Why is Route 66 Famous? | 15 Things to See Along the Way
Why is Route 66 Famous?
It was one of the original highways (established in 1926) but also because it was the classic route to the West Coast. The collection of roads that make up Route 66 pass through eight states and practically all journeys from East to West crossed its path at some point.
While Interstate 40 is now the fastest route across the country, many travellers still journey along Route 66 to soak up the Americana culture and Dust Bowl history of the region.
Often referred to as ‘The Mother Road’ after its central role in John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, Route 66 was the primary route for those migrating towards the West Coast in search of a better future. This increased prosperity for those trading along the route and many of these service stations and ‘mom-and-pop businesses’ can still be seen to this day.
Read on to discover what are the top spots along Route 66 and why you should add this iconic highway to your bucket list.
1. The Dixie Truck Stop, Illinois
The Dixie Travel Plaza in Illinois is the oldest recognised truck stop along Route 66 having been opened in 1928 by J.P Walters and John Geske. They started off simply selling sandwiches and gas before having to up their game to a fully-fledged restaurant as demand increased with people flooding West. From 1928 to 2003, the Dixie was owned and managed by the Geske Family, only closing for one day in those 75 years due to a fire on the premises (fair enough really!).
Today the truck stop has changed hands, but it is still a favourite stop off for those travelling through Illinois on Route 66.
2. The Gemini Giant Wilmington, Illinois
Route 66 is home to quite a few larger-than-life mascots, and one of the first you’ll come across when heading from Chicago to California is the 30-foot Gemini Giant in Wilmington, Illinois. This huge green astronaut on the side of the road is a ‘Muffler Man’, a novel form of roadside advertising catching people’s eye and pointing them in the direction of a nearby store or attraction. The Gemini Giant advertises the Launching Pad Drive-In and is a great stopping point for a photo opportunity and some refreshments!
3. Meramec Caverns, Missouri
The Meramec Caverns are a complex of underground caves stretching 4.6 miles through the Ozarks in Missouri and are well worth a visit. This deep cavern system features seven layers to explore, with stalagmites and stalactites as far as the eye can see.
Not only are the caves an interesting sight in terms of their landscape and beauty, but American outlaw Jesse James is said to have hidden out from the local Sheriff in these caves too! You’ll be able to learn all about the history and legend of the Meramec Caverns during a guided tour of the caverns.
This region of Missouri is also argued to be “The Birthplace of Route 66” and is where the bumper sticker was invented, so it’s full of fun facts and is a must for any Great American Road Trip!
4. Chain of Rocks Bridge, St. Louis, Missouri
The Chain of Rocks bridge was once the only way to allow Route 66 travellers over the mighty Mississippi, and while it is not used by cars today, visitors can still travel across the bridge by bike or on foot. The bridge system is quite unique, with a 24-degree fork in the middle helping boats to navigate the strong current of the river. It can be lovely to wander across the bridge, thinking of days gone by, and looking out for the two water intake towers downstream that look like little floating castles.
5. Old Riverton Store, Kansas
The Old Riverton Store in Kansas is thought to be the oldest continuously operating store on Route 66 and is a real must-see on the route. The old-fashioned store is full of character and charm, with the gingham tablecloths, classic signs and ice-cold drinks served out of an old-school Coca-Cola refrigerator harking back to yesteryear. The store is a lovely place to pick-up a delicious deli sandwich and some Route 66 souvenirs and the friendly owners will happily chat on about their lives on Route 66 and the history of the shop.
6. Conoco Hole in the Wall, Oklahoma
The Conoco Hole in the Wall in Oklahoma is another charming photo op along Route 66, with the mini green and red gas station built right into the side of a red-brick building. “Allen’s Conoco Fillin’ Station” as it’s more colloquially known, was one of the originals and now serves as a tiny souvenir shop.
The 1920s design will make you feel as though you’ve stepped back in time, and it’s well worth pulling over to take a snap of this classic sight.
7. Catoosa Blue Whale, Oklahoma
One of the more random sights on Route 66 is the Catoosa Blue Whale perched alongside the road! This giant blue whale structure is difficult to miss, with its smiling face and mini baseball cap looking out at you from the side of the pool.
Built by resident Hugh Davis as an anniversary gift for his wife, this whale and swimming pond was intended for family use but it now a much-loved tourist attraction in its own right! Whether you choose to go for a dip, sliding in from the side of the whale, or simply take a picture standing proudly next to this unique landmark, you’ll be glad you took the time to stop off here while on your way through Oklahoma.
