurance coverage is included in the rental (and what is recommended), and you’ll want to specifically check on any one-way drop-off fees which can add an additional $100 or more to a rental car price. To rent a vehicle or RV, you typically need to be at least 21 years of age (often 25 years of age) and have a valid driver’s license. If you are not an American citizen you may need an international driving permit or an authorized English translation of your driving credentials. If you are an international driver and have never driven in the U.S., you should check out this article from Laurence about tips for driving in the U.S. for non-American drivers.
We personally chose to do our Route 66 roadtrip in a JUCY campervan rental, and JUCY conveniently has offices located in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Las Vegas. JUCY specialize in small custom-built campervan hires. Hiring a campervan gave us the option to sleep and eat (there is a small kitchen included!) in the RV, and this helped us save a lot of time and money along the way. If driving along in a bright green and purple campervan with a pop-up Penthouse on top doesn’t sound intimidating, you can read a full review of our JUCY campervan experience written by Laurence on his blog.
Note that although we fully recommend a JUCY RV hire, you will need to return the vehicle in one of their three offices so this may be better suited for those who are only considering a driving only portion of Route 66 such as sections in California and Arizona or those who also want to include places like Las Vegas or San Francisco on their trip itinerary.
Are Group Tours or Guided Tours Available?
Yes, indeed, there are several group and guided tours available for those wanting to traverse Route 66 by car, bus, or motorcycle. Some cover the full route and others cover only sections of Route 66. Although we encourage people to consider traveling the route independently, group tours may be a particularly good fit for foreign travelers who don’t speak much English, those who feel uncomfortable traveling independently, those unable to rent a car, or solo travelers wanting company during their trip.
We don’t have any personal recommendations, but those wanting to go via motorcycle might look at Eagle Rider, River Pilot, and Ride Free, those wanting to go by classic car might check out Ride Free and River Pilot, and those wanting a group bus tour might want to check out companies like Intrepid Travel and Trafalgar.
Dining and Lodging along Route 66?
There are ample places to eat and sleep along Route 66. Unfortunately, the best resource was the Route 66 Dining & Lodging Guide, which listed over 500 restaurants and motels throughout the route, published its final edition in 2015 and the guide is now difficult to find.
One of the joys of a Route 66 road trip is staying in wonderful old vintage motels or motor courts. There are many Route 66 era ones and several newer ones along the route dedicated to serving Route 66 tourists. You can even sleep in a wigwam (Wigwam Motel in San Bernardino, CA or Wigwam Motel in Holbrook, AZ) or stay in a room where a celebrity such as Clark Gable (Boots Court Motel in Carthage, MO) or Elvis Presley stayed (Best Western Route 66 Rail Haven in Springfield, MO or Trade Winds Motel in Clinton, Oklahoma).
Even if you are primarily planning to camp or stay in an RV, as we did, I’d highly recommend staying at least one or two nights at a vintage motel along the route. Not only is this a great Route 66 experience, but your patronage supports these mostly family-run businesses and helps them keep their neon signs burning! We definitely enjoyed these stays.
Note that many hotels and campgrounds offer discounts for a number of reasons (seniors, U.S. military, AAA members), so be sure to check to see when booking and bring along proof at check-in (e.g., ID, membership card). Also you may want to sign up for a loyalty or rewards program if you plan to stay in a number of the same types of properties (e.g., Choice Hotels, Hilton, KOA RV parks) to receive perks, discounts, and free stays.
For those on a tight budget, note that free primitive camping (no hook-ups) is available on many public lands administered by the BLM (Bureau of Land Management) and the USFS (US Forest Service) as well as some other organizations or even private ranches. Some WalMart stores also offer free overnight parking although this is store specific and at the discretion of each store manager. For all those planning to camp or RV along Route 66, see our camping and RV resource list later in the post for more information and helpful websites.
You’ll find food options in almost any town along the route. Route 66 era diners are still serving up classic American road food such as hamburgers, chili, fried chicken, BBQ pork, milkshakes, and corn dogs. You’ll also find plenty of chain fast food places and even fine dining restaurants along the route.
Food options vary depending on the region so you can try green chili smothered burritos in New Mexico, steak in Texas, onion burgers in Oklahoma, frozen custard in Missouri, and cozy dogs in Illinois. Vegetarians, and particularly vegans, may have limited options in smaller towns along the route and may want to stop at grocery stores along the way to be sure to have snacks available if needed.
How Much Should I Plan Ahead?
