Route 66 is the iconic road trip that every lover of the U.S. should do at least once in their life. Its 2,248 miles take you through the heart of Middle America and transport you to an era when many people crossed the country from east to west in search of a better life.
The circumstances in which the U.S. found itself in the first half of the 20th century, including a serious economic crisis exacerbated by the sandstorms that culminated in the Dust Bowl, led to the construction of a road connecting swathes of the country’s interior with the West Coast, which promised a better future. Thus, Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California were all hooked up. Route 66 was inaugurated in November 1926, although it wasn’t until 1938 that the last stretch was tarmacked, just one year before the celebrated American author John Steinbeck featured it in his novel The Grapes of Wrath to symbolize flight. The route was used especially by trucks transporting goods from one side of the country to the other and by migrants escaping the Dust Bowl. This was reason enough for the towns and cities en route to provide services such as motels, restaurants and gas stations, giving Route 66 its unique character.
Development that led to the new U.S. state highway system in 1985 threatened to pitch Route 66 into disuse. However, it soon became a magnet for nostalgic souls yearning for a bygone era. Bikers and veteran travelers ride the remaining sections of the original route every year, passing through its main cities and towns. These are our favored stops in each state.
Chicago marks the beginning of the route. It goes without saying that the perfect plan is to get to the city a couple of days before in order to check out its attractions. Before heading south, have breakfast at Lou Mitchell’s and take your picture by the Route 66 sign.
There are many stops to be made once you’re on the road, including the city of Joliet with its Rialto Theater and White Fence Farm restaurant; Pontiac is also a good place to park up for a while, with a visit to the Route 66 Museum — one of Route 66′s coolest —, and also to a school bus converted into a home. Another key stop in Illinois will be Springfield, home to Abraham Lincoln, where the Lincoln Tomb beckons.
Exiting Illinois, you can see a collection of antique cars for sale, and the occasional gas station typical of the route.
St. Louis is a major port of call in Missouri. The wonderful 19th century Eads Bridge is a favorite with tourists but is unfortunately just as popular with pickpockets, so keep a tight hold of your wallet. The city itself is a different story, best viewed by climbing the 630 ft Gateway Arch, or from the banks of the Mississippi River.
Besides St. Louis, the cities of Cuba and Lebanon are cool. And we visited another Springfield as, in the U.S., there are several Springfields, and of course The Simpsons used the name as its fictional setting. An essential stop here is the Gay Parita gas station, one of the route’s best preserved, which has a ton of memorabilia from Route 66′s heyday.
Only 13.2 miles of Route 66 run through Kansas, and it is on this leg of the journey that you will come across the gas station from the comedy Cars, which is, of course, named Cars. The Cherokee County towns of Riverton and Baxter Springs are the last here before you hit the next state.
In Oklahoma there are several iconic stops. It’s worth taking a stroll through the town of Miami and checking out the Coleman Theater. There’s also Catoosa where you can meet the survivor of an old water park — a giant whale. You’ll want to stop in Arcadia and try your luck at getting into Route 66 enthusiast John Hargrove’s house, which is something of a shrine to the old highway.
Tulsa, Stroud, Chandler, Weatherford, Clinton, and Erick are other cities to be considered, serving up a range of museums.
Deep in the U.S. heartland, Texas has three key stops. The first is in Amarillo, or more specifically, The Big Texan Steak Ranch, a restaurant famous for its eating competitions. Next stop, the Cadillac Ranch, a public art and sculpture installation consisting of 10 cars buried headfirst in the ground, where people are encouraged to unleash their creativity using spray paint. Finally, you come to Adrian, the halfway point and consequently a favorite photo pit-stop.
With its murals and Blue Swallow Motel, Tucumcari should be checked out, as should Santa Rosa, which boasts a Route 66 museum.
Santa Fe is also a very pleasant city to walk around and Albuquerque is a must for any fan of Breaking Bad, as it provided much of the backdrop for the series and some of the scenes are still completely recognizable. You can also pass by Walter White’s house, which has an actual occupant and attracted around 200 tourists a day back in 2013, the year the series concluded.
This is the second last state on Route 66 which not only has its share of exhibitions, museums and gas stations, it also has the stunning Petrified Forest National Park to put travelers back in touch with nature if they are wrestling with a surfeit of asphalt.
From Arizona you can make getaways to Las Vegas and the Grand Canyon. If you want to extend the route, now is the time. If not, you can continue through Flagstaff, Williams, Seligman and Kingman, where you should stop for a drink at Mr. Dz, a quintessential roadside diner.
On the route’s last leg, travelers reach the Pacific, but there are several stops before the Santa Monica Pier. Check out Calico Ghost Town, Peggie Sue’s — a diner in Yermo, Elmer’s Bottle Tree Ranch — a small forest fashioned from colorful glass bottles, and Victoriville with its Oro Grand Bridge and Truck Stop. When you get to the Santa Monica Pier, the End of the Trail sign lets you know that you’re at your journey’s end. Though this was apparently not the original end, no one can deny that it makes for a stunning finish.
Be clear about the route beforehand. If you rely on a GPS, it will likely take you off the original route and put you on the main highway. There are apps that indicate the route perfectly along with its most important milestones.
In the main pit-stops along Route 66, you will find a “passport” that can be stamped. Remember to get the stamps from the get-go if you want the document complete.
It is a very common practice to stop your motorbike or car in the middle of nowhere to take a picture with one of the Route 66 signs. Sometimes these spots get crowded, but remember, unless the sign has a special feature, there are thousands of them, so no rush.
Some of the places you visit will be closed upon arrival. Driving times can be long, and you may not make it to your destination on time, so if you are particularly interested in visiting something, be sure to plan your schedule.
The mere fact of renting a car in Chicago and returning it in Los Angeles has a surcharge capable of busting any vacation budget — we’re talking in the region of $600. However, driving from south to north has no extra charge. So, if money’s tight, start in Santa Monica and finish up in Chicago.
Sign up for our weekly newsletter to get more English-language news coverage from EL PAÍS USA Edition