Route 66: Motoring the mother road

This itinerary from Lonely Planet's USA's Best Trips, written by local expert authors Amy Balfour, Alison Bing, Jennifer Denniston, Lisa Dunford and Karla Zimmerman, takes you to some of the very best spots on the ultimate Americana road trip: Route 66 from Chicago to LA.

Nostalgia and kitsch are your constant companions on the old thoroughfare. Nicknamed the 'Mother Road' and 'Main Street USA,' Route 66 became popular during the Depression, when Dust Bowl migrants drove west in beat-up jalopies. After WWII, middle-class motorists hit the road for fun in their Chevys. Eventually bypassed by interstates, Route 66 was decommissioned in 1985. Driving it nowadays means seeking out blue-line highways and gravel frontage roads. If you’re going in early July, look for small-town Fourth of July parades, but expect a hefty dose of pure Americana whenever you go.

Outside of Chicago the good stuff starts rising from the cornfields: a giant fiberglass spaceman in Wilmington, chili cheese fries at Braidwood’s diner, a vintage gas station in Odell, and more. Funks Grove, a 19th-century maple-syrup farm south of Shirley (exit 154 off I-55), is one of a kind. Try it at the farmhouse shop, or explore the nature center and brooding graveyard nearby.

In the throwback hamlet of Atlanta, pull up a chair at the Palms Grill Cafe, where thick slabs of retro pies tempt from a glass case. Tall Paul, a giant statue of Paul Bunyan clutching a hot dog provides the route’s top photo op in Illinois.

If you don’t have time for monuments as you drive through St Louis, stop for a creamy treat from Ted Drewes Frozen Custard. Look for the icicle-trimmed shack surrounded by custard-craving masses deciding which of 27 toppings to swirl into their “concrete” – so thick they hand it to you upside down.

From Afton to Tulsa, Route 66 parallels I-44 before entering Vinita, a mere side dish to Clanton’s Café and its lip-smacking chicken-fried steak. Continuing west, ponder the world’s largest concrete totem pole near Foyil, pay homage to Will Rogers in Claremore, and snap a photo of the 80ft-long Blue Whale, the happiest creature to ever get beached in the town of Catoosa.

It’s boots, chaps and cowboy hats in Oklahoma City, home of the fantastic National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum. Most other cowboy attractions are corralled south of downtown in Stockyards City where you can watch a cattle auction, buy a custom-made cowboy hat or carve into a savory sirloin.

Continue west to Erick, hometown of 'King of the Road' composer Roger Miller. From there it’s an easy cruise through Texola into the Lone Star State. Vestiges of the Mother Road are few on the Texas panhandle plains and New Mexico desert – mostly it’s 1-40 frontage, but you can’t miss the 190ft-tall cross in Groom or the old VW Beetles planted nose-in-dirt as art at Conway.

Getting into Amarillo, the Big Texan Steak Ranch & Motel – with its giant cowboy sign, flashing lights, longhorn limousine and shooting arcade – is as kitsch as they come. The route then wanders through Vega to Adrian, where the 1950s diner-style Midpoint Cafe marks the halfway point between LA and Chicago, and serves some darn good 'ugly crust' pie.

From here, it’s 63 miles to Tucumcari. With plenty of roadside kitsch and old-school neon, this tiny ranching town is a favorite of Route 66 aficionados looking for a remnant of the old Southwest. After 1936 Route 66 was re-aligned from its original path to a direct line west into Albuquerque. Today, the city’s Central Ave, an eclectic treasure trove of Route 66 landmarks peppered with boho coffeehouses and funky restaurants, tattoo parlors and New Age shops, follows the post-1937 route.

Zip along the interstate to Gallup, where Route 66 dips off I-40 to act as the main drag past beautifully renovated buildings. It’s another 70 miles over the Arizona border to the surreal Petrified Forest National Park. The 'trees' here are fragmented, fossilized 225-million-year-old logs; in essence, wood that has turned to stone.

Catch the sunset over the Painted Desert from the park’s Kachina Point before driving a final hour to the lonesome little town of Winslow (made famous by the Eagle’s Take It Easy), for forty winks at La Posada. Small, period-styled rooms are named for former guests, including Albert Einstein and Gary Cooper.

60 miles west in historic Flagstaff, Route 66 follows the railroad tracks to the pedestrian-friendly downtown, where you can grab a scone or tofu scramble with your coffee at Macy’s on S Beaver St, before rejoining the interstate for the 75 miles to tiny Seligman. The Snow-Cap Drive-In has been a Route 66 favorite since 1953.

The Mother Road arcs northwest back around to I-40 and quiet Kingman, home to a couple of fun museums, before corkscrewing west into the rugged Black Mountains to Oatman, a movie set and unapologetic Wild West tourist trap. Catch a gunfight and grab an icy something in the old saloon of the 1902 Oatman Hotel, where Clark Gable and Carole Lombard spent their wedding night in 1939, before returning to final 25-mile stretch to the California border.

Signs of life return as you reach Barstow, home to the Route 66 Mother Road Museum, featuring classic cars, vintage photos and priceless auto-repair signage ('Some things we fix good'). Take I-15 out of Victorville, then rejoin Route 66 heading south towards the San Bernardino suburbs to reach the Wigwam Motel, which movie buffs may recognize as the Cozy Cone Motel in Pixar’s Cars. Each recently renovated 1949 concrete tepee has its own diminutive bathroom and guestroom, complete with wagon-wheel bedstead.

For a Hollywood ending to your trip, take Arroyo Seco Parkway to Los Angeles, where Sunset Blvd connects you to Santa Monica Blvd. When you reach the Pacific, park and ride off into the sunset on the solar-powered, 130ft Ferris wheel at the western terminus of Route 66: Santa Monica Pier.