This really depends on your style of travel, and some people plan nothing ahead and just drive the route and others plan in detail what they are going to see each day. I’d suggest something in between where you do some research and buy a guidebook to figure out what places you’d like to visit and where you generally plan to go along the route. I’m generally a person who plans everything out if I can but I think in keeping with the spirit of Route 66, it is better to take it slow and not have a lot of hard plans if possible.
It is nice to be able to have flexibility in terms of how much time you spend in an area and and how far you drive each day as you may end up spending much more time in a place than you expected. For instance, we never planned our lodging more than a day in advance and this worked out well for us and we generally stopped for lunch whenever we got hungry.
We did make a general itinerary before our trip, but we didn’t end up sticking to it on a day-to-day basis as it was hard to anticipate how far we’d get each day and it was good to be able to go off and visit an interesting attraction someone told us about even if it was 30 miles off the route. It is good to be able to have this sort of freedom if you can. If you have fairly limited time for your Route 66 road trip, I’d suggest doing a bit more planning ahead of time to get the most out of your trip so you can use your limited time as wisely as possible.
Even if you want to just get in your car with no plans, there are a few things I’d recommend you do in advance. If you are not a U.S. citizen or resident, you’ll need a passport and likely a visa to enter the United States. You’ll also want to have proof of exit (e.g., a plane ticket out of the country) as you may be asked to show it at immigration. If you are renting a car or RV, I’d book that in advance to ensure you have one waiting and to get the best rates. If you need an International Driving Permit or translation of your driving credentials, I’d order it well in advance.
If there are any popular Route 66 motels (e.g. WigWam Motel or Blue Swallow) that you really want to stay in, I’d consider booking them in advance to ensure you get to sleep there. Also, if you are heading to the Grand Canyon or other national park along your trip, I’d book lodging there well in advance if you can as these are regularly fully booked, especially in the summer months.
How Safe is Traveling Route 66?
We felt safe during our trip and did not have any incidents; however, crime does happen along the route and you should be cautious, especially if you are traveling by yourself. Crime rates vary considerably along the route from big cities like Los Angeles and Chicago where there is higher rates of crime to small little towns in Oklahoma or Arizona where crime is rare.
A lot of crime, especially violent crime, happens late at night or early in the morning. So completing your sightseeing by dinner time (most things are closed by then anyway) and heading off to your accommodation for the night may make you feel safer, especially if you are new to traveling in the United States.
The most common problem is probably theft (of valuables and of your car) you should follow all the practical travel safety guidelines as you would elsewhere. Keep your valuables hidden, car and hotel doors locked, and be cautious about opening motel or hotel doors to people you don’t know. If you are wearing a purse, I’d wear a cross body one that is difficult for someone to snatch. Have copies of important phone numbers, IDs and credit cards stored in a separate place (physical and/or online) in case your purse and/or phone are stolen. Keep your cell phones charged and carry a spare battery or charger. Always have a bit of cash on you ($20 to $100) but don’t carry large amounts of cash in case you are robbed. Let other people not on your trip know your general plans. Some people, especially women, also like to carry pepper spray.
If you are camping, I’d stay at proper campsites with staff on-site and avoid camping off by yourself out of sight of others. If staying in budget motels or rented rooms (e.g., Airbnb), I’d be sure to read reviews and check on the area a bit (especially in larger cities) to try to avoid high crime areas. It can also help to make sure you have your lodging booked ahead at least a day or two in advance so you are never scrambling to find lodging late at night. We did not have any safety related issues during our trip but I think you should definitely watch out for yourself like you would anywhere else and if you are new to these areas, it is always good to be a little extra cautious.
Route 66 Road Trip Supplies?
Everybody has a set of different things that they may want to take with them on a road trip, but things that I would recommend bringing with you or purchasing at the beginning of your road trip are a Route 66 guidebook or two, a camera, an umbrella and/or poncho, a hat, sunglasses, a flashlight, a good supply of bottled water, snacks, and sunscreen. Be sure to wear sunscreen even if you plan to stay in the vehicle most of the day as you can still get sun damage from UVA rays!
Note that there may be periods of a few hours, especially in the Mojave desert, where access to basic essentials are limited so keep water and snacks in the car. Tap water is generally safe throughout the United States so you can drink water directly from the sink taps or water fountains, but do not obviously drink untreated water from rivers, lakes, unknown wells, or other such sources. I’d also recommend bringing along a journal to jot down notes and record your road trip adventures, and perhaps some cards or road-friendly games to play as you’ll be spending a lot of time in the car.
