The ultimate road trip in the USA:
Route 66 is the quintessential American road trip. No other road has captured the imagination and the essence of the American spirit. It has inspired musicians, filmmakers and writers, from classic literature (John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath) to Pixar movie Cars and video game Grand Theft Auto.
Route 66 was one of the United State’s first continuous stretches of paved highway, and served as a major path for those who migrated west. “The Mother Road” was established on November 11, 1926, and ultimately stretched 2,448 miles from Chicago to Los Angeles. It is an absolute the pleasure to drive in all eight states (Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California) along Route 66, The Main Street of America!
Route 66 became one of the most famous roads in the United States, outdistancing others such as the Lincoln Highway. It is popular lore in movies, songs, books like “The Grapes of Wrath”, and TV shows. The legendary highway was known far and wide for its variety of “mom and pop” motels, neon lights, drive-ins, quirky roadside attractions, flat tires, cars with no air conditioning, dangerous curves, steep hills, and narrow lanes. The movie “Easy Rider” was filmed at several locations along Route 66. The move “Thelma and Louise” also featured Route 66 references and scenes.
Driving America’s most iconic highway is the trip of a lifetime.
Like an artery, the “mother road” nurtured communities and serviced millions of truckers and road trippers for decades. Families who were forced to leave their homes during the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl, with few resources and a little hope, motored west on Route 66 in search of a better life. This “road of dreams”, symbolising a pathway to easier times, was one of the only US highways to be laid out diagonally.
Today, several states recognize the historical significance of the road, and have it marked with “66” in the state highway number. “Historic Route 66 Associations” are active in several states. The road is also a major tourist attraction, so many states openly market attractions and lodging along the old route.
How long does it take? What vehicle is best: Car, motorbike or RV?
There are plenty of options to enjoy this nostalgic journey through time. The most popular is a self-drive which can take 14 to 21 days depending on your preference. Normally it involves renting a car or SUV which includes a one-way drop off fee, as you would either start in Chicago and end in Los Angeles or vice versa. There are some motorbike rentals too for those more adventurous, which includes helmets and storage for your bags can be arranged. Another popular option is a comfortable RV which gives you extra flexibility to enjoy the journey your own way in a lot more comfort.
This itinerary requires expert hands – talk to us now
With some major decisions to make, this epic road trip does need fine tuning. Choose of flights, vehicle type, length of journey, prefer accommodation type and distance to drive between landmarks. Our expert advice and experience on this superb self-drive holiday are at your service. Ways to contact us:
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Browse here our Route 66 tailor-made itineraries:
Highlights of the Route 66 itinerary
- Admire the beaches, architecture and nightlife of Chicago.
- Marvel at the epic scenery of the Grand Canyon.
- Enjoy a hike through the beautiful Petrified Forest National Park.
- Experience the excitement and bright lights of Las Vegas.
- Soak up the atmosphere, relax on the beach or go shopping in Los Angeles.
Top things you can’t miss on Route 66
When it comes to American holidays, you can’t get much more iconic than a road trip along the length of Route 66. A proper Stateside adventure, it packs in a whole host of authentic American experiences – perfect for fans of retro Americana. Attractions along the way are hugely varied, from buzzing cities to vast national parks to quirky roadside wonders. Here are the seven things we’d recommend adding to your Route 66 holiday itinerary…
The Windy City marks the eastern point of Route 66, and is a great place to begin your American road trip. Built along the shores of Lake Michigan, and with the Chicago River carving a path through Downtown, exploring the waterfront is the perfect way to acquaint yourself with the city. Enjoy an al fresco lunch on the Chicago Riverwalk, board a sightseeing boat for a leisurely cruise past skyscrapers and beneath some incredible century-old bridges, or stroll along the sandy beaches that edge the lake. Don’t leave the city without heading to Adams Street for a photo next to the famous ‘Begin Route 66’ sign.
Gateway Arch, St Louis
At 630 feet high, St Louis’s Gateway Arch is the tallest arch in the world. On our Route 66 tours, we’ll whisk you to the top to take in views across the city and beyond. It’s equally striking from ground level too, clad in shimmering stainless steel that reflects in the Mississippi River below. It’s often referred to as the ‘Gateway to the West’ – a fitting thought, as we’ll be heading west as we continue our adventure along Route 66.
