Lonely Planet Writer

Is this the end of Route 66 as we know it? Campaigns are underway to preserve the iconic highway

There is no road trip more iconic than Route 66, a nostalgic drive through 8 US states and 3 time zones. While it still attracts many tourists in search of a classic Americana experience, local businesses are now lobbying to protect it.

Route 66 pavement sign sunrise in California's Mojave desert.
The campaign to save Route 66 is already underway. Image by trekandshoot/Getty Images

Funding to preserve historical landmarks along the route is due to run out in two years and both locals and lawmakers are already starting to look for ways to protect it. The highway is 90 years old and many people want to ensure the ‘great road west’ is there to enjoy for at least another 90 more.

Route 66 began to fall into disrepair in the 1960s when sections of it began to be bypassed by modern four-lane highways. In 1987, efforts began to revive the highway and local associations popped up to preserve the history of the famous route and promote local tourism and businesses along it. In 1999, the US government introduced the National Route 66 Preservation Program which allocated money to fund restoration projects throughout the highway.

The law governing this program is due to expire in two years and communities situated along the route fear it may be axed entirely. Since coming into effect, it’s helped restore landmarks, gas stations and even the kitsch neon signs. Now campaigns are underway to either save the program or have the entire route designated as a National Historic Trail, which would protect its funding.

Route 66 motorbike riders
Route 66 is popular with road-trippers of all kinds. Image by Sky Noir Photography by Bill Dickinson/Getty Images/Flickr RF

As well as attractions and landmarks for tourists, the funds will help hundreds of small towns, many of whom rely heavily on the passing trade from road trippers. Attractions continue to spring up along the roadside, including a museum in Lincoln, Illinois which opened earlier this month examining the ties between the town and the All-American driving route.

Why is Route 66 famous?

As well as being an epic drive through stunning scenery and little towns, the old highway has a historical relevance. In the early 20th century it became known as ‘America’s Main Street’ as so many people travelled on it, most of whom were heading to California to seek a better life during the Great Depression.

It became famous as a recreational road trip destination after World War II with the advent of mass ownership of cars. Since then, it has its very own mythology and appears in a huge number of pop culture references, the most famous of which is probably Nat King Cole’s version of the Bobby Troup-written classic, ‘Get Your Kicks on Route 66’. It was also immortalised in John Steinbeck’s ‘The Grapes of Wrath’.