Route 66 Travel Guide
Why Route 66 Is Still The Ultimate Drive
It’s the mother of all trips, on the mother of all roads. For nearly a century, U.S Route 66 has been carrying travellers from all over America and the world along its 2,448 mile stretch of tarmac, allowing them to explore the great arterial path through the heart of the States. Built in 1926, the affectionately-named ‘Main Street’ originally ran from Chicago in Illinois, through the states of Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico and Arizona, ending by the West Coast in Santa Monica, California. It first became famous for its hand in transporting ‘Okies’ escaping the Eastern Dust Bowl to cooler climates.
However, on 27 June 1985, America’s famous Mother Road was officially decommissioned by the US Highway System and replaced by the Interstate 44. Today, some parts of the original route still exist if you know where to look and every year thousands embark on the journey from East to West in a ‘hats off’ salute to those who have gone before. Route 66 still holds the badge as the ultimate road trip.
The first thing to remember when planning this road trip is that a lot of it is open plains and desert. This means extreme temperatures, lack of amenities and long stretches of driving — sometimes for eight a day. When booking a hire car, make sure it’s a vehicle that will stand the tarmac-melting heat of Arizona and New Mexico — and has a fuel tank big enough to get you through the three hundred miles of Mojave Desert. Secondly, build-in time for plenty of detours — because if you do want to see as much as you can along the way, you will be making a few of those.
I began my 10-day journey west in Oklahoma, which boasts the longest continuous stretch of ‘old road’ on the map; 110 miles of it, in fact. Along this track, there are great — and slightly bizarre — monuments to be discovered – including the world’s largest totem pole park in dusty Foyil town (yes, really) and a fake 80ft-long Blue Whale, parked up in a pond just off the road in Catoosa. Signs for the ‘Old Historic Route’ pop up along the way creating the perfect photo opportunity, and a brief stop at the Route 66 Museum will tell those who haven’t done their research about the ‘Mother Road’.
Accommodation is the easy part of the trip and if you’re keen to keep to the classic American motel theme, you won’t be disappointed by the trusty blue and red Motel6 signs (starting from $25 dollars per night) which are dotted along the way. Booking in advance gets you a discounted rate. Although these motels no longer have the old smoky, unwashed charm of the movies — they do have clean rooms, air con, bed-bug free beds and — my absolute favourite — free fresh coffee in the morning. My first night was spent at the Oklahoma City branch, which allowed easy access to upbeat Bricktown for beers and tapas at Bolero.
As you leave Oklahoma for the Texan Panhandle, you’re officially on the road to Amarillo — a road which is made up of mostly dust-yellow plains and a sea of wind farms. Pulling off the Interstate, you’ll be welcomed by Amarillo’s Big Texan Steak Ranch neon cowboy sign, and at Cowboy Gelato on nearby West 6th Avenue, be sure to pick up a bowl of delicious chilli for lunch. A further coffee break at the Midpoint Café, Adrian, is a must before entering New Mexico.
Before departing Adrian to cross the border, make sure to fill up on petrol and stock up on water, because once you hit New Mexico, the landscape changes again — this time into harsh grass plains and very little else. Albuquerque is the next big city three hours away — so if you do run into car trouble, you’re in for a bit of a wait. The little-known watering hole (not a bar, chaps) in Santa Rosa is perfect for a cooling dip en route.
An hour north of Albuquerque is Santa Fe — the heart of New Mexico’s art district, where sprawling Native Indian markets line the main square. It’s worth stopping at the Motel6 here and spending a lazy morning devouring a mouth-watering brunch of over-easy eggs, corn tortilla and black beans with green chili at the Loretto Luminaria. An hour further north at the Oje Caliente Spa, soak into a muscle-melting natural hot pool ($40 for two people, for the day) and enjoy an Ancient Echoes massage of the head, neck, shoulders and back ($109 for 50 minutes). End your day here with a locally-brewed beer and the friendly locals at the Second Street Brewery at the Santa Fe’s Rail Yard.
Having had your fill of colourful Santa Fe, prepare for the five-hour drive to Flagstaff, Arizona — where pop-up creperies and burger bars line the streets and students laze in the midday sun. It’s the perfect lunch spot, with San Francisco Street bubbling over with cool cafes. A savoury crepe later, and you’ll be recharged enough to tackle the next two hours to Williams — a two-road town in the heart of, well, nowhere — and the official gateway to the Grand Canyon.
Williams might be tiny, but it entertains thousands daily — with its red-neck feel, Wild West saloons, jazzy diners and late-night karaoke bars. People flock here because the official Grand Canyon Railway departs every day at 10am from the Rail Yard (starting at $75 return), ferrying passengers to and from the great rocky crater. Stopping for two nights here, I took the opportunity of a day off from driving — and headed off on a day trip to this Natural Wonder. It was great having someone else do the transporting — and it meant I could settle back with a wine as the company’s cowboy entertainers staged a fake train robbery en route (this was Arizona entertainment at its best).
The South Rim of the canyon is the most-touristy edge to visit, but take the eight-mile Bright Angel Trail down to the Colorado River and you’ll instantly be focusing on the beauty around you. There are four turn-around spots along the way, so returning for the 3.30pm train departure isn’t a problem — and 90 minutes later, you’ll be back in Williams, sipping on an icy Corona and munching away on chilli fries at the Route 66 diner.
It might seem like late night entertainment is a bit of a struggle here, but it’s really not. Late night drinks at the Canyon Club are a thrill, with barmaid Wendi serving up great tequila-infused cocktails to order. Even on a Sunday night, the karaoke is raving until 2am — it’s worth going just to belt out some Johnny Cash with a cowboy.
The final drive from Williams to California is a pretty hefty one, so take heed of the well-labelled stops for refuelling yourself and the car before beginning the hefty two-hour slog through the Mojave Desert. You’ll know you’re back in the land of the living when you hit the borders of LA — where an end-of-the-road basket of free Nachos and an oozing beef burrito will be well-earned at the El Conquistador Cantina, Silver Lake.
By the time you’re done there, the rush-hour traffic through Hollywood should have cleared and the final half-hour home-run drive to Santa Monica will be efficient and (relatively) fast. Don’t forget to stop at the Griffiths Park Observatory for a picturesque look at the Hollywood sign before you leave the Los Feliz area and an obligatory stroll through Venice beach shouldn’t be missed – not least because it’s worth picking up last-minute souvenirs from the promenade market.
Finally, having left the car in the motel car park, grab a taxi into West Hollywood for a walking tour around Hollywood’s major sights – every film buff will enjoy putting their hands in the mould of De Niro’s at Mann’s Chinese Theatre, no matter how much they deny it — and celebrate completing the mighty ‘Mother Road’ Don Draper-style, with an Old Fashioned at Humphrey Bogart’s favourite bar, The Formosa, on Santa Monica Boulevard.
So, flooring-it through the desert (at a maximum of 75mph, of course), karaoke with cowboys and plenty of decent grub-stops along the way. It seems the answer is YES, there are plenty of kicks still to be had on Route 66. Just be prepared to mix it up with a bit of i-44, Route 285 and some wannabe train robbers along the way.