The Ride-Thru Cave, Missouri
It wouldn’t be a Route 66 holiday without something a little bit bizarre! Around five miles off Route 66 are the Fantastic Caverns, a cave system first discovered in the 1860s. Billing itself as ‘America’s Ride-Thru Cave’, tours here are conducted by tram, pulled along a one-mile route by a Jeep. Along the way, you can admire stalactites, stalagmites, ‘soda straws’, floor-to-ceiling columns and clear pools hiding tiny, delicate cave pearls.
Cadillac Ranch, Texas
This quirky art installation – said to represent the golden era of the car – was created back in the ‘70s by the Ant Farm, an artists’ collective from San Francisco. Ten classic Cadillac cars are buried nose-down just off the roadside, their bodies covered in colourful graffiti. It’s an iconic road trip sight – on our Route 66 holidays, we’ll pass by on our way out of Amarillo.
Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona
This otherworldly landscape takes you around 200 million years back in time, when huge conifers grew in this windswept corner of the Painted Desert (and dinosaurs roamed among them). Nowadays, the forests are colourful petrified wood – a fascinating sight to see. The surrounding Badlands are just as scenic, scattered with buttes and mesas.
Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona
Nothing can quite prepare you for your first glimpse of the Grand Canyon. The colossal size, the glorious colours, the rock formations – it really is an incredible sight to see. Admire its scale and beauty from the Rim (easy walking trails can take you away from the crowds if you’re looking for a more peaceful spot), or splash out on a plane or helicopter ride to give you an unforgettable aerial perspective. Although it’s just north of the original Route 66, it’s still a real must-see on tours across America.
Las Vegas Strip, Nevada
Think Las Vegas and the image that probably comes to mind is the Strip. With its neon lights, huge resort hotels and casinos galore, it’s quintessential Sin City. Don your comfiest pair of shoes and hit the sidewalk, pit-stopping whenever the mood takes you. Catch the dancing fountains outside the Bellagio or the erupting volcano at the Mirage, ride a gondola at The Venetian, and pose for pics next to the ‘Eiffel Tower’ (Paris Las Vegas) or ‘Statue of Liberty’ (New York-New York). If you need a sit-down, there are almost endless options for a meal or drink – and, of course, there’ll always be a seat free at the blackjack or roulette table (just don’t gamble away all your spending money…).
Do you prefer to join a group tour of Route 66?
If after what you have read, you think perhaps a road trip is not quite for you, or you are thinking of travelling alone and you could enjoy the company of others, then we have various sitting coach/bus options. There are all very comfortable A/C coaches and excellent tour guides. Every aspect of the trip is carefully taken care of so you don’t need to do anything: meals, rest stops, and there will always be someone to take that panoramic photo of you – leave the selfie stick at home. Some of these may include your return international flight.
Here are some group tours of Route 66 options too:
Getting your kicks on Route 66
There is nothing quite like a road trip – meandering through a country at ground level, at a leisurely pace, watching local communities going about their daily lives. It is the essence of thoughtful travel. When you are planning this more then 2,000 miles long drive, most travellers prefer to drive west from Chicago to LA. In reality, both ways work really well, but as it used to represent the “escape route” during challenging times, people use to seek more freedom and comfort in California. However, for the essence of the trip, and also the practicality of finding the most convenient flight times, perfect small accommodation (with often limited availability) and the ultra import choice of vehicle, then considering LA to Chicago may solve most of the issues and keep the itinerary within the right price range.
The thing about an American road trip is that it is rich in modern mythology, so this 2,400-mile legendary road – the “mother road” according to John Steinbeck or simply Main Street USA – winds through towns and cities that are part of folklore we’ve all grown up knowing intimately through words and music. Chicago, St Louis, Oklahoma City, Flagstaff, Amarillo, Los Angeles, all names that are imprinted on our collective cerebellum.
The actual tarmac may not be the same as it was in the 1950s – the roads that made up the original 1920s Route 66 have been detoured, abandoned and upgraded frequently since President Eisenhower introduced the Federal Aid Highway Act in 1956 – but the journey remains an epic engagement with the pulse of this great country.
