There is no road trip more iconic than the Route 66. Stretching across the USA from Chicago to Los Angeles, this epic road was established in 1926, originally spanned 2400 miles and was responsible for some of the best examples of classic North American roadside architecture – yes, we’re talking retro ‘50s diners and motels with neon signs!
Officially, the Route 66 highway was decommissioned in 1985, but it is still possible to drive some of the same road, or to follow near enough the same route on the parallel interstate highway, signposted as ‘Historic Route 66’. If you’re interested in completing this iconic road trip, read on for our full Route 66 trip planner, for everything you need to know to have the time of your life on this historic highway. But be warned: serious road trip wanderlust awaits…
The History of Route 66
Route 66 was one of America’s first superhighways, and provided a vital artery across the continent, connecting the Midwest to the West and assisting with the evolution of the West. During the Great Depression, thousands of migrants used the road to escape the Dust Bowl in whatever vehicle they could, and after WWII, thousands more newly wealthy Americans made the journey in their flashy new convertible cars.
The popularity of Route 66 inspired a flourish of motels, pit stops and roadside diners to pop up along the highway, many of which are no longer in business, but which make for awesome vintage attractions to sightsee along the way!
Where Does the Route 66 Start?
Route 66 starts in Chicago, Illinois. If you live in the States, you may want to drive your own vehicle along Route 66, but otherwise, many people will hire a car, RV or motorcycle from Chicago, on a one-way rental (meaning you can drop it off in a different location at the end of your trip). If you’re renting a vehicle for the Route 66 trip, you could fly into either of Chicago’s airports, O’Hare or Midway, and pick up your car from there, or alternatively you can arrive in Chicago via the train or Greyhound bus.
Where Does the Route 66 End?
Route 66 ends in Los Angeles, California. Again, if you’ve rented a car rather than driving your own vehicle, you can drop off your rental and return home by flying out of LAX or Long Beach Airport, or catching your return train or bus. Traditionally, the Route 66 is travelled from east to west – however there’s no reason why you can’t go the other way if you want to!
How Long Does it Take to Drive Route 66?
To drive Route 66 as closely as is possible today will take you a minimum of a week, if you’re driving solidly. But why rush? After all, you’re here to see the sights Route 66 has to offer. We recommend slowing down and spending at least 2 weeks taking in everything this iconic roadway has to offer.
Route 66 Road Trip Itinerary
See below an example itinerary for your Route 66 road trip, spanning a period of 2 weeks. Note that this is only a suggested route, based on the average vacation time – if you have more time, we would of course recommend adding more stops and staying longer in each place (or just the ones you like!)
- Day 1: Chicago, Illinois
Spend your first day wandering and soaking in the sights of Chicago, which include Millennium Park, the Willis Tower Skydeck and the Art Institute of Chicago. Make sure to get down to Jackson Boulevard for a picture at the official start of Route 66 – but note that even though this is the official start point, the ‘Historic Route 66 Begin’ sign that you’ll probably also want a photo with is located at 78-98 E. Adams Street. Stay overnight in a Route 66 era motel in Cicero to get your nostalgic journey off to the right start.
- Day 2: Springfield, Illinois
From Chicago, head towards Springfield. Stop in the town of Joliet for your first taste of the ‘classic’ Route 66 vibes, spot the first of the ‘Muffler Men’ advertising statues in Wilmington and Atlanta, and check out the Route 66 Hall of Fame Museum in Pontiac. Upon arrival in Springfield, you’ll be spoilt for choice of Route 66 era buildings, and there’s even a Route 66 Drive-In, where you can catch a movie from your vehicle – how retro!
- Day 3: St Louis, Missouri
On Day 3, cross the Mississippi River and head into Missouri. Along the way, you could stop at the Pink Elephants Antiques Mall in Livingston, for retro statues and signs (including a giant pink elephant) and walk over the Chain of Rocks bridge. Once you reach St Louis, make sure to see the iconic Gateway Arch, and check out other popular attractions such as the Missouri History Museum. Stop at Ted Drewes Frozen Custard shop (first established in 1929) for a deliciously sweet pick-me-up!