8. Cadillac Ranch, Amarillo, Texas
The Cadillac Ranch in Amarillo, Texas was started by millionaire Stanley Marsh III in 1974 when he commissioned an art piece made out of 10 Cadillacs. Each car is artfully buried halfway into the ground and is brightly coloured by layers upon layers of visitor graffiti. Guests can still add to the ever-changing work of art by bringing along their own paint and adding an image or tag to the cars.
Unfortunately, one of the cars was damaged in an arson attack in 2019, but the site is still open to visitors and is a great bucket-list spot for lovers of Americana.
9. Glenrio Ghost Town, Texas-New Mexico state line
The eerie Glenrio Ghost Town is a border destination between Texas and New Mexico with a strange history of traditions, logistics and cultures due to its frontier location. However, since the close of the Rock Island Railroad and the opening of Interstate 40, Glenrio has become a ghost town with no remaining residents and just a few deteriorating structures such as the Little Juarez Diner and the Texaco service station.
As the town remained so untouched, the singular main road was used in the film version of The Grapes of Wrath as it easily represents how life was during the move of citizens from East to West!
10. San Miguel Mission, Santa Fe, New Mexico
Another famous historic site on Route 66 is the San Miguel Mission in Santa Fe, New Mexico. This Spanish colonial mission is thought to be the oldest church in the United States, having been built back in the early 1600s! The church was made in a traditional adobe style by a group of Tlaxcalan Indians and the three-tiered bell tower, and intricate altar screen were later additions.
The San Miguel Mission can be found on the main route south through New Mexico, and visitors can witness the wooden image of St. Michael that was carved in 1709.
11. Petrified Forest National Park
The Petrified Forest is a truly fascinating place where ancient fossilised wood tells the tales of prehistory! This unique landscape features petrified wood fossils that are thought to be over 200 million years old as well as the remains of settlements such as Puerco Pueblo.
The best way to explore the Petrified Forest is on foot, so don your hiking boots and set off on one of the park’s many trails. Visitors can also camp overnight for even more of an adventure.
12. Arizona's Painted Desert
One for the landscape lovers, Arizona’s Painted Desert is an absolutely breath-taking destination along Route 66 with colourful, striped badlands undulating across the horizon. The desert is situated between the Grand Canyon NP in the east and the Petrified Forest NP further east and is a great place for hiking and photography.
The whole Painted Desert encompasses over 93,500 acres (stretching more than 160 miles!), so you’ll want to choose just a small section, but it makes a wonderful change to the more rustic towns and villages of Route 66.
13. Oatman, Arizona
If you’ve ever wanted to see what it was like to live in the Wild Wild West, head to the town of Oatman, Arizona. This place really makes you feel as though you’re in a movie, with wild burros (donkeys) roaming the streets, a history of gold mining and the Olive Oatman Ice Cream Parlor looking like it popped straight out of a Western. The town even features a daily gunslingers shootout show (1.30 and 3.30pm daily) showcasing The Oatman Ghost Rider Gunfighters.
The town has a population of around 128 people, but also boasts thousands of scruffy burros and over 500,000 tourists passing through each year!
14. The Grand Canyon, Arizona
While the Grand Canyon is slightly off route when following Route 66, when you’re this close, it would be crazy to miss the largest canyon in the world (if you’ve not already been there). The Grand Canyon is all kinds of superlatives; awe-inspiring, magnificent, breath-taking – the list goes on!
Whether you choose to take a day trip, helicopter flight, hiking trip or just stop off at the viewpoints, you’re bound to be impressed by the sheer size and beauty of this incredible canyon.
15. Santa Monica Pier, California
Last but by no means least is the Santa Monica Pier in California; the official terminus of Route 66. After you’ve driven the length of Route 66 all the way from Illinois, you’ll be ready for a well-deserved break, and the Santa Monica Pier offers fun, relaxation, entertainment and more. With an amusement park, bars, shops, restaurants, festivals and even a trapeze school, there’s really something for everyone.
The Santa Monica Ferris Wheel and carousel are real East Coast icons, and you’ll love the child-like joy of letting off some steam on the pier!
So, there you have it – the reasons why Route 66 is famous and some of the beautiful and bizarre stopping points along the way! Have you driven Route 66? What were your favourite stops? Or where are you most looking forward to visiting? Let us know in the comments below!
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