A Gearhead’s Guide to Route 66

The Mother Road, as it’s come to be called, is a place where virtually anyone can find something that interests them. But as one of one of the most important roads in American automotive history, those of us who love cars and their history will find this route even more fascinating.

On this drive, stopping is almost as fun as driving. You’ll find neat things along every segment of the road, from where it starts in Chicago to its terminus at the Santa Monica Pier. Stunning nature sites also dot the route, particularly in the southwest, as the road passes near the Grand Canyon, through Petrified Forest National Park and more.

There’s something auto-related on just about every other mile of the drive, as mom-and-pop repair shops, to small buy-and-sell places and more. Performance and body repair shops have all popped up along the 66 to share in the heritage. There’s no shortage of auto museums either, and each state has at least one somewhere close to the route. You’ll pass classic cars all along the drive. It seems like this strip is a magnet for anyone who sees the importance in cars, driving and the freedom of the open road. This is truly the quintessential all-American road trip.

What to know before you go

This will be unlike any other road trip you’ve taken before. You’ll have to pay attention closely to the course, and it’s helpful to make a list of everything you want to see before starting out. It’s pretty much impossible to see everything along the route, so it’s helpful to prioritize.

Not entirely gone, but certainly not forgotten 

The real Route 66, as we’ve come to think of it, has largely been replaced by the interstate highway system. For much of Oklahoma and Missouri, Route 66 runs right alongside Interstate 40. With fewer stops, higher speeds, and essentially the same sights, it could be prudent to take that over meandering through the stop signs and intersections. However, you’ll have to get off of the interstate near Joplin if you’d like to do the Kansas portion, which is a neat little collection of small towns.

Though the road itself can be hard to follow (we found it particularly difficult through St. Louis, MO, as much of it isn’t marked), it’s far from impossible. Grab a paper map with the route marked to save some trouble. It really is worth the effort to follow. A trip through the west and southwest wouldn’t be complete without at least a little time on historic 66.

What you can’t miss

If you’re heading this way, it’s certainly worth it to stop at a few of these auto-related gems along the way. Here are some that have been attracting gearheads along Route 66 for years.

Route 66 Raceway
Joliet, IL

Just outside of the Route’s start (or end) in Chicago, this raceway hosts lots of drag racing events to get your adrenaline rushing. The National Hot Rod Association hosts lots of events here throughout the year, from bracket races to events at the dirt track across the route. It’s a neat stop for hot rod fans, as this is one of the top drag racing facilities in the country.

Henry’s Rabbit Ranch
Staunton, IL

If you’re a Volkswagen fan, this is a neat little stop in Staunton, IL. Quite unlike anything you’ve ever seen before, this ranch has taken Volkswagen Rabbits and stuck them vertically into the ground. It’s quirky, fun, and there are actual rabbits milling around too, of course. This is one of those stops you just won’t see anywhere else.

66 Drive-In Theater
Carthage, MO

Spend some quality time with your ride and catch a flick or two at this historic drive-in theater. If you’re doing the Route in the summer and happen to pass through on a weekend, this is a great way to relax between jaunts on the road. Bonus points for anyone with a convertible!

Blue Swallow Motel
Tucumcari, NM

You’re likely to find a few vintage vehicles hanging out at this spot, from motorcycles to the 1951 Pontiac often seen in photographs under the motel’s iconic neon sign. The Blue Swallow is right along the historic route and a step back in time. A unique feature is the historic garages located next to many of the rooms, complete with electricity for charging EVs or just for keeping your beauty out of the New Mexico elements. Each room is appointed in 1940s and ’50s decor to round out the experience.

Cadillac Ranch
Amarillo, TX

I have to admit, it hurts my heart a little bit to see these beautiful cars in the shape they’re in, but hey, its art. Created in 1974, Cadillac Ranch has now become known as the “hood ornament of Route 66.” The cars range in age from a 1949 model with the newest being from 1964. They’re now far from pristine, and if you happened to bring a can of spray paint along for the ride, you can even leave your mark. If nothing else, Cadillac Ranch is one of those unique things you’ll only find on this eclectic road trip.

A bonus for the little gearheads: Cars on The Route
Galena, KS

This adorable vintage-themed gas station is one you don’t want to miss along the small Kansas stretch of Route 66. This little stop has real-life versions of many of the characters from the Cars movies. Let the kids stretch and take pictures with here Mater, the Sheriff and more while you relive the glory days.

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