I would keep U.S. dollars on you at all times as many smaller business along Route 66 will only accept cash, especially for small transactions. For street parking along the road trip, it is a good idea to always have some coins with you for street parking to pay the parking meters .Also, just note that if you are traveler from outside the U.S., your credit and debit cards may not work in automated machines such as at gas stations, many of which will require a debit or credit card with a U.S. billing address. Normally you can get around this by paying a person inside, but at night you typically can only pay outside at the gas pump by card.
For the vehicle, make sure you have a good spare tire (and way to change it), a GPS (optional but recommended), and a good road atlas or set of maps for each state. Remember that Route 66 is probably not going to be marked on your maps or GPS, so you’ll still need to use a guidebook or speciality maps to help direct you. There are Route 66 GPS downloads made by River Pilot that are designed to provide turn-by-turn directions; these are compatible with a limited number of GPS units and have mixed reviews so do some research before ordering. You can order a road atlas or maps before you leave or pick them up along the way as they are readily available for sale in gas stations, convenience stores, and visitor centers.
If you have a rental car or RV, make sure you know how everything works (e.g., headlights, turning signals, heater) before you go and ask who you should contact in cases of a flat tire, accident, or mechanical failures. I also recommend putting together a collection of Route 66 inspired music whether in CD, MP3, or other format for your road trip. See recommended songs and music compilations in the next section that can help you start to build the ultimate soundtrack for your Route 66 road trip!
Books, Films, & Music to Get You Hyped for your Route 66 Road Trip
Here are some of my recommendations for media that contains cultural references to the famous Route 66. These are great for getting you excited prior to your road trip or can make for great reading, watching, and listening materials during the road trip. Also great for those who are not planning to drive Route 66, but interested in learning more about it. Those marked with asterisks are my favorites.
- Grapes of Wrath (novel) * – The 1939 Pulitzer-prize winning novel by John Steinbeck that traces the journey of the Joad family during the Great Depression as they travel west along Route 66. The most famous and greatest literary work that concerns Route 66, and this is where Steinbeck refers to Route 66 as the “Mother Road”. Not light reading but this American classic is highly recommended reading for anyone!
- On the Road (book)* – A 1957 novel by Jack Kerouac about a man from Sal Paradise who travels by road around the United States and meets members of the Beat Generation. The book is based on Kerouac owns years of traveling the U.S. While only a small part of it takes place on Route 66, it does provide a good snapshot into the postwar Beat Generation and is a classic American road trip novel.
- Grapes of Wrath (film) *- A 1940 film adaptation of Steinbeck’s novel directed by John Ford. A great film; however, it removes characters from the novel and is a more optimistic and less controversial depiction compared to the novel.
- On the Road (film) – A 2012 film adaption of Jack Kerouac’s novel. Not the best reviewed film, but there is a lot of time spent on the road. Note there is quite a bit of nudity and sexual and drug-related content.
- Cars (animated film)* This 2006 animated film by Pixar and Disney, tells the story of a popular race car who unexpectedly ends up stranded in the small town of Radiator Springs located along historic Route 66. The family-friendly film makes clear and constant references to Route 66, its history and its decline due to the U.S. federal interstate system, as well as references to specific people and places along the route. Fun to watch both before and after your road trip, as you notice so many more things after your trip.
- Easy Rider (film) – The famous 1969 biker film that has Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper traveling through parts of the American Southwest and South by motorcycle. Only parts of it take place on Route 66, but great for those hoping to see Route 66 by motorcycle.
- Thelma & Louise (film) – A 1991 crime film about two women who set out on a 2-day road trip that ends with deadly consequences. Again, only parts actually take place on Route 66, This is the film that really introduced Brad Pitt to the world.
- Little Miss Sunshine (film)* – A 2006 American comedy/drama film about a dysfunctional family who drives their 7-year-old daughter Olive from Albuquerque, NM to Redondo Beach, CA for a beauty pageant in an antique Volkswagen bus.
- Bagdad Cafe (film)* – A 1987 West German film about a woman running an isolated run-down cafe and motel in the California desert frequented by truck drivers and drifters. A bit odd and slow to get going but we enjoyed it. The filming location can still be visited in Newberry Springs, CA which is located on Route 66.