Start with Chicago, the Windy City, Second City, the city forever associated with Al Capone and the mafia but equally one of the great centres of modern architectural thinking and most decidedly the home of city blues music. The skyscrapers that cluster beside Lake Michigan are as impressive in design as you will see in any modern city – the Willis Tower, formerly the Sears Tower was once the tallest building in the world, the Chicago Board of Trade Building, Mies van der Rohe’s Lake Shore Drive Apartments and the John Hancock Centre are all stunning representatives of American optimism and creativity writ large.
Of course Chicago gave its name to the Chicago School and the Prairie School architectural movements and was where Frank Lloyd Wright practised and left behind several houses, notably the famous Robie House, regarded as one of the most important buildings in American architecture.
And before setting out on the road a night out at one of Chicago’s great blues clubs should set the tone for a serious journey into heartland America. Chicago blues is the hard-driving electric blues style that influenced many of the British pop groups of the 1960s. Before this beat boom, the Chicago clubs were located in the primarily poor black southern suburbs, but with international recognition, so blues clubs began to open up on the more affluent north side. There are now blues clubs everywhere – there’s still a Checkerboard Lounge on the South Side and elsewhere Buddy Guy’s Legends and B.L.U.E.S. are recommended for a memorable night out.
Now, you’re on the road, heading south along Route 66 to Springfield, the capital of Illinois and one of America’s significant political centres. It was here that Abraham Lincoln practiced law and began his political life and it was here that he was buried after he was assassinated in 1865. Almost 150 years later Barack Obama, standing in the grounds of the Old State Capital, announced his presidential candidacy.
More prosaically, but significant to any visitor curious to explore all aspects of American culture, Springfield is where that great gastronomic treat the corn dog (hot dog sausage coated in corn batter) on a stick was invented. Here it’s called a “cozy dog” and is strongly recommended for anyone who finds American junk food irresistible.
As the road leaves Illinois and heads into Missouri and towards Oklahoma you are starting the transition from the Eastern to the Western USA, and St Louis is often called the western-most Eastern city. Confirming this geographic and spiritual crossroads status is the fact that Missouri is also considered to be part of The South as it was, prior to the Civil War, one of the slave states. However, it didn’t secede from the Union and went to war with itself, an internecine conflict that was most vividly and cruelly in the St Louis Massacre.
Today, St Louis is a city that is attractive, small, with population of just over 300,000, and boasting the most stunning botanical gardens. One of the strongest arguments for travelling through America at the end of summer into early autumn is that the foliage is starting to turn and small towns like St Louis are at their prettiest. However, most importantly for travellers along Route 66, this city is situated on the mighty Mississippi, that most iconic of American rivers. Here, a riverboat cruise will give you your first taste of the South as well connect you spiritually to the likes of Twain, Faulkner and Herman Melville, who set some of their most memorable work on the Mississippi.
You’re halfway through your Route 66 road trip by the time you’ve reached Oklahoma City, and the best is still to come. This is another of those American folkloric names that we have imprinted on our memory from film, music and colourful history, both distant and recent. Oklahoma City has been called “the city born in a single day” because in April 1889 some 10,000 settlers took part in a gigantic land grab known as the Land Run that established the city that would eventually become the State capital. Ironically it was on an April day a century later that Oklahoma City made news around the world when Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols blew up the Alfred P Murrah Federal Building and killed 168 people. Today there is a memorial on the site – and since its opening in 2000 more than three million people have visited it.
However, it is Oklahoma City’s Wild West past that makes it such a folkloric brand name and visitors are bound to want to visit the terrific National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum, but also to venture downtown to Stockyards City where you can witness a cattle auction, listen to some live country music (if you need reminding of Waylon Jennings’ defiant southern anthem I’m An Okie From Muscogie), buy custom-made cowboy hats and boots, or eat a sirloin steak the size of a Volkswagen.
It was in this part of Oklahoma state that the whole idea of Route 66 was developed in the 1920s, conceived originally to connect rural Oklahoma with Los Angeles and Chicago, pulling together unrelated strands of roadway into a cohesive blacktop to connect the small towns and roadside communities scattered across this vast country. So, today as you motor west of Oklahoma City, as the Oklahoma plains give way to the to the Texas panhandle, Route 66 takes you through the small towns and communities that survive to this day, past old trading posts, filling stations, cheap motels, diners and roadside attractions that haven’t changed a great deal over the past half century or so.