- Day 4: Carthage, Missouri
As you continue on your journey, pass through Sullivan and stop to see the Meramec Caverns – one of the most popular Route 66 attractions. Keep your eyes peeled as you drive through Missouri’s Springfield (apparently a popular name!) to see more Route 66 era motels, gas stations and neon signs. When you reach Carthage, there’s a Civil War museum and some beautiful historic architecture to keep you busy, as well as a Route 66 Drive In, in case you missed the one in Springfield #1.
- Day 5: Tulsa, Oklahoma
On Day 5 you’ll say goodbye to Missouri, and hello to Oklahoma, passing through the state of Kansas on the way. Stop in Baxter Springs to visit the Baxter Springs Heritage Center and Museum, and soak up some of this part of Kansas. When you arrive in Tulsa, you’ll find it full of Route 66 memorabilia, including signs, buildings and diners. Particular points of interest on your retro road trip might be the Route 66 Historical Village, the Blue Dome gas station and the Cyrus Avery Bridge.
- Day 6: Clinton, Oklahoma
Continue on your journey through Oklahoma to Clinton. Along the way, stop in Salpulpa to view some classic Route 66 advertisements. Stop in Stroud for lunch at the Rock Café restaurant, then head into Oklahoma City where you’ll find historic buildings, the Frontier City amusement park and the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum – a must for cowboy fans! In Clinton, visit the Mohawk Lodge Indian Store to balance with some Native American history.
- Day 7: Amarillo, Texas
The scenery will be mostly cattle ranches as you head into Texas on this section of the drive. Make sure to stop at Elk City to visit the National Route 66 Museum Complex, and learn more about the historic road you’re following. In Shamrock, swing by the Tower Service Station and U-Drop In Café, to admire some impressive Art Deco architecture. If you’re a fan of museums, you can also stop by the Devil’s Rope Museum in McLean, which is dedicated to barbed wire! After all that, you’ll be hungry, so visit the famous Big Texan Steak Ranch restaurant for dinner when you get to Amarillo, followed by some live music at the Starlight Ranch Event Center.
- Day 8: Albuquerque, New Mexico
Just outside of Amarillo, stop by the Cadillac Ranch to see an impressive art installation made from these iconic American cars. A little further on, make sure to pull in at the retro Midpoint Café in Adrian, which (un-surprisingly!) marks the mid-point of the Route 66, halfway between Chicago and Los Angeles. This 1950s-style café has lots of Route 66 memorabilia to keep you entertained while you dine. Next, cross into New Mexico and stop in Tucumcari to experience a true Route 66 town with iconic (still-functional) motels, murals and souvenir shops. After a jam-packed day, arrive in Albuquerque to a night of neon signs and dinner at the 66 Diner.
- Day 9: Gallup, New Mexico
Take the morning to explore Albuquerque, then continue your journey through New Mexico, passing many ghost towns along the way. If you fancy your chances, stop at the Route 66 Casino Hotel in Rio Pueblo. Pull up in Grants to visit the New Mexico Mining Museum, and get a taste of what it was like to be a uranium miner. Cross the Continental Divide, and drive past the rocky red scenery to arrive in Gallup, where you’ll find lots of historical buildings of interest, including the Rex museum and the El Morro theatre.
- Day 10: Flagstaff, Arizona
Drink in the stunning canyon scenery as you cross over into Arizona today – you’ll really start to feel like you’re in the Wild West! The Petrified Forest National Park makes for an interesting stop, and there’s great hiking here if you have the time. If not, move on to Meteor City, where a short detour will take you to a real meteor crater. Spend the night in Flagstaff, where you’ll find lots of Route 66 architecture, and attractions such as the Lowell Observatory.
- Day 11: Seligman, Arizona
Head to the town of Williams, where you can detour to the majestic Grand Canyon in a little over an hour’s drive. You can also take the train, or organize a flight over the canyon to fully appreciate its magnitude. Williams is also the last town to have a stretch of the original Route 66 before it was decommissioned. Visit the restored Pete’s Route 66 Gas Station Museum for some Route 66 nostalgia, then continue on your way to Seligman, the birthplace of the Historic Route 66 Association of Arizona. Pick up presents for family at the Route 66 Gift Shop.
- Day 12: Oatman, Arizona
Continue through Arizona to Oatman, admiring the stunning landscape as you go. Stop on the way in the town of Kingman for more historical buildings and museums, before passing by a working gold mine and arriving in Oatman. A former gold mining town itself, Oatman is now largely a tourist town, with Wild West shows and roaming burros in the street, and gift shops a plenty. Stay overnight in the historic Oatman Hotel (or at least, pop in for a nosy!)
