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9 Must-See Stops on Route 66

Time to get your kicks on this famous cross-country passage.

Outside the Blue Swallow Motel on Route 66
Hi, I'm Jacqueline!

Jacqueline Kehoe is a freelance writer and photographer with work seen in National Geographic, Thrillist, Travel + Leisure, and more. Find her out on the trails or at jacquelinekehoe.com.

The Oregon Trail of the 20th century, Route 66, also known as the “Mother Road,” runs from Chicago to Los Angeles. The route once transported Depression-fleeing Americans from the Dust Bowl to the sea breezes of California.

From then until now, millions of tourists that wanted to see the shortest, best, and most scenic route across the United States have traversed the highways and roads that make up the famous drive. Though hundreds of worthwhile spots are hidden on and off this storied road, here are a few of the best.

1. Joliet, Illinois

A sculpture at the heart of Joliet along the Route 66.
Joliet is a peaceful suburb with lots to explore.Photo Credit: Eddie J. Rodriquez / Shutterstock

See the famous Muffler Men.

Technically, the start of Route 66 can be found in Chicago’s Millennium Park at Buckingham Fountain. But since you’re not going to pull up your Toyota to the edge of the spraying water, start in the quiet suburb of Joliet, Illinois—specifically, the Joliet Area Historical Museum—where you’ll catch an awesome exhibit on the route’s Muffler Men, the iconic advertising fiberglass giants that dotted the route. (Some notable ones are still standing, like Gemini Giant in Wilmington, Illinois.)

2. Collinsville, Illinois

The Cahokia Mounds along the Route 66.
It's worth making a beeline for the Cahokia Mounds.Photo Credit: Matt Gush / Shutterstock

Kitschy ketchup and UNESCO flare.

In Collinsville, you can get two very diverse Route 66 experiences. You can see the World’s Largest Catsup Bottle, or you can see a UNESCO World Heritage site—or you can see both.

The former is a 70-foot (21-meter) bottle set atop a 100-foot (30-meter) tower. The latter is Cahokia Mounds, the largest pre-Columbian settlement north of Mexico. This very destination was the civil and religious center of the Mississippian Culture. It’s also been declared a National Historic Landmark and is one of 24 UNESCO World Heritage sites located in the US.

3. Gateway Arch National Park, Missouri

Gateway Arch National Park, Missouri, which can be found along the Route 66.
Gateway Arch National Park and its iconic, well, arch.Photo Credit: Hendrickson Photography / Shutterstock

The gateway to the West.

Just 15 minutes from Cahokia Mounds, Gateway Arch National Park marks the only national park famous for an artificial creation: the St. Louis Arch. Representing the westward expansion in the US during the Jefferson era, the arch is a sight to see. Take a moment to ride the tram up into the arch, pondering how all this led to so much of this country’s history, from the Dust Bowl to the Trail of Tears to the creation of Route 66.

4. Elk City, Oklahoma

The entry to the National Route 66 Museum in the Elk City, Oklahoma area.
Yes, there's an entire museum dedicated to all things Route 66.Photo Credit: StockPhotoAstur / Shutterstock

From the backseat of a pink Cadillac.

With more original Route 66 road miles than any other state (and home to those Dust Bowl refugees), the National Route 66 Museum in Elk City takes its job seriously. You’ll get the chance to hop into a 1955 pink Cadillac, listen to the sounds of the Big Band era, or catch an old film at a theater.

If this doesn’t line up with your itinerary, the Oklahoma Route 66 Museum in Clinton—about a half hour away—also offers a taste of the 1950s, including some changing special exhibits. You can even grab a seat at a recreated diner.

5. Cadillac Ranch, Texas

An artwork of painted cars at Cadillac Ranch, Texas, on Route 66.
Find a rainbow in car form.Photo Credit: YuniqueB / Shutterstock

Like Stonehenge, but Texas-style.

Pair that shiny pink Cadillac experience with 10 rusting ones buried nose-down in the dirt. At Cadillac Ranch, west of Amarillo, that’s exactly what you’ll find—only they’ve been spray-painted in a rainbow of colors, vividly contrasting with the beige and brown Texas desert.

Originally, these cars ranged in production years and styles, from the 1949 Club Sedan to the 1963 Sedan de Ville. Though vandals have stripped the bodies of their most stylistic parts, it’s still a unique and interesting site to visit along the route.

Related: 10 of the World’s Best Experiences for Car Lovers

6. Winslow, Arizona

A huge painted Route 66 sign on the road in Winslow, Arizona.
This is one storied place.Photo Credit: Johnnie Laws / Shutterstock

Kick back to the Eagles.

You probably know the lyrics to the famous Eagles song “Take It Easy,” which reference Winslow, Arizona. Winslow is a hotbed of Route 66 history, and even if you didn’t plan to stop there, you’d definitely catch the massive Route 66 sign on the corner of Old Route 66 and North Kinsley Avenue.

The small town is worth a quick visit. Snap a photo here, check out the town’s Route 66 murals and statues, and, if you need a break from driving, grab a sleep at the iconic La Posada Hotel.

Insider tip: If you’re into wild sights and the outdoors, Meteor Crater—the largest in the US—is less than 30 minutes away. It’s more than a mile (1.6 kilometers) wide.

7. Tucumcari, New Mexico

The neon sign outside the Blue Swallow Motel in Tucumcari, New Mexico.
This spot is deliciously retro.Photo Credit: Nagel Photography / Shutterstock

Experience the retro glow.

Vintage neon signs, Tex-Mex diners, and retro motels line the main drag of Tucumcari, home to what just might be New Mexico’s most iconic Route 66 stop: the Blue Swallow Motel, still open for business.

Single-stall garages sit next to every room, giving the motel a very Cars-esque vibe. Even if you’re not looking for a spot to hang your head and park your SUV, snap a shot of the iconic sign.

8. Calico Ghost Town, California

The historic buildings of Calico Ghost Town, California along Route 66.
The ghost towns of California have a singular atmosphere.Photo Credit: mariakray / Shutterstock

Go even further back in American history.

Most towns were made by Route 66 and consequently busted by Route 66, back in the day when many weren’t included on I-40’s route. But not Calico, a mining town in California abandoned on its own in the 1890s.

Route 66ers have helped give this eerie spot new appeal. Today, the town has been restored to look like it did back in its buzzier days. Pan for gold, hit the trails, gawk at the wooden buildings and mining-era structures, stroll the museum and shops, or even book a rustic cabin for a night. It probably won’t be haunted.

9. Santa Monica, California

Sunset over the Ferris wheel and other rides in Santa Monica, California.
End your trip by the Pacific.Photo Credit: oneinchpunch / Shutterstock

The end promises roller coasters and live theater.

Most people will tell you Route 66 ends at the Santa Monica Pier. You should definitely stroll its length, scope out the beach, check out the boardwalk, grab some fresh shrimp, ride the Ferris wheel, or fly on a roller coaster—this pier is hardly your grandpa’s fishing dock.

But once you’ve done all that, know that the actual end of Route 66 is at the corner of 7th and Broadway in downtown Los Angeles. This spot was chosen for its wild claim to fame: With 504,000 people crossing those streets each day in the 1920s, it was the busiest intersection in the world. The intersection remains at the heart of the city’s theatre district, so end your adventure with drinks and a show at a historic venue like Orpheum Theatre.

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