Your Complete Guide to Driving Route 66
When thinking of American road trips and travel, there is perhaps nothing more iconic than Route 66.
Once the greatest highway in the USA, the mother road is no longer officially recognized by the Federal Highway Administration. Still, the remnants of Route 66 offer one of the best journeys to be found across the US even today.
Stretching from its origin in Chicago nearly two and a half thousand miles to its curtain call in Los Angeles, Route 66 offers a plethora of gorgeous scenery and historic points of interest, but it's also a meaningful path in and of itself.
Today, our focus isn’t so much around the stops along the way, but your actual journey through Route 66.
There are many ways to tackle this exciting but challenging trek. We’re covering some of the most popular ways to drive Route 66, plus a few tips ranging from the practical to pure fun.
What Is Route 66?
While Route 66 was once an official highway — and at one time arguably the United State’s most important — it has since been disbanded.
Also called the "Main Street of America," Route 66 was originally built in the 1920s and 1930s. At that time, Route 66 was a crucial center of commute, commerce, and culture. Primarily, it was the shortest path from the midwest to the West Coast, connecting the major cities of Chicago and Los Angeles along with other cities on the way like Springfield in Missouri, Baxter Springs in Kansas, and Tulsa in Oklahoma.
After World War II, it became the primary path traveled by those looking to shift from the Rust Belt to the West Coast's Sun Belt. Before then, Route 66 was used in the '30s by people trying to escape the Dust Bowl during the Great Depression. Of course, this was the central path traveled by the Joad family in John Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath, and you can still follow their same journey down Route 66 today.
In the 1980s, the highway was replaced by interstates which offer an even faster way to get around. However, the rich history and culture of Route 66 live on and inspire thousands of people from around the world to make their way out west to experience it.
So, what does that mean for your Route 66 road trip?
Most importantly, it means your journey will take a fair amount of road trip planning. Unlike a typical road trip along an interstate, your path may not be as straightforward — but it will have plenty of treasures to discover.
Planning Your Route
Since Route 66 has officially been disbanded and replaced by interstates, you’ll need to trace your personal journey along different portions of this former highway.
Thankfully, many parts of the old Route 66 are still connected as a National Scenic Byway called “Historic Route 66.” You can also find “State Route 66” designations in different states along the way, and there's even an "End of the Trail" sign at the end of California's Santa Monica Pier.
Even though the official road is gone, the communities and roadside attractions around Route 66 ensure its life and influence never go away.
You can find enthusiasts all over the internet and across the route itself. Talking to those with experience along the route is a great way to learn more about the best places to visit, what to do, and what to avoid.
You can choose to go state by state, starting on an Oklahoma route or an Illinois route and seeing every nook and cranny of that state's iconic path. You can also choose to travel route 66 based on the attractions that appeal to you most, like the Route 66 Hall of Fame & Museum in Pontiac, Illinois, Cadillac Ranch in Amarillo, Texas, or the Gateway Arch in St Louis, Missouri.
If you're traversing the entirety of the route, don't forget a stop for a soda at the Midpoint Cafe in New Mexico, exactly 1,139 miles between the beginning and end of this iconic road.
However you approach your Route 66 road trip planning process, it’s essential that you don’t skimp out. Even for travelers who prefer to go with the flow and use minimal planning, a balanced approach with some sort of route in mind is going to get the best trip result.
Ways To Drive Route 66: Car, Camper, Motorcycle, and More
While some road trips put the focus on your destinations, Route 66 is all about the journey. This idea goes beyond cliches — the scenes, history, and experience are by far the most important aspects of a Route 66 road trip.
With that said, there are options for guided tours in cars, buses, and even motorcycles. Still, nothing can replace the experience of driving the road for yourself.
Of course, driving Route 66 takes a long time — almost 50 hours, if you drive from start to finish at a conservative speed. If you’re a solo traveler hoping to tackle the entire route or a group with a smaller time frame, guided tours may be your best option.
