Route 66 road trip planner: The best stops along the way
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They call it the Mother Road, a term coined by author John Steinbeck because it carried Dust Bowl refugees west across America. And even though Route 66 no longer exists on America’s highway maps, a drive across the country on the stretches that remain is one of the great American road trips.
Passing through eight states between Chicago and Los Angeles, Route 66 covers nearly 2,500 miles across a broad swath of the Midwest, Plains states, Southwest and West. Over time, most of the route was replaced by interstates, particularly I-40, and finding the original road requires a series of zigzags and detours.
For that reason, most people choose just one section, leaving plenty of time for stops along the way, or base themselves out of one of the larger towns on the route and explore in either direction. Here, from east to west, are some of the best places to celebrate the nostalgia of the Mother Road.
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Chicago, Hinsdale and Joliet, Illinois
The symbolic start of Route 66 is the Buckingham Fountain in Chicago’s Millennium Park, but it’s not really a road trip until you’re headed southwest out of the city. A perfect jumping-off point for your trip is the Route 66 Welcome Center at the Joliet Area Historical Museum, with its excellent exhibit on the Muffler Men, huge fiberglass statues used to advertise car repair shops.
Restaurants still maintaining Route 66’s traditions of roadside hospitality include the Rich and Creamy ice cream stand, Joliet Kicks on Route 66 and Dell Rhea’s Chicken Basket in Hinsdale, which specializes in fried chicken, served under the slogan, “Get Your Chicks on Route 66.”
Between them, Chicago and Joliet have every brand of loyalty program hotel for every budget. Those close to the museum and welcome center include several Wyndham properties, the Holiday Inn & Suites Joliet Southwest (generally 15,000 or 20,000 IHG Rewards Club points per night), and the TownePlace Suites Joliet South (Category 3, from 15,000 to 20,000 Marriott Bonvoy points per night). As you head further southwest on what today is Highway 55, stop for photos at the perfectly preserved Ambler/Becker Texaco Station in Dwight, its gas pumps painted a shiny red.
Related reading: 5 drives from Chicago every traveler will love
Pontiac’s pride in its Mother Road heritage can be seen in its 23 colorful outdoor murals and its two museums dedicated to America’s love affair with the automobile. The Pontiac-Oakland Museum and Resource Center displays a rotating collection of rare Oakland and Pontiac models, while the Route 66 Association Hall of Fame showcases vintage ads, signs and a classic VW hippie bus housed in an old fire station.
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This one’s a quick stop, but you don’t want to miss the Litchfield Museum and Route 66 Welcome Center (yes, another one!) with its collection of nostalgic paraphernalia. Nearby, the uber-retro Ariston Cafe is one of the oldest continuously operating Route 66 establishments, serving up a melting pot of American, Southern, Greek and Italian fare since 1924.
Crossing into Missouri, don’t miss the Chain of Rocks Bridge, now pedestrian and bicycle traffic only, famed for its dramatic dogleg bend mid-span. Springfield’s vintage Route 66 establishments are preserved along two downtown streets, St. Louis Street east of downtown and the Chestnut Expressway on the west side. The Route 66 Car Museum is the big attraction here, thanks to its collection of 70 rare and collectible vintage cars.
One of Springfield’s most recognizable historic buildings is the Abou Ben Adhen Shrine Mosque, a flamboyantly Arabesque old theater built in 1923 and still owned by the Shriners, who use it as an auditorium and concert hall. Nearby, a plaque tells the story of Wild Bill Hickok’s murder of fellow gambler Dave Tutt, supposedly because Tutt flaunted a watch he’d won off Hickok.
For Route 66 fans, there’s just one place to stay and that’s the Best Western Route 66 Rail Haven (from 10,000 points per night). But members of every loyalty program will find options here, including the Courtyard by Marriott Springfield (Category 3, from 15,000 to 20,000 Marriott Bonvoy points per night), the Holiday Inn & Suites Springfield – I-44 (generally 10,000 to 20,000 IHG Rewards Club points per night) and the DoubleTree by Hilton Springfield (from 27,000 to 30,000 Hilton Honors points per night).
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Galena and Riverton, Kansas
The Kansas section of Route 66 is just 13.2 miles long, but it includes a couple of key stops, particularly the town of Galena, a must for the old Kan-O-Tex gas station that now houses Cars on the Route, a tribute to Pixar’s animated movie “Cars.” Kids will love seeing the 1950s International Harvester tow truck on which the Cars character “Mater” is based parked outside. Galena also boasts the Galena Mining and Historical Museum (you can’t miss the huge Old 66 sign), where vintage furnishings, tools and historical records document life in a mining boomtown.
Just west in Riverton, stop for lunch or snacks at the Eisler Brothers Old Riverton Store, a road trip staple since the 1920s, where the deli makes classic sandwiches and the owner, who happens to be president of the Kansas Route 66 Association, displays his memorabilia.
