Take a Cruise Through Local History: Road Trippers Guide to the Southwest on Route 66

road trip guide southwest route 66


Dubbed the “Mother Road” by John Steinbeck in “The Grapes of Wrath,” it could be argued that Route 66 is the most written about highway in the United States. Few American roads are as old, as historical or as downright kitschy as Route 66, especially on the portion that extends from Northeast New Mexico to Southern California. Road trippers can soak up local history in the form of colorful neon signs, quirky roadside attractions, retro motels and plenty of museums along this lively stretch of road.


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A Brief History of the Mother Road

Extending from the shores of Lake Michigan in Chicago to the Pacific Ocean in Los Angeles, Route 66 spans 2,448 miles along a diagonal course. The route was a significant thoroughfare during the mass westward migration of the 1930s, and it helped to bolster the economies of many quiet desert and farm towns along the way. The post-World War II era was indeed the road’s Golden Age, but tourist camps, restaurants and attractions dotted the highway long before then.


Old railroad lines and wagon roads set the stage for the route, but the highway’s history officially began with the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1921, which aimed to create a coherent highway network built and maintained by the federal government. A more comprehensive version of that act, proposed in 1925, kicked the highway’s development into high gear. In the summer of 1926, planners officially named the roadway “Route 66” because they thought it sounded catchy.


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During the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, an estimated 210,000 people migrated west to rebuild their lives away from the devastated farm lands. During this era — Steinbeck’s era — young laborers went to work completing the final portions of the highway, and it was declared “continuously paved” in 1938. The highway served an important purpose during World War II, as it allowed the armed forces to rapidly transport troops and equipment throughout the country as needed.


By the time the war ended, Americans were as mobile as ever; some 25 million automobiles were registered in the United States in 1945. Nat King Cole recorded “(Get Your Kicks) on Route 66” in 1946, signifying the start of the Mother Road’s heyday. During the 1950s, tourist camps, cottages, motels and motor courts — lodging that offered extra amenities, including swimming pools, restaurants, bars and shopping — dotted the highway from Illinois to California.


Route 66 became less about getting from point A to point B and more about leisure and the Great American Road Trip. But just as Americans wanted their own thoroughfare back in the 1920s, they wanted faster, better maintained roads as car ownership grew. Support for a better interstate system increased, and President Eisenhower made the project a focus of his second term in office. By 1970, just about all of Route 66 had been replaced by modern four-lane highways.


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Route 66 Today

These days, Route 66 is treated more as a tourist route than an efficient highway to any particular destination. Although the route has its fair share of desolate abandoned structures — the Southern California town of Amboy was listed on eBay for $1.9 million in 2003 in a desperate plea for revival, for example — there are many spots along the path that provide a glimpse into life during the pinnacle of the American auto boom. Here, we’ll focus on some of the classic Route 66 attractions that are still standing.


Notably, the stretch of Route 66 that carves through the American Southwest passes through many popular tourist destinations and attractions. If you want to see important monuments, geographical phenomena and tourist hotspots, this is the stretch for you. In New Mexico, the Petroglyph National Monument beckons to the curious with its 24,000 ancestral images carved by the Pueblo people and Spanish settlers, some of which date back more than 3,000 years.


In Arizona, Route 66 travelers often take the popular Grand Canyon detour, veering off course for about an hour north. Whether for a quick photo-op or an overnight stopover, Grand Canyon National Park is easy to add to your Route 66 itinerary. Finally, in California, the Los Angeles metropolitan area signifies the end of the route with cruises through Pasadena, West Hollywood and Beverly Hills. The iconic road ends at the Santa Monica Pier, where an official “End of the Trail” map marks the final mile.


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New Mexico

new mexico cafe restaurant along route 66


Travelers who meander through New Mexico on Route 66 will follow a portion of the oldest road in America, the 420-year-old Royal Road to the Interior Lands that ran from Mexico City to San Juan Puebla. The Land of Enchantment roadside history offers many quirky delights. Also called America’s Main Street, Route 66 cuts through the center of Albuquerque. It once went through Santa Fe, following the Ozark Trail, but that portion of the road was eliminated during the “Santa Fe Cutoff” in 1937, which aimed to shorten the route.

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Motor Courts — The historic El Vado Auto Court Motel in Albuquerque gives tourists the perfect sneak peek into what the Mother Road was like back in the 1940s and ‘50s. In fact, historians have called the landmark motel one of the best examples of pre-war tourist courts in America. Currently closed for renovations, it is slated to reopen soon. El Rancho Hotel in Gallup, built in 1936, became a famed guesthouse during the height of Western cinema, hosting the likes of John Wayne, Humphrey Bogart, Katherine Hepburn and Errol Flynn.

  • History and Museums — Many of the Southwest’s exemplary Mission-style churches pepper the landscape along Route 66. If you take the original route along the Santa Fe loop, you’ll pass by the oldest church in the United States, the San Miguel Mission. Don’t miss the Native American sites in Western New Mexico, including a string of fascinating pueblo ruins. About 15 miles south of Route 66 is Acoma Sky City, the oldest continuously inhabited community in the United States.