- Day 13: San Bernardino, California
Leaving Oatman, cross over the border into your final state, California. Stop off at the first town, Needles, to see more Route 66 memorabilia, and, if you have a couple of extra days, to take a detour to Las Vegas. Following the Route 66 on, you’ll pass through the hot and barren Mojave Desert. Stop in Amboy to visit the famous Roy’s Café and Motel, and the Amboy Crater, an extinct volcano. Pass more ghost towns and derelict buildings until you reach the town of Barstow, where you can stop for lunch. Drive through the Cajon Pass, and you’ll reach San Bernardino, on the edge of Los Angeles. There are lots of parks and hiking opportunities near here, if you’d like to soak up some nature before you hit L.A.
- Day 14: Los Angeles, California
From San Bernardino, head into Los Angeles, stopping at the NHRA Drag Racing Museum in Pomona on the way. Once you get into L.A (be warned, the traffic to enter the city can be terrible), check out all the iconic sites, including the Hollywood sign, Beverly Hills and the Walk of Fame stars. Finish your trip on the Santa Monica pier, which marks the official end of Route 66. Snap a final, trip-concluding photo, and visit the R66 shop on the end of the pier to pick up some souvenirs of your epic adventure!
Route 66 Road Trip Packing List
Other than your own or rented vehicle (which it goes without saying should be serviced and checked thoroughly before embarking on a long trip such as this), these are some other essentials you might want to pack for your Route 66 road trip:
- Route 66 map AND GPS navigation system
As well as a SatNav or your phone’s GPS navigation system, it is recommended to take a custom Route 66 map with you on your road trip, which will show the historic Route 66 roads that are still open, and detail notable landmarks. You can view a Route 66 map on the National Park Service website.
- Jump leads/ spare tire/ flash light/ number for roadside assistance
If you’re driving your own car, make sure you have all the essentials in case of a flat tire or battery. If it’s a rental, still make sure you have the phone number for roadside assistance, should anything happen. It’s always better to be prepared.
- Phone and portable charger
Of course, in this day and age we expect you’ll be bringing this anyway, but it’s particularly important for the aforementioned GPS navigation, and also in case you need to call for roadside assistance or emergency help along the way. Don’t forget your charging cable, and bring a power bank so you can boost your phone on the go.
Make sure not to forget your favorite sunnies, for style and safety reasons – there’s nothing worse than squinting into the sun while driving.
- Food and water
Take snacks for the longer stretches of road, and plenty of water – it’s easy to get dehydrated in a hot car. Use a cooler to keep food fresh and drinks refreshing.
- First Aid Kit
Another one which you hopefully won’t need, but would be foolish not to pack is an emergency car kit. As well as any prescription medications, it’s a good idea to take pain killers, hand sanitizer, antiseptic cream and bandages – all the usual first aid bits and pieces.
- Sunscreen and insect repellent
The sun is strong in this part of the U.S, so make sure to pack sun protection, and it’s also a good idea to bring bug spray.
- Toilet roll and wet wipes
Always helpful to have, in case you get caught short between service stations, or want to freshen up along the way.
- Money and important documents
Keep your I.D., driving license and wallet somewhere safe, make copies, and ensure you have enough money available on credit cards to cover any unforeseen circumstances.
- Travel insurance
We know it’s a bore, but you really should have travel insurance which at the very least covers you in the case of any medical emergencies.
Of course, you’ll want to pack clothes according to the season, but as you’ll be passing through 8 states, you will experience a variety of temperatures, regardless of what time of year you visit. The best option is to pack lightweight clothing that you can layer easily. Make sure to bring both a sun hat and a scarf.
Is it even a road trip if you don’t have your favorite tunes blaring from the stereo? Create a Spotify playlist of road trip classics, for the full experience.
And last but not least, make sure sure to bring your camera (if you’re not using your phone), so you can take plenty of pictures to remind you of your epic, once-in-a-lifetime trip!
And thus concludes our ultimate guide to the Route 66 road trip. Sounds good, right? So, what are you waiting for? Jump in (or rent) your car/campervan/Harley Davidson, don your Wayfarers, take to the open road, and don’t look back! (*Unless it’s to check what just fell off your exhaust…)
If you are looking to rent a car, then why not check out our list of the best car rental companies.