Get your kicks on Route 66
The creation of Route 66, properly known as U.S. Highway 66, began in 1926 when highway planners cobbled together a route from the Midwest to the California coast. It gained fame when John Steinbeck sent his Dust Bowl “Okies” west in search of a better life, but soon became a symbol of footloose-and-fancy-free Americans hitting the open road. Over time, a good part of the original Mother Road was superseded by modern highways. Much of the Route 66 historic alignment can be driven today, but most of the original roadway was paved over when the interstates were built.
Route 66 endpoints
Route 66 begins in Chicago and drops southwestward through Illinois, Missouri and a sliver of Kansas before straightening out in Oklahoma City and heading due west through the Texas panhandle, New Mexico, Arizona and Southern California. The 2,400-mile road passes through green fields, rolling hills, vast plains and the dramatic landscapes of the desert Southwest. The route originally ended in downtown Los Angeles, but was extended to the Santa Monica pier. A good first stop for planning a road trip on Route 66 is the National Park Service heritage travel itinerary website. It explores the history and culture of the road with lists of sites and essays on its life, low points and rebirth through the decades.
Driving Route 66
Typically, driving Route 66 means long stretches on interstate highways interspersed with side trips to short sections of the Mother Road. Arizona is home to the longest extant stretch of the highway. Route 66 winds for 158 miles between Seligman and Topock. The eastern end of the road is on Interstate 40. In Topock, you can take Route 10 south to Interstate 40. The drive takes you through broad valleys and past tribal communities before climbing into the mountains.
Five segments of Route 66, totaling 26 miles, exist in Oklahoma. Some of the roads were there before 66 was created. The sections illustrate the way rural areas changed when they were linked by an improved road. As you drive these sections, look for original engineering elements such as concrete guardrails and steel truss bridges.
In Holbrook, Arizona, travelers can spend the night in one of the few remaining Wigwam Villages, motels where concrete teepees are decorated with their original furniture. One of seven Wigwam Village properties built beginning in 1936, this motel was completed in 1950.
The mile-long Chain of Rocks Bridge, completed in 1929, spans the Mississippi River between St. Louis and Madison, Illinois. A 30-degree turn in the middle makes this bridge unusual. You can no longer drive across the bridge, but it is open to pedestrians and cyclists.
The section of Route 66 in Glenrio, a town on the Texas/New Mexico border, was bypassed by Interstate 40 in 1975, but a section of roadbed and 17 abandoned historic buildings give visitors a taste of mid-century commercial development along the highway.
Driving and seasonal considerations
Because Route 66 crosses such diverse parts of the country, driving conditions are difficult to predict. Some sections of the road are unpaved or impassable in inclement weather, and many sections are isolated. If you’re planning the long, cross-country trip, make sure you have roadside assistance. Enter a list of phone numbers for state road conditions into your smartphone, or bookmark their websites so you can check if you have any doubts about a particular section of road. Though you’ll never be far from civilization, preparation is key to an enjoyable trip.
Driving Route 66 is a singularly American road trip. Don’t expect public transportation to take you along any significant stretches of the road except in large cities like Albuquerque.
Plan to take between two weeks and a month or longer to drive the length of Route 66. You can hit all of the remaining sections on a two week drive, but a longer trip gives you time to explore all of the sights along the way.