Discovering America’s great lost highway from Discovering America’s Great Lost Highway — Route 66
Discovering America’s Great Lost Highway — Route 66
Discovering America’s great lost highway
Despite being officially decommissioned in 1985, Route 66 has continued to captivate Americans as well as people from around the world. Thanks to the work of business owners and historians who have preserved America’s Highway, new generations can discover what lies along the ultimate road trip route.
Spanning more than 2,000 miles from Chicago to LA, there are hundreds of towns and stops throughout the eight states along the former route. While these places have their own charms, there are certain stops that you can’t miss when exploring the highway for the first time.
Here are 34 attractions, stores and restaurants that you should plan to visit on your Route 66 road trip.
Where to stop: 66 Drive-In Theatre
Route 66 is home to pieces of Americana from a bygone era, including drive-in theaters. Once prevalent, only a few classic drive-ins remain along the Mother Road, including the 66 Drive-In Theatre in Carthage, Missouri. First opened in 1949, it was restored and reopened in 1998. It now shows two movies on Friday, Saturday and Sunday every week. Like many iconic symbols of Route 66, it was recreated in the Pixar movie “Cars.” A drive-in setup almost identical to it appears briefly during the film’s epilogue.
‘Paul Bunyon’ Hot Dog Statue
Zbigniew Bzdak/Chicago Tribune/MCT
Route 66 has something for everyone. There’s nostalgic sights and natural beauty but another thing America’s Road is famous for is kitsch. Many towns and businesses along the route famously used cheesy gimmicks and attractions to get people to stop by. One vestige of this is the wacky “Paul Bunyon” (not Bunyan) knockoff in Atlanta, Illinois, also known as Hot Dog Giant. Moved from nearby Cicero in 2003, this statue is a 19-foot-tall Muffler Man that used to stand outside to shepherd visitors to a hot dog stand called Bunyon’s.
Cars On The Route
russellstreet/Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0
Cars on the Route in Galena, Kansas, is a 1934 Kan-O-Tex service station that was restored in 2007 by four local women. Besides having classic charm as well as a snack counter and souvenir shop, the location is famous for the old boom truck sitting outside that inspired the character of Tow Mater from the “Cars” movies.
This public art installation outside Amarillo, Texas, is made of 10 vintage Cadillacs buried in the ground. Despite being located on private land, passersby are encouraged to visit them up close and even write or draw on the exteriors of the cars. Cadillac Ranch inspired the Cadillac Range mountain range in the movie “Cars.”
The Blue Whale of Catoosa
An icon of Route 66, this blue whale sculpture and slide is located alongside a swimming hole just east of Catoosa, Oklahoma. Built in the 1970s as a colossal homemade anniversary gift, the whale became part of a larger roadside attraction that closed in 1988. Though no longer open for swimming, the restored whale and picnic area are still a great spot to have a snack and snap a picture.
Sandia Peak Tramway
The first route realignment of Route 66 used to wind through the center of Albuquerque with the main drag now being Central Avenue. If you’re cruising the classic route all the way from Chicago to LA, make sure and stop here to take in the unique Native American culture as well as the natural beauty. Perhaps the best place to view the latter is the Sandia Peak Tramway. From the observation deck 10,000 feet up, visitors can see a 11,000-square-mile panoramic view of the surrounding mountains, forests and valleys.
Alan Levine/Flickr/Public Domain
The small town of Winslow, Arizona, has embraced its biggest claim to fame. Besides sitting along Route 66, Winslow was name-dropped in the 1972 Eagles song “Take It Easy.” These lines are commemorated in Standin’ on the Corner Park, which features a flatbed Ford permanently parked nearby. Outside of its pop culture relevance, Winslow is also close to an amazing natural sight: Barringer Meteor Crater.
Tucked away in McLean, Illinois, is a collection of more than 1,500 pinball and arcade games known as Vectorman’s Arcadia: America’s Playable Arcade Museum. For a quarter, you can play classic games in a recreation of a retro arcade. The owners have also opened a second location in a restored bank building focusing on pinball games called Arcadia’s Pinball Paradise.
Petrified Forest National Park is the only national park that contains a portion of Historic Route 66. Located outside the city of Holbrook in northeastern Arizona, Petrified Forest is named after its collection of petrified wood but it includes an array of features from fossils and petroglyphs to painted deserts and badlands.