  • Roadside Oddities — One-part roadside oddity, one-part advertisement, Tee Pee Curios is a good example of how business owners along the route used flashy signs, oddly shaped buildings and concrete or fiberglass monoliths to entice travelers to stop for a visit. The Tucumcari landmark calls to visitors with a larger-than-life tee pee-shaped entryway. Not too far down the road is La Cita, a Mexican restaurant that commands attention with an oversized rooftop sombrero.


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wigwam hotel route 66 arizona


In his book “Route 66 in Arizona,” author Joe Sonderman points out that the Arizona portion of Route 66 was especially important to World War II mobilization efforts. The road facilitated travel between the state’s military installations, allowing the government to quickly move equipment and troops throughout the Southwest. After the war, the Arizona portion livened up just like the New Mexico stretch, with many tourists letting the road take them to the Grand Canyon and farther on into California. Here you’ll find trading posts, old service stations, ghost towns and geographical wonders.


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  • Motor Courts — The postcard-perfect Wigwam Motel stands to this day as one of the most unique motels along the Southwest stretch. Built in 1950 after the successful Wigwam Village in Kentucky — the Wigwam’s proprietor actually paid the original inventor a royalty fee — Wigwam Motel in Holbrook features 15 free-standing, concrete teepees that double as motel rooms. There’s also the historic Painted Desert Inn, featuring a 1930s adobe façade, which now operates as a museum run by the National Park Service.

  • History and Museums — The Arizona stretch of Route 66 passes through a number of historic districts, including Holbrook, Winslow and Flagstaff. In Holbrook, you’ll find the Historic Navajo County Courthouse and Museum, which features a collection of relics from the region’s past. This section of road is also jam-packed with delights for the spirit-seeker, with five ghost towns to explore. The Canyon Diablo Ghost Town, located inside a Navajo reservation, features abandoned service stations, a trading post and the ruins of a zoo.

  • Roadside Oddities — Holbrook’s Rainbow Rock Shop Dinosaurs makes a kitschy addition to this stretch of highway. The rock shop’s proprietor spent 20 years crafting them from concrete before he brought them to Holbrook. Inside the store, you can purchase Arizona petrified wood and geodes. More dinosaur statues await at Grand Canyon Caverns in Peach Springs, where visitors can explore some of the largest dry caverns in the United States. If you’re so inclined, you can even spend the night in an underground cave suite at the caverns!


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bagdad cafe newberry springs route 66


The path that eventually became Route 66 in California was already well-traveled before the Mother Road was built. The California Gold Rush and the state’s railroad system had already led to a well-worn transportation corridor across Southern California. In fact, Route 66 was built parallel to the existing railroad. But it was the automobile boom that really set off an explosion and guided road trippers to the end of the road — the glitzy and glamorous streets of Old Hollywood. “Route 66 in California” by Glen Duncan and the California Route 66 Preservation Foundation is a great resource for anyone looking to conquer this section of the road.


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  • Motor Courts — For some of the best Route 66 motels in California, you have to look to Needles, “The Gateway to California.” The border town still welcomes travelers to the state with the promise of a comfy bed and a quick refueling. El Garces, an old depot along the Santa Fe Railroad, served as a restaurant and hotel to Route 66 travelers between the 1920s and the 1960s. It’s currently being renovated by the National Park Service and will soon reopen as a hotel, restaurant, lounge, museum and visitor center. You’ll also find another Wigwam Village — number seven, to be exact — on the San Bernardino stretch of Route 66.

  • History and Museums — If history’s what you’re seeking, then stay on the path until you reach Barstow. Home to the Western America Railroad Museum, the Route 66 Mother Road Museum and the Mojave River Valley Museum, Barstow is certainly worth a stop. For sign-hunters, this portion of Route 66 is a veritable neon sign treasure trove. And if you’re big on old-school restaurants and signage, there’s none more exemplary than the very first McDonald’s, located along the old highway in San Bernardino. It’s now the Historic McDonald’s Museum.

  • Roadside Oddities — For the quirky, kitschy and downright bizarre, Central California’s Route 66 corridor reigns supreme. There you’ll find Elmer’s Bottle Tree Ranch, a tourist attraction and art installation that features hundreds of trees with branches made from bottles. The town of Amboy — yes, the one that was once listed on eBay — in the Mojave Desert is a good place for a stop-off if you’re looking to take in some classic Route 66 charm. It’s got plenty of old signage, motels and restaurants. In fact, it’s home to the famous Bagdad Café, a restaurant that inspired a film of the same name from 1987.


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Why Take the Road Well-Traveled?

If you’re trying to get somewhere in a hurry, you can’t argue with the convenience of the modern interstate. But if taking it slow and enjoying sites along the way is your preferred method of travel, then a trip along the Southwest portion of Route 66 is, quite literally, a great way to go.


Explore our complete selection of books on Route 66 for ghost stories, history, roadside oddities and more.