Erica’s Route 66 itinerary + tips

Total (approx.) miles covered:   2,400
Total (approx.) cost of gas:        $345

Route 66 is a road trip enthusiast’s dream drive. For me, it was a dream come true. I still cannot believe that I drove the entire thing in ten days.

When people think of the Great American Road Trip, Route 66 usually springs to mind. Stretching from Chicago to Los Angeles, it offers travelers an incredible diversity of landscape and American culture as it winds through eight states: California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Missouri and Illinois. Although large portions of the original road are gone (modern expressways have since taken its place) and some of the road’s highlights have vanished with time (the victims of bankruptcy or abandonment), the drive still offers plenty of eye candy and carries a special nostalgia and mystique for many around the world.

I succumbed to this mystique last year while researching the drive for a possible Travelzoo project. Alas, that project never materialized … but the information learned certainly came in handy for me this year. I knew that Route 66 would provide an epic end to my sabbatical and prove that domestic travel can be just as “exotic” as one that requires a passport. So many Americans fail to realize that we have such an amazing, diverse country — right here, in our own backyard!

Rather than detail the lessons, epiphanies, triumphs and losses that I experienced during these past ten days — as those will take some time to harness and distill — I want to use this blog post to provide a utilitarian snapshot of my journey. Hopefully it plants a seed with other road trip enthusiasts or those already sketching out their Route 66 adventure. Blogs and traveler forums were my North Star in plotting out this road trip adventure. I now hope to return the favor to the next wave of Route 66 travelers.

One confession: While I stuck to the original Route 66 road as much as possible, I did “cheat” and use the expressway that parallels the historic route for some chunks. It was mainly when I needed to get from one city to another under a certain amount of time. Also, sometimes following the historic route was just too damn confusing, even with a fold-up map and a GPS. But I didn’t sweat staying true to the historic drive too much. Even when on a parallel expressway, major Route 66 towns and attraction signage are prominent — so it’s easy to use these expressways as a faster way to get to benchmark Route 66 destinations.

That said, I highly recommend driving the historic route as much as possible, as you just can’t experience the same sense of freedom and old school nostalgia on a modern expressway driving 70 miles per hour. During some stretches on the Historic Route 66, mine was the only car for miles and miles. Plus, I got to stumble upon places and people not mentioned in the guidebooks. Those situations lead to the quintessential road trip moments. Anybody can make a list and tick off “must-see” landmarks. Not everyone gets to hang with a bluegrass band after a show or be wowed by Chinese dragon statues eerily guarding a desert skyline — both examples of the unexpected along Historic Route 66.

Another thing: While most people start in Chicago and end in Los Angeles, I traveled in the reverse direction. I also didn’t include two popular side trips into my journey, mainly because I have experienced both already: The Grand Canyon and Las Vegas. Both are very easy side trips to make, if time permits and they appeal to you — just be sure to budget accordingly when sketching out your itinerary.

Scroll down to find the blueprint of my final Route 66 itinerary, one that evolved day by day in a pretty organic way. I traveled in early April, which is off-season for many of the towns and cities along the route, so it was no problem to walk into motels same-day to make reservations or to book rooms in the town ahead from my smartphone. (Oh, the convenience that technology affords in a road trip situation!) If planning a trip during the summer months, however, I imagine that firmer planning and pre-booking might be necessary, especially if the itinerary includes bigger destinations such as The Grand Canyon or Las Vegas. Nevertheless, try to abide by Tip No. 7 as much as possible.

My biggest tips before hitting the road:

1- Have a reliable GPS: Google Navigator on my smartphone worked great

2- Get a Route 66 map: Mine came from a gas station at the start of the Route  66 drive and became an invaluable resource for routes and attraction stops

3- Water: Keep plenty of it in the car at all times

4- Gas: Always have at least a quarter of a tank, as some stretches can go for miles and miles without a gas station in sight

5- Watch the speed limit: It wasn’t uncommon to go from 60 mph then all of sudden see a 35 mph sign up through a small town, which makes speed demons easy targets for the local cops

6- Keep all valuables and bags locked in the trunk, even during quick stops: I experienced a theft in Albuquerque during a short stop — someone smashed the back passenger window to grab a small bag laying on the floor of the back seat (which unfortunately contained a camera and my passport)

7- Don’t plan too much, a loose sketch will do: This leaves room for spontaneous side trips and lingering longer in a destination that really captures your imagination, your heart — or both

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Erica’s Route 66 Itinerary + Daily Highlights
These highlights below are just punctuations to the biggest highlight of all — driving Route 66 through desert, mountain, city and farmland settings. To witness the dramatic shifting of landscape from behind the wheel is incredible. Route 66 is really all about the journey, versus the landmarks you hope to “tick” off on that “must see” list. Nevertheless, the ones that made me smile are included below.