The Original McDonald's
San Bernardino, California, was the birthplace of hamburger giant McDonald’s -- before the McDonald brothers sold the rights to their name and closed their original family eatery. Fellow restaurateur and Route 66 enthusiast Albert Okura bought the original restaurant and turned it into the Original McDonald’s Site and Museum. Free to visit, the museum includes paraphernalia from the original restaurant as well as items documenting the evolution of McDonald’s, including Happy Meal toys from around the world.
Though technically Arizona’s Historic Route 66 loop only skirts by the Grand Canyon, this breathtaking natural wonder can’t be missed if you’re passing by. The Hualapai Indian Reservation near Route 66 has begun developing Grand Canyon attractions, including the Skywalk, a glass-floored walkway that sticks out over the canyon itself, 4,000 feet above the Colorado River.
Where to Shop: Teepee Curios
A concrete wigwam marks the entrance of this souvenir shop on Interstate 40 in Tucumcari, New Mexico. Housed in a converted 1940s Gulf gas station, it carries classic curious such as coonskin caps and cactus jelly and also has a few backdrops for the perfect photo op.
Jackrabbit Trading Post
Chuck Coker/Flickr/CC BY-ND 2.0
Perhaps the most famous souvenir shop and convenience store along all of Route 66 is located in Joseph City, Arizona. That’s because its owners instated a shameless billboard ad campaign advertising the store for miles counting down the distance to the store before culminating in a billboard reading, “HERE IT IS.” The store has been family-run for three generations and features a 7-foot fiberglass jackrabbit outside.
Gary’s Gay Parita
russellstreet/Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0
This Ash Grove, Missouri, shop is much more than a recreation of a local 1930s Sinclair station that burned down in the 1950s. Proprietor and former truck driver Gary Turner lovingly rebuilt the station in his retirement and manned the store with his wife, offering up stories and recommendations until his death in 2015. Today, it’s run by Gary’s daughter and her husband.
Tower Conoco & U-Drop Inn
If you’re craving to saddle up to a vintage filling station while passing through Shamrock, Texas, you’re in luck: It’s home to the restored Tower Conoco and U-Drop Inn that inspired Ramone’s in the movie “Cars.” Built in 1936 and restored in 2004, its iconic tower lights up neon green at night, beckoning thousands of visitors to its museum and gift shop.
Hackberry General Store
This hidden gem shop in Kingman, Arizona, is full of signs and artifacts from historic Route 66 and was first reopened by famous conservationist Bob Waldmire. Former owner John Pritchard previously kept his 1957 Chevrolet Corvette parked out front. Though a newer, white ‘Vette now sits in its place, the store, which sits along the longest continuous stretch of old Route 66, hasn’t lost its charm.
The Original Route 66 Gift Shop
One of the most famous stops along Historic Route 66 is a small barber shop and souvenir store in Seligman, Arizona. The Original Route 66 Gift Shop is owned by Angel and Vilma Delgadillo, names that are legendary in the lore of Route 66. Angel founded the Historic Route 66 Association of Arizona in 1987, sparking the movement to conserve the route’s culture and history and earning him the nickname “The Guardian Angel of Route 66.” Angel, now 90, still sells haircuts and greets visitors from all over the world.
Where to stay: Wigwam Villages
Perhaps no longer politically correct, the Wigwam Villages Motel No. 6 of Holbrook, Arizona, (built in the shape of tipis, not wigwams) is an icon of a bygone era. Originally part of a chain of seven motels, No. 6 is listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 2002 due to its location along Route 66. It now features a museum as well as a chance to experience ‘50s nostalgia on your road trip.
El Rancho Hotel
Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times/TNS
The El Rancho Hotel in Gallup, New Mexico was once the place to stay for actors on location to film movies in the ‘30s and ‘40s. Its walls are lined with headshots of Hollywood stars who stayed there, including John Wayne, Katharine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy, Errol Flynn, Kirk Douglas, Gregory Peck and Humphrey Bogart. The hotel still embodies the spirit of the Old West with its rustic style.
Best Western Route 66 Rail Haven
Built in 1938 and enlarged in 1959, the Rail Haven Motel in Springfield, Missouri, now part of the Best Western chain, might seem modest and unassuming, but this historic hotel was once fit for the King. Elvis Presley stayed there after a gig in 1956 and now a room is named after him. The hotel features vintage touches such as the old Ford Crown Victoria parked in front.
The Big Texan
The Big Texas Steak Ranch in Amarillo, Texas, is pure Lone Star State kitsch from the giant cow and boot out front to the restaurant’s 72-ounce steak challenge. Big Texan also has its own brewery as well as a 54-unit hotel meant to resemble a main street in an Old West town. There’s also a “horse hotel” on site where cowboys and cowgirls can let their equine companions relax while they dine.