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Oklahoma has more original and still-driveable miles of Route 66 than any other state and takes great pride in this heritage, including the key role Route 66 played in the 1930s Western Dust Bowl migration. Nowhere is this pride more on display than in the Oklahoma Route 66 Museum in Clinton, which has used its significant state and local funding to pull together a comprehensive collection that even includes the chance to sit in a recreated 1950s diner.
Across the street from the museum, the Trade Winds Inn was a favorite of Elvis Presley, who stayed there four times, but better lodging options include the La Quinta Inn & Suites by Wyndham Clinton Historic Route 66 (15,000 Wyndham Rewards points per night) and the Holiday Inn Express & Suites Clinton (generally 12,500 to 15,000 IHG Rewards Club points per night). Clinton also has an indoor water park known as the Water Zoo that makes a perfect road trip break for tired kids.
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Tulsa, Stroud and Chandler, Oklahoma
Departing Tulsa to the west, the first landmark to watch for is the Rock Creek Bridge, which at just 12 feet wide gives a vivid sense of just how narrow highways like Route 66 were back in the early days of the Model T. In Stroud, the Skyliner Motel is as retro as they come, and you’ll want your photo snapped under its towering red arrow sign.
Now, back to the movie “Cars”: The Rock Cafe just west of Stroud — which is made from local stone quarried in the 1920s — is a must-stop for fans because of its association with director John Lasseter, who visited numerous times as he wrote and directed the movie, leaving behind signed posters, napkins and graffiti.
Chandler is home to the Route 66 Interpretive Center, which is a bit of a departure from other Mother Road museums for its emphasis on education.
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Stretching across the pancake-flat plains of the Texas panhandle for almost 200 miles, Route 66 in Texas has largely been directly supplanted by Interstate 40, with old Mother Road businesses left behind on the various towns’ business loops.
The first of these, from east to west, is the old ranching town of McLean, which wasn’t bypassed by the interstate until the early 1980s and has made impressive efforts to preserve its historic structures. Stop for a photo op with the giant neon state of Texas sign and another at the perfectly preserved Phillips 66 station, where the pumps still list a price of 19 cents a gallon. Well worth a stop is the Devil’s Rope Museum dedicated to barbed wire, called the “devil’s rope” by cowboys, and one of the entire Mother Road’s best collections of Route 66 memorabilia and souvenirs.
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Amarillo and Cadillac Ranch, Texas
The beef industry still reigns supreme in Amarillo, which handles 2 million head of cattle a year and therefore has plenty of that old Wild West vibe, despite its booming population. Route 66 follows 6th Street through what is now called the Old Jacinto District, so head there to browse boot, saddle and Western shops and antique stores. Back on I-40, you can’t miss the giant steer head marking the Big Texan Steak Ranch, which was located on Route 66 when it opened in 1960. Families will like the old false-front Wild West-themed building and the enormous portions at reasonable prices.
But the Amarillo area’s biggest attraction for Route 66 fans is Cadillac Ranch, just off I-40 and about 10 miles west of town, where 10 rusting Cadillacs are buried nose down in the dirt, their finned backsides rising toward the sky and demonstrating iconic American mid-century design in order from 1949 to 1964. Cadillac Ranch was created by a collective of San Francisco-based artists in 1974 at the behest of eccentric millionaire Stanley Marsh III, who moved them in the late 1990s to put them further outside the city’s sprawl. Since Marsh’s death in 2014, the installation’s future has been less secure, but filmmakers use the dayglo-painted cars so frequently for advertisements and photo shoots that the installation seems likely to survive a while longer.
Amarillo is another Route 66 home base where you’ll find options for every loyalty point program. Choose from the Hilton Garden Inn Amarillo (from 17,000 to 30,000 Hilton Honors points per night), Residence Inn Amarillo (Category 3, from 15,000 to 20,000 Marriott Bonvoy points per night) and many more.
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Tucumcari, New Mexico
Vintage neon signs and retro motels abound in Tucumcari, which has more time capsule photo ops than perhaps anywhere else on Route 66. Look for many of them on the aptly-named Route 66 Boulevard, particularly the Blue Swallow Motel, Roadrunner Lodge and the Historic Route 66 Motel. Tucumcari is the place to use your miles or rewards card to pay for a night at one of these cute independent motels and for dinner at Del’s Restaurant, easily spotted thanks to the giant cow on the roof.
There are also more than 20 murals paying tribute to Tucumcari’s storied history as a travelers’ pit stop paradise.
Related reading: 6 ways the classic road trip has changed — and stayed the same
Santa Rosa, New Mexico
Known for its preservation of retro signs and buildings, Santa Rosa is also home to the Route 66 Auto Museum, which you can’t miss thanks to the bright yellow car perched atop a pole high in the air. In addition to classic cars dating back to the earliest days of the automobile, the museum has an excellent collection of vintage gas pumps that say Route 66 better than anything else.