 

DAY 1 –
Santa Monica to Kingman, Arizona
335 miles

Santa Monica: “End of the Trail” signage – located on the Santa Monica Pier

San Bernadino, California: The First McDonald’s – tons of childhood memorabilia from the iconic fast food chain, plus an intriguing storyline to how McDonald’s got started as a franchise

Amboy, California: Roy’s Cafe – old motel and convenience store from the late 1930’s, the motel has been preserved (can’t stay there), grab a soda from the old-school convenience store for a $1 before heading off on one of the longest stretches of Historic Route 66 … through the desert

Amboy, California: Alabaster Chinese Good Luck Dragons – they were on the right side of the road, not far after leaving Amboy for Kingman, very unusual sight in the middle of the desert with little history on why or who put them there, sign the journal behind the male dragon

 

DAY 2 –
Kingman to Oatman (roundtrip) … 57 miles
Kingman to Flagstaff … 148 miles

Oatman: Mining town with kitschy Old West flavor – feed the wandering burros and stick around for the staged shoot-outs in the afternoon

Sitgreaves Pass: Stunning scenery across mountainous switchbacks, drive slowly

Seligman: Snow Cap Drive-In – head here for a delicious green chili burger and laugh at pranks pulled by the son of the restaurant’s original owner; the tiny town boasts some of the kitschiest Route 66 signage and photo ops

Flagstaff: Lowell Observatory – head here for nighttime stargazing (using massive telescopes!) and interesting lectures about the constellations

 

DAY 3 –
Flagstaff to Gallup
185 miles

Outside of Flagstaff: Wupatki National Monument – traverse ancient ruins amidst gorgeous canyon and mountain scenery

Winslow: “Standin’ on the Corner” – a tribute to the Eagles song that made this town famous, a great photo op

Holbrook: Wigwam Village Hotel – you can still stay in these motels that look like teepees, a legendary landmark on Route 66

Outside of Holbrook: Petrified Forest National Park – visit at sunset and position yourself at The Painted Desert, this park was one of the most beautiful stops on the drive

 

DAY 4 –
Gallup to Santa Fe (by way of Albuquerque)
199 miles

Gallup: El Rancho Hotel – go for a drink to admire a hotel where many Old Hollywood legends and spaghetti western film stars used to stay, the lobby decor is all dead animals and antler chairs

Albuquerque: Old Town Albuquerque – wander the art galleries and southwestern novelty shops

 

DAY 5 –
Santa Fe to Amarillo
279 miles

Santa Fe: Old Town – wander the museums and shops; the New Mexico History Museum is a favorite of mine from a previous trip

Santa Fe: Ten Thousand Waves Spa – a Japenese-style spa in the middle of the southwest with a really unique setting; the private plunge pools (need to pre-book those way in advance), meditation rooms and spa treatments are amazing

Santa Rosa, New Mexico: Route 66 Auto Museum – admission is $5 to roam a giant room full of restored cars from bygone days

Tucumcari, New Mexico: Lots of old Route 66 signage – lots of photo ops here, but probably best to see it at night when all of the neon signage is aglow

 

DAY 6 –
Amarillo to Oklahoma City
259 miles

Amarillo: Cadillac Ranch – an icon of Route 66, bring a few cans of spray paint to leave your mark on one of the Cadillacs plunged nose-first into the desert

Amarillo: Tyler’s BBQ – melt-in-your-mouth brisket crafted by a friendly owner who still serves his patrons in person; they stay open until they sell out (which is sometimes before 7 p.m.)