So, from the plains to the north of the Ozark mountains through to the Texas panhandle, to Amarillo in Texas and then on to Albuquerque in New Mexico. This was the Dust Bowl of the Great Depression and the migration westward was described brilliantly and poignantly by John Steinbeck in Grapes of Wrath as the Joad family along with an estimate 200, 000 Dust Bowl farmers “came into 66 from the tributary side roads, from the wagon tracks and the rutted country roads, 66 is the mother road, the road of flight.”
And just as you are drifting into a reverie about the historical relevance of this great ribbon of asphalt you suddenly find yourself confronted by one of those iconic American statements that defy time and place. Just outside Amarillo, along the road to Albuquerque, is the Cadillac Ranch, a public art installation that is now known throughout the world. To put it bluntly it comprises 10 half-buried, brightly-painted Cadillacs in a row but it is much more than that, representing as it does rather appositely in this case the golden era of the automobile, and is the inspiration for Bruce Springsteen’s eponymous song.
Next stop is Albuquerque and if you ask anyone who has been here before they will tell you that the first thing you notice is the light, and the spectacular sunsets over the Sandia Mountains that form a backdrop to this lovely city. They say the Pueblo Indians who first settled here more than a thousand years ago were drawn by this beautiful light for it promised a better life. They may also have been persuaded by the presence of water in this fertile Rio Grande valley. The Spanish arrived in the early 18th century, and evidence of their presence still stands today in Albuquerque’s oldest building the San Felipe de Neri Church, built in 1793. In fact the city is full of history and evidence of its cultural and artistic roots, particularly the downtown area where the KiMo Theater, built in 1927, is a fabulous celebration of Art Deco-Peublo Revival style of architecture. The KiMo alone makes visiting Albuquerque worthwhile.
Beyond lies the great West, more of New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada and California vast expanses of countryside with big sky and endless horizons, the likes of which travellers from Europe dream about. Dream no more, for here it is in all its Technicolor glory. No matter how often you see landscapes such as these in photographs and on film, nothing quite compares with being there and a visit to the Grand Canyon, the only major off-piste sidetrip on the Route 66 journey, is one of modern travel’s great experiences. This huge fissure in the Colorado Plateau, 277 miles long, up to 18 miles wide and over a mile deep, is Pueblo Indians regard it as a holy site and I must say that my reaction on visiting the Grand Canyon for the first time was pretty much the same. There are few natural wonders on the planet as magnificent as this.
Back on Route 66, you are now heading through the southern tip of the Mojave Desert and passing through small Wild West towns, settlements, and ghost towns. Williams (population 3,000 at last count) is the southern terminus of the Grand Canyon Railway, Kingman is where Baywatch’s Pamela Anderson was famously arrested by local cops for indecent exposure while she was doing her 1992 Playboy photo shoot, and the Calico Ghost Town, is a silver mining town that thrived in the 1890s and was revived and made over by the owner of the Knot’s Berry Farm theme park. They are all irresistable stops as you drift West through the Mojave Desert towards the San Bernardino Mountains and down into your final destination, Los Angeles.
And, having emerged from the serenity and beauty of the desert it is an appropriate culture shock to be delivered into urban LA by way of the Santa Monica Boulevard. This final strip of asphalt takes you to the Pacific, to Santa Monica itself and if you wish to round off your road trip with a poetic codicil, you’ll wish to end it at neighbouring Venice Beach. Just as Route 66 provided inspiration for generations of America’s writers and poets, not the least Jack Kerouac in On The Road, so Venice and its beach has similarly resonance. In the 1950s and 60s it became a centre for the Beat generation, a gathering place for writers, artists and musicians. Frank T Rios, Thomas Lipton and the Doors’ Jim Morrison lived and wrote here and in the late 1960s it became a centre for the radical Black Panther political activists. Today, Venice Beach is less cerebral but more entertaining with body builders showing off their pecs, panhandlers, skateboarders, and scantily-clad California girls all displaying their Americanness on the shore of the Pacific ocean.
What you realise at the end of this magnificent ride through the heartland of America that even if Route 66 is somewhat mythical now – so many of the stretches you are travelling on today are upgraded and parallel versions of the original highway – it remains the greatest road trip of them all!