Munger Moss Motel
The Munger Moss Motel in Lebanon, Missouri, has been a Route 66 staple since 1946 and has been run by the same husband-and-wife team since 1971, meaning it’s still a true mom-and-pop business. The motel features a vintage neon sign that was restored in 2010, a gift shop and themed rooms.
La Fonda Hotel
The oldest hotel in the country is located in Sante Fe, New Mexico, which the original Route 66 passed through in 1926 before being cut out of the route realignment in 1937. Various lodgings have operated at its location since 1609. The current, recently renovated iteration combines Southwestern culture and history with modern charm and has an ideal location for those who want to pause their Route 66 trip to explore the city.
Where to eat: Pops Soda Ranch
If you’re feeling parched while cruising down Route 66, Pops Soda Ranch in Arcadia, Oklahoma, slings more than 700 kinds of soda that line the interior from floor to ceiling. If you’d rather not drink one of the wild flavors of bacon or chocolate soda, Pops, opened in 2007, also has a full food menu of diner fare. Don’t forget to snap a photo of the 66-foot-tall light-up soda bottle out front.
Delgadillo’s Snow Cap Drive-In
“Sorry, We’re Open,” reads the quirky sign of the Snow Cap Drive-In in Seligman, Arizona. The joint was built by the late Juan Delgadillo, brother of Angel Delgadillo, “The Guardian Angel of Route 66.” Juan’s sense of humor extends to the menu, which includes “Cheeseburgers with Cheese” and “Dead Chicken,” as well as the kitschy decor and a front door with a fake doorknob.
Waylan’s Ku Ku Burger
Kevin/Flickr/CC BY 2.0
You’d have to be “ku ku” to drive through Miami, Oklahoma, without pulling over to admire the cuckoo clock bird wearing a chef hat atop this burger shop. Open since 1965, it was once part of a franchise with more than 200 locations, but this one is the last remaining Ku Ku Burger. The restaurant slings classic fare such as burgers, malts and swirled soft serve.
A great place to fill up your stomach before hitting the road if you’re making the epic drive from Chicago to LA is Lou Mitchell’s. Nicknamed "the first stop on the Mother Road,” it is not far from the route’s starting point downtown. This diner earned a reputation for handing out free donut holes to patrons waiting in line as well as placing free Milk Duds on the table and providing a prune and orange slice to go with breakfast, traditions it still upholds today.
Big Vern’s Steakhouse
If you find yourself getting hungry in Shamrock, Texas, you’re in luck -- you can chow down on a Texas-sized hunk of cow with a side of beer bread at Big Vern’s Steakhouse. The Western ambiance extends to the decor and to the entertainment as the place often has live country-western musicians perform.
Cozy Dog Drive-In
Invented in 1946 by Ed Waldmire, the “cozy dog” is the original cornbread-battered hot dog on a stick that was ripped off and evolved into the corndog of today. Waldmire sold them at the Illinois State Fair before finding a permanent home at a drive-in in Springfield, Illinois, in 1949. The restaurant, still owned by Waldmire’s family, features plenty of other fried treats, vintage memorabilia and a souvenir shop.
Joe & Aggie's Cafe
Located in Holbrook, Arizona, Joe & Aggie’s Cafe is housed in a little pink-adobe building dating back to 1946. The cafe’s diner fare has a Mexican flare, with menu staples of enchiladas and huevos rancheros and squeeze bottles of honey ready on each table to adorn a basket of sopapillas. Cases in the front of the restaurant also display unique Route 66 memorabilia.
Not Route 66 trip would be complete without hitting both the start and the end point of the route. But what about the halfway point? The Midpoint Cafe in Adrian, Texas, claims to be the geographic middle of Historic Route 66, sitting 1,139 miles from both Chicago and LA. Built in 1928, this historic location also has a modern claim-to-fame: Former owner Fran Houser is the inspiration behind the “Cars” character Flo. Under Houser’s ownership, the cafe also developed its famous “ugly crust” pies.
Dell Rhea’s Chicken Basket
Beginning in 1946, Dell Rhea’s Chicken Basket in Willowbrook, Illinois, served up literal baskets of chicken as to-go meals for Route 66 travelers. When Illinois Route 66 bypassed the restaurant in the 1960s, it almost was forced to close, but it lives on thanks to the route’s revival. Inducted into the National Register of Historic Places along with its freestanding neon sign, it was been named the best fried chicken in Chicagoland by the Chicago Sun-Times, meaning you’ll get quality grub alongside a slice of Route 66 history.