Amarillo: Big Texas Steakhouse – go for the crazy, kitschy signage; if you’re brave, take them up on the dare to eat an entire 72-ounce steak (if you do, it’s free)

Groom, Texas: Giant Cross – if you’re Catholic or were raised Catholic, prepare to feel guilty … this cross is massive

Groom, Texas: Britten Leaning Watertower – a random sight, it appears to be melting in the hot Texas sun, not far from the giant cross

Shamrock, Texas: U-Drop Inn – really cool vintage building that provided inspiration for the body shop in Disney’s animated film Cars; otherwise, this is a one-note town

Yukon, Oklahoma: Garth Brooks’ hometown – not much to actually see or do here, but it’s pretty fun to see a major street named after the country music legend

Oklahoma City: Chickasaw Bricktown Ballpark – baseball game tickets start at $7 for lawn seats; there is an entire playground near center field, which is great if you have hyper kids or kids who dislike baseball or kids with short attention spans (which is pretty much all kids under the age of 10)

 

DAY 7 –
Oklahoma City to Tulsa
106 miles

Oklahoma City: National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum – amazing museum with western art, plus movie, rodeo and cowboy history; my favorite room was the one devoted to the 8,000 different types of barbed wire

Oklahoma City: Oklahoma City National Memorial – a really beautiful setting the memorializes the tragedy of 1995; according to one park ranger, it also serves as a memorial for any attack or tragedy striking America (particularly for those who cannot travel to wherever that other tragedy occurred to honor its victims)

Arcadia: POPS – sample some of the more than 600 types of soda served here, also home to the word’s largest soda bottle

Arcadia: The Round Barn – live acoustic shows are held the second Sunday of each month

 

DAY 8 –
Tulsa to Branson
220 miles
*This was my detour of Route 66, as Branson is not on the original drive 

Tulsa: Art Deco buildings – just drive around downtown to admire the architecture

Tulsa: The Golden Driller – a nod to Tulsa’s oil drilling legacy

Cantoosa: Blue Whale of Cantoosa – Route 66 kitsch that you cannot miss

Foyil: Ed Galloway’s Totem Pole Park – home to the largest totem pole in the world, it is near a woman’s private property (she actually came out of her home to open up the totem pole for me)

Miami: Route 66 Vintage Iron Motorcycle Museum – cool bikes, a fun room devoted to Evil Knievel housing artifacts from his famous stunts and corresponding X-rays

Branson: “Legends in Concert” – fun show with actor/singers impersonating Tina Turner, The Blues Brothers, Adele, Johnny Cash and Elvis

 

DAY 9 –
Branson to St. Louis
252 miles

Branson: Titanic Museum – don’t let the kitschy exterior fool you, this museum provides a moving storyline of the ship and its passengers, no photos allowed inside

Branson: Dick’s 5 & 10 – a landmark shop in Branson that sells a lot of what I’d consider crap; nevertheless, it is fun to walk through the shop and embrace the nostalgia

Fanning: The World’s Largest Rocking Chair – it comes out of nowhere and looms large over the farm fields; the convenience shop next to it features a gigantic stuffed grizzly bear and an indoor archery range

St. Louis: Dewes Frozen Custard – amazing dessert, just don’t call it ice cream!

St. Louis: The Arch – the “Gateway to the West” is an American icon and surrounded by a lovely park overlooking the Mississippi River

 

DAY 10 –
St. Louis to Chicago
296 miles

Springfield, Illinois: Cozy Drive In – home of the corn dog, one of America’s greatest culinary achievements

Lincoln: World’s Largest Covered Wagon – in a city named after one of our greatest presidents (and Illinois native), you’ll find Abe’s likeness steering a quirky roadside attraction

Atlanta: The Bunyon Statue – this one comes out of nowhere (unless you anticipate it, which I did not); the statue used to hold an axe, but when it was purchased by a hot dog restaurant on Route 66 in Cicero, Ill., in 1965, the axe was replaced with a hot dog; that restaurant is now closed and the statue was moved to Atlanta to remain a Route 66 icon

Wilmington: The Gemini Giant – another strange Bunyon statue not holding an axe; this statue used to welcome hungry Route 66 travelers to the Launching Pad Drive-In (now closed)

Chicago: Lou Mitchell’s – throwback diner in Chicago, the original starting point for Route 66, tell them you’re driving Route 66 and get a free ice cream … but perhaps the dessert only comes when you tell them that you’ve finished the drive

Chicago: “Begin Route 66” signage – located at Adams & Michigan, across from The Art Institute of Chicago

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