- Paris, Texas (film) – A 1984 French-German film about a man who has been wandering the the desert and comes back to reunite with his brother and son. He and his son then travel in the American Southwest to find this wife. This film is loosely related to Route 66.
- Route 66 (TV series) – American TV show of the early 1960’s follows the travels of two men as they drive around the United States. This show popularized the idea of driving Route 66 in a Chevrolet Corvette (Chevrolet was a sponsor of the show). Oddly, very little of the actual show takes place or was filmed on location along Route 66 although it provides an interesting look at America in the 1960’s nonetheless.
- Bagdad Cafe (TV Series) – A 1990s short-lived TV sitcom based on the film of the same name, starring actresses Whoopi Goldberg and Jean Stapleton.
- (Get Your Kicks on) Route 66 (song)* – This rhythm and blues song written in 1946 by Bobby Troup popularized the highway and is by far the most popular song about the highway. First recorded by Nat King Cole, it has been sung by everyone from Jerry Lee Lewis to the Rolling Stones. This is the one must-have song for your Route 66 road trip sound track!
Route 66 – Songs From The Mother Road (music collection) – A audio CD of Route 66 related song sung by the Road Crew.
- Three Route 66 song collections by producer David Sanger*:
- The Songs Of Route 66: Music From The All-American Highway (music collection)
- More Songs of Route 66: Roadside Attractions (music collection)
- Even More Songs Of Route 66: From Here To There (music collection)
Route 66 Road Trip Planning Materials
I’d recommend that all travelers invest in at least one guidebook to help point out and give some background on interesting highlights and attractions along the route. Also since historic Route 66 is not well-marked and is not denoted on a regular map, you’ll also want a guide to help keep you on the route. Paper maps and road atlases may seem dated to many young travelers, but I would highly recommend having them available even if you plan to primarily navigate using GPS. Given that things change regularly (probably daily) on Route 66, try to buy the most up-to-date guides and maps available. It can be quite disappointing to turn up to eat at a historic restaurant to find out it closed 2 years ago or find your chosen route blocked by a missing bridge.
I personally bought a copy of Route 66: The Mother Road prior to our journey and found it a great book to read or skim through for history, funny and touching travel stories, profiles of people who work along Route 66, etc. It also provides some good tips and points you to many highlights, but I found it better for background reading. Then before the journey, we purchased the EZ66 Guide for Travelers, the Route 66 Dining & Lodging Guide, the Route 66 Adventure Handbook, and the Here It Is Route 66 maps. We also took along and picked up an assortment of national, state, and regional maps during our journey. Personal recommendations are marked with an asterisk.
Route 66: The Mother Road 75th Anniversary Edition by Michael Wallis* – This book gives a good overview of Route 66’s history as well as personal stories and attraction highlights. Highly recommended for a pre-road trip read for those interested in the history of Route 66 and the people who worked (and are still working) along it.
Travel Route 66: A Guide to the History, Sights, and Destinations Along the Main Street of America by Jim Hinckley – A guide to Route 66 that provides general background information and destination highlights along the way. I personally have not read this one but it has good reviews and sounds useful for pre-planning.
- EZ66 Guide for Travelers by Jerry McClanahan* – This guide help you easily find the route and stay on it almost turn-by-turn during the full 2,400 mile journey. It was our day-to-day bible to our journey when we were driving Route 66. The guide also lists attraction highlights, historic details, and provides general maps. You can even visit Jerry in his art studio in Chandler, OK and get your guide signed by the author like we did. Highly recommended for anyone wanting turn-by-turn sort of advice on driving Route 66 and those wanting to be as faithful to staying on the route as possible. Be sure to get the latest edition!
- Route 66 Dining & Lodging Guide by the National Historic Route 66 Federation* – An objective guide of over 500 places to eat, drink, and sleep along Route 66. We found this very useful when looking for places to eat or stay along the route, it is also great for locating historic, unique, and atmospheric options along the route. Highly recommended and proceeds go to supporting the National Historic Route 66 Federation preservation efforts. NOTE: Sadly the 17th edition in 2015 was its final edition, and it is has recently become difficult to find a copy of this guide.
- Route 66 Adventure Handbook by Drew Knowles* – This book provides a good guide to driving Route 66 (although not a turn-by-turn guide) and an excellent overview of all the roadside attractions along Route 66 as well as some advice on motels and dining options. The highlights for us were the lists of attractions along the route as well as additional side trips that one could take near the route which are not often included in other guides and were helpful when we were spending more time in a location. This book also provides a unique section teaching you how to identify old sections of Route 66. Recommended for almost anyone interested in attractions along the route, both Route 66 specific and those a bit further afield. Be sure to get the latest edition.