One of TPG’s favorite low-category Hilton properties in the U.S., the Hampton Inn Santa Rosa, is on Route 66. This Hampton Inn generally costs 20,000 Hilton points per night and is near the Blue Hole, which is a spring-fed lake popular with scuba divers.
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“The last Route 66 town to be bypassed by I-40” reads the mural on the wall as you drive down Williams’ main street, so it’s no surprise that Williams celebrates its dual identity as both a shoot-em-up Western town and a retro-nostalgia 1950s cruising strip.
Retro-chic photo ops aplenty here, including the sky blue sign for the Arizona 9 Motor Hotel and the neon cow beckoning diners to Rod’s Steakhouse. The Coca-Cola-red car on the roof of Cruisen’s 66 Cafe is visible for blocks. Just an hour away from the Grand Canyon National Park, Williams makes a perfect home base from which to explore the canyonlands, and the Grand Canyon Railway provides “door to door” service, bringing travelers directly to Grand Canyon Village while entertaining them on the way with a staged “shootout” and amazing wildlife viewing.
In Williams, IHG members will find Holiday Inn Express & Suites Williams (generally 17,500 to 25,000 IHG points per night), Choice Hotels members will find both a Quality Inn (currently 12,000 to 25,000 Choice points per night) and Comfort Inn (currently 16,000 to 30,000 Choice points per night); there’s a Best Western Plus Inn of Williams (from 10,000 points per night) as well.
Wyndham Rewards members will be thrilled with the wide selection, which includes La Quinta Inn & Suites by Wyndham Williams-Grand Canyon (30,000 points per night), Ramada by Wyndham Williams (15,000 points per night), Days Inn by Wyndham Williams (15,000 points per night) and Howard Johnson by Wyndham (15,000 points per night).
Seligman and Hackberry, Arizona
A string of vintage cafes, stores and gas stations, now colorfully painted and festooned in antiques rescued from the surrounding desert, Seligman is one big photo op — and what a photo op it is. From here, Route 66 diverted from I-40 through Hackberry, where the Hackberry General Store has the gritty Mother Road vibe so many of the more cleaned-up museums lack.
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Kingman and Oatman, Arizona
A key stop on the Route 66 pilgrimage, Kingman houses the unusually comprehensive Arizona Route 66 Museum, housed in the Powerhouse Visitors Center, which traces the history of the westward route back to when it was an Indian trail, wagon train route and railroad line before it carried road-trippers. Exhibits include a covered wagon and a characteristic Dust Bowl truck, as well as brightly painted 1950s roadsters.
The sharp jog north to visit the old mining town of Oatman is well worth the detour to see a town whose main street appears to be frozen in time, its sidewalks still made of wood and burros still wandering among the old storefronts.
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Several quirky landmarks pay tribute to Barstow’s former importance as a rail hub, among them a Mcdonald’s made from old railroad cars. But Barstow’s big lure for Route 66 fans is the Route 66 Mother Road Museum, located in the faded glory of the Casa del Desierto, a Fred Harvey Hotel.
Outside Barstow in the Mojave National Preserve, the Kelso Train Depot has become a visitors center, bookstore and museum, with its former baggage room ticket office, and dormitory rooms refurbished to their 1930s glory. The Desert Light Gallery has natural history and art exhibits.
Barstow is a common overnight spot for drivers on the way from San Francisco or Los Angeles to the desert national parks of Zion, Bryce, and the Grand Canyon, so you’ll find numerous points-friendly lodging options, including Best Western Desert Villa Inn (from 10,000 points per night), Hampton Inn & Suites Barstow (from 26,000 to 30,000 Hilton Honors points per night) and the Quality Inn on Historic Route 66 (currently between 10,000 and 16,000 Choice Privileges points per night).
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Westward to the coast
Route 66 was rejiggered so many times as it passed through California that it’s not always easy to trace the route or even find the remnants, and where they do exist, they’re in small zigzag patches, some no longer even connected. Victorville, California, has one short section, marked by an optimistic over-the-road welcome sign and the California Route 66 Museum. In all-but-abandoned Newberry Springs, the Baghdad Cafe had its 15 minutes of fame thanks to its namesake film, a 1980s art-house favorite. And in San Bernardino, the Wigwam Motel is one of the last — and most authentic — of these once-common lodgings.
But if you want a true sense of times long gone, these stretches of Highway 66 are perfect. Here are miles upon miles of lonely emptiness, where tumbleweeds blow across the pockmarked pavement, motel signs stand abandoned and vintage gas pumps behind chain-link fences still beg for attention from motorists long gone.
Related reading: The 22 best beaches in California
Featured photo by Sky Noir Photography by Bill Dickinson/Getty Images.
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