Route 66: Some History and Driving Tips

By Dejan B.. Published on April 17, 2017

Now historic, Route 66 (US 66) was the first completely paved highway in the United States, stretching in an erratic arc from Chicago, Illinois to Los Angeles, California. However, it is not remembered for this engineering feat, nor is it remembered as a rival to the railroads as a burgeoning trucking industry was taking shape. And forgotten to many is its role as a gateway for faming families in the Midwest to escape the "Dust Bowl" of the 1930s.

Map of Route 66

The lore – and lure – of Route 66 lies in its image as the quintessential Main Street of America; its boon days in the 1950s as a tourist's paradise for an automobile obsessed country; and the quirky architecture that has made its roadside attractions, restaurants and motels so endearing to generations of Americans.

The Rise and Fall… and Rise… of Route 66

Route 66 was one of the first principal national highways, established in 1926 as a major east-west thoroughfare to link small towns and cities between the Midwest and Pacific Coast. Because it connected rural areas and provided temperate weather conditions for much of the year, it proved to be a popular route for truckers. By 1938, the entire stretch of Route 66 was paved. During the war years, the highway was valued for its support of military-related industries that flourished in California in the early 1940s.

The post-war era brought the golden years for Route 66 as military personnel working in California, training in the Midwest and returning home from service, found America to be more mobile than ever. The highway became an important artery for people who wanted to relocate from colder locations to the Southwest, and also for vacationers eager to explore the amenities Route 66 offered to a growing car culture. Accommodations, attractions and service stations were plentiful – and affordable to the American middle class.

By the early 1950s, the decline of Route 66 was already starting, due to the expansion on the modern interstate system that bypassed the roads and towns comprising US 66. The last of the fractured highway to succumb to the interstate system was a stretch in Williams, Arizona in 1984. In 1985, Route 66 was officially decommissioned as a national highway, and the "Mother Road", a term coined by John Steinbeck, was lost – but not forgotten.

The mystique of Route 66 never died. Preservation societies were quickly formed – as early as 1987 in Arizona – to save the historic architecture as well as the economic and cultural heritage that the Mother Road contributed to popular American culture. Public and private efforts to save and restore landmarks continues to this day and many communities have erected "Route 66" signage along the historic route.

Preparing your trip

Are you interesting in making a pilgrimage to Historic Route 66? Fortunately, many sections of Historic Route 66 are drivable, giving travelers the opportunity to see and visit examples of famous architecture, structures, and signage. You can stay the night in a tepee, get gas from vintage pumps, walk or bike across the Mississippi River on the old mile-long Chain of Rocks bridge, or picnic with the iconic Blue Whale. Resources like Route 66 News and Historic 66 provide detailed maps, hundreds of attractions, restaurants and other historic properties, and a current list of events being held in communities along the Mother Road.

Remember, Route 66 is more than 2,000 miles long, so planning, preparation and plenty of time are required to get the most out of your trip. Because you’ll be exploring small towns and unique local communities, you'll want to anticipate spending several weeks at a moderate pace to cover the whole route. And despite the popularity and convenience of RV vacationing, purists feel the spirit of Historic Route 66 is best experienced by car or motorcycle so you can take advantage of all the services and amenities that made the highway such a vital part of the American cultural landscape. Nevertheless, RV campers will have no trouble navigating the route and accommodations are plentiful.

Photo of Route 66 road with sign painted on it

Remember your camera! Many people take this route to document the things they enjoy, and you can even focus on specific aspects of the highway's heritage. You can plan to stay at a restored motel each evening, explore the food at historic eateries, document the service stations or find as many neon signs as you can. Its unique history as well as its regional differences make Route 66 a trip that is limited only by your imagination. Commercially published Route 66 guidebooks are plentiful – and invaluable for your trip planning.

When should I travel?

Experts recommend spring through fall (May through October) travel to avoid extreme cold temperatures and hazardous driving conditions due to snowfall along portions of the route. However, these are also peak travel periods, so make sure to develop your itinerary and make reservations for accommodations in advance.

What should I see?

Based on your time frame and geographic preferences, you can establish your starting and stopping point. Then ask friends and family who have traveled Historic Route 66 or nearby cities for recommendations. In addition to sites along Route 66, you may want to take side trips to state and national parks, major cities, or other landmarks and attractions that suite your personal interests.

Is Route 66 kid-friendly?

Historic Route 66 is a fantastic trip for families with children. The Pixar movie, Cars, makes a great introduction to the history and plight of the highway. (You can even visit the tow truck that was the inspiration for the character "Mater" at Cars on the Route in Galena, Kansas.) Visiting Missouri? Kids may have as much fun looking for the many barn murals advertising Meramec Caverns, which is located an hour's drive west of St. Louis, as they have at the attraction itself. And you can always lace up the sneakers and get your kicks walking on Route 66, because the cities and towns along the historic highway are perfect for strolls down Main Streets, visits to parks and relaxation breaks in local libraries. Many towns also offer walking tours of Route 66 and surrounding areas.

The Mother Road truly is the mother of all road trips – a cultural gem that combines a sometimes quirky and nostalgic view of small town America with modern amenities and conveniences for today's families.


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