If you’re able to drive Route 66 yourself, do it! Thanks to the immense history of this trip, there are tons of unique businesses all along the way to help you, no matter where you start your journey.
You’ll find rentals for all manner of vehicles that you can take one way or both ways. There are plenty of local businesses, some specifically focused on helping travelers make their Route 66 road trip a reality.
We might not be traveling Route 66 by wagon much these days, so let’s talk about some of the most popular modes of driving Route 66 and some pros and cons for each.
Route 66 by Car
Driving route 66 in your personal vehicle or a rental is the most straightforward way to approach this road trip, but by no means is it a bad one!
The weather along much of the route can be fairly extreme, particularly as you reach the hotter portions of the west (depending on the season). Access to air conditioning and shelter from the outside weather isn’t something to shirk on this journey. Plus, access to a built-in GPS can be helpful, even if you have Google Maps to help you along your way.
Cars also tend to be more gas efficient than an RV, which can be key on such a long journey. Gas efficiency also gives you greater flexibility if you choose to take unexpected detours — one of the great joys of road trip travels. Don't forget to factor in stops at gas stations into your journey to avoid any unexpected emergencies.
Route 66 offers exceptional opportunities for unplanned stops and sidetracks. If that sounds up your alley, a car may be for you. If the wilderness around Route 66 also appeals to you, might want to find a vehicle that can handle slightly rougher roads.
Route 66 by RV, Camper, or Van
Larger vehicles with integrated living elements are a popular choice for a Route 66 road trip. Depending on the way you plan your trip, you may find yourself along long stretches of remote, rural highways, so being able to stop as often and long as you please with a guaranteed place to stay is a huge pro.
Like with cars, choosing an RV helps protect you from the elements, even more so as you can weather storms or extreme heat in the comfort of your vehicle for long periods of time. Not everyone likes to drive in the rain!
If you do take the trip in an RV, camper or built-out van, you’ll need to do a bit more planning for your exact route. The last thing you want is to come to a portion of the road you don’t feel comfortable tackling with your vehicle, and you'll want to consider parking fees at campsites well in advance.
Most of Route 66’s major portions should be no problem, but especially if you intend to take detours, keep drivability in mind. Some travelers choose to tow a smaller, secondary vehicle as well to increase their options!
Route 66 by Motorcycle
There’s a lot of lore surrounding Route 66, including iconic imagery of Bikers cruising down this legendary highway enjoying the scenes and the open air. Capture this classic experience for yourself by renting a motorcycle from one of the many services along historic Route 66.
Just be sure to keep a close eye on the weather as you plan your trip. Depending on your own endurance and experience, it may also be best to plan a shorter route and take plenty of stops. However, the enjoyment on offer here is second to none!
Route 66 by Bicycle
Cycling enthusiasts rejoice! Thanks to modern efforts, it is now possible and practical to bike some portions of Route 66.
US Bicycle Route 66 includes portions between Missouri and Kansas and between California and Arizona, covering a few hundred miles. The path is laid out alongside or near the former Route 66, so you can follow the historic way while doing so with your own twist.
Other Tips for Driving Route 66
Route 66 is a road trip at its best when it isn’t rushed. During the planning phase, be realistic with your available time frame and try to leave plenty of room for flexibility.
The huge number of interesting stops and detours along the way is part of what makes Route 66 truly great, but they also mean that a tight schedule or rushed trip will likely result in a poorer experience overall.
Speaking of detours, don’t be afraid to go off the beaten path! There are rich communities, large and small, full of people, culture, and history to explore, but not all of them lie directly on Route 66.
Route 66 is an attraction in and of itself, sure, but one of its main strengths is also in the way it connects, bringing people together from all over the country. That is something you don’t want to miss!
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Whether you’re taking a car, RV, motorcycle, or even a bike down Route 66, add Autio to your trip to elevate your experience and form a deeper, more enjoyable connection with one of America’s greatest road trips. For the curious road tripper, Autio’s bite-sized stories are your go-to resource for education and entertainment along your journey.