- Route 66: Guided Tour Book by David Knudson – This is the newest guide to Route 66 and was edited by the National Historic Route 66 Federation. We haven’t used this one but the guide is meant to provide attractions and activity recommendations along the route and to be used in conjunction with the EZ66 Guide for Travelers. It also is meant to fill in more dining and lodging recommendations with the discontinuation of the Dining & Lodging guide; however, those listings are not nearly as comprehensive as they were in that guide.
Here It Is! The Route 66 Map Series* – A set of 8 hand-drawn maps of each state along Route 66 that provide both eastbound and westbound directions driving directions and the most popular attractions are listed on the map. We found the maps useful to get a sense of each state, the ordering of the towns and attractions, and for knowing the exit numbers. However we found the driving directions in the EZ66 Guide for Travelers easier to follow. Not essential but very useful. Be sure to get the latest edition!
- A USA Road Atlas*- There are many road atlases available, just make sure that you buy one that goes into sufficient detail, covers all the states, and has been recently updated. I can personally recommend the Rand McNally road atlas for road travel in the United States and I have also used ones by AAA. If you don’t get a road atlas, I’d recommend picking up state maps as you go along (often you can get pick these for free or low cost at visitor centers or buy one at gas stations and convenience stores).
- A motorcycle-focused guide to Route 66 – I can’t personally recommend any of them but bikers may want to consider one of several motorcycle-focused guides to Route 66. This one appears to be comprehensive and recently updated. Note that many of these have not been updated so be sure to check the date of publication and read recent reviews.
Helpful Route 66 Road Trip Planning Websites
National Route 66:
- National Historic Route 66 Federation – National non-profit organization dedicated to preserving Route 66, check it out for latest information, preservation news, and a good Route 66 online store: http://www.national66.org
- National Park Service, Route 66 – Great information on history of Route 66, some maps and itinerary ideas, and great website resources: http://www.nps.gov/nr/travel/route66
- Historic Route 66 – This long-running Route 66 website includes helpful information, travel tips, resources, maps, and even a helpful travel forum for those planning to drive Route 66: http://www.historic66.com
- Route 66 Guide – A website that provides helpful information and tips for those traveling the route: http://www.route66guide.com/
- Route 66 News – Provides helpful information and tips as well as recent news related to Route 66: http://www.route66news.com/
- Road Trip USA – Helpful website for initial stages of road trip planning: http://roadtripusa.com/route-66/
- Updates for those using the EZ66 Guide for Travelers: http://mcjerry66.com/
Camping and RV Related:
- Partial listing of campgrounds and RV parks along (or near) Route 66: http://www.route66news.com/campgrounds/
- Database and map of U.S. public campgrounds: http://www.uscampgrounds.info/
- List of RV parks throughout the U.S.: http://www.rvparksusa.com/
- Listings of private campgrounds and RV parks in U.S.: http://www.gocampingamerica.com/
- Check out All Stays for helpful website and phone apps that help locate RV parks, hotels, RV dump sites, free places to camp, rest areas, WalMarts that allow overnight parking, and more: http://www.allstays.com/
State Specific Route 66 Websites:
- Route 66 Association of Illinois: http://www.il66assoc.org/
- Route 66 Association of Missouri: http://missouri66.org/
- Kansas Historic Route 66 Association: http://kshistoricroute66.com/
- Oklahoma Route 66 Association: http://oklahomaroute66.com/
- Texas Route 66 Association http://rt66oftexas.com/
- New Mexico Route 66 Association: http://www.rt66nm.org/
- Historic Route 66 Association of Arizona: http://azrt66.com/
- California Historic Route 66 Association: http://www.route66ca.org/
- Also check out the U.S. National Park Service “Learn More” section for a detailed website list of attractions by state: http://www.nps.gov/nr/travel/route66/learnmore66.html
We hope you have found this guide to a Route 66 road trip helpful! Is a Route 66 road trip on your bucketlist? If you’ve driven any part of Route 66, feel free to share any tips or advice you have from your own trip! As always, all questions and comments are welcome.
**Disclosure: We drove Route 66 during a RV trip in partnership with JUCY who covered most of the costs associated with our awesome campervan rental; however, all thoughts and opinions are our own. Food, lodging, fuel, and other trip costs were paid for by us. **