Top 10 Route 66 Attractions
The Mother Road is a wondrous feast for the senses.
If there’s one thing that I learned during my seven-day odyssey travelling U.S. Route 66 recently it’s that the journey can be taxing on one’s photography device of choice.
I was convinced that somewhere along the route I’d have to dump my phone’s camera file because I’d run out of storage trying to photograph every cool / weird / unique / hey what’s that? photo opportunity I happened upon.
I said more than once to fellow travelers in our group that Route 66 is sensory overload for a curious first-time visitor who wants to document, read, learn, and interact with as many interesting attractions as possible. There simply wasn’t enough time to see everything, which mostly explains why I arrived home with only 2,184 photos and not more.
Much like photo opportunities, Route 66 offers more unique and interesting attractions than one person can discover in seven days. There’s simply too much to see and do in one visit, a reality which provides the perfect reason to return many times over.
As for said attractions, I somehow managed to whittle my favourites list down to just ten. The list is entirely subjective and is based on what I personally witnessed, but I acknowledge there’s plenty beyond what I’m including here.
The following are listed in the order I saw them as we traveled along Route 66 from East (Chicago) to West (Santa Monica).
Chain of Rocks Bridge – Madison, IL – St. Louis, MO (Day 1)
Built in 1929, the original Chain of Rocks Bridge spans the Mississippi River from Madison, Illinois in the east to the Missouri shoreline in west on the outskirts of St. Louis. The bridge measures 1,632 metres (5,353 feet) long and is seven metres (24 feet) wide.
Originally opened to accommodate vehicular traffic along Route 66, the bridge has been closed to cars since 1998 and is now used as a walking and biking trail (Nissan Canada received special permission to allow our group to drive across it). The New Chain of Rocks Bridge opened just to the north of the original in 1966 and was a part of Bypass US 66 around St. Louis but is now part of Interstate 270.
Gay Parita Sinclair Gas Station – Ash Grove, MO (Day 2)
This gas station, located about 40 km (25 miles) southwest of Springfield, Missouri in the tiny hamlet of Ash Grove, opened in 1934 along original Route 66 and burned down in 1955. The owners at the time of the fire were Fred and Gay Mason, which is where the Gay in Gay Parita comes from. The land was derelict for years until Gary Turner bought the station and brough it back to life as a retirement project with the help of his family and wife Lena. Gary died in 2015, but the station lives on and even though it hasn’t sold gas for decades, there are a ton of Route 66 souvenirs available for sale, along with plenty of fodder for hours-long conversation.
Arcadia Round Barn – Arcadia, OK (Day 3)
America’s only round barn was built by local farmer William Harrison Odor in 1898 out of bur oak. The round design was chosen due to its ability to withstand high winds better than rectangular barns and for the ease of moving livestock in and out. The Arcadia barn was a big attraction along Route 66 in its early decades before the arrival of nearby Interstate 44 reduced traffic dramatically. The barn gradually fell into disrepair, culminating in its roof collapsing in 1988. The roof was painstakingly rebuilt in 1992 by a group of local volunteers led by Luther Robison. Like the Gay Parita, the Arcadia barn now serves mostly as a tourist attraction for travelers along Route 66 with its large gift shop, but it is also frequently used as a concert venue.
Cadillac Ranch – Amarillo, TX (Day 4)
Undoubtedly one of the most famous attractions along Route 66 is the Cadillac Ranch in Amarillo, Texas. Created in 1974 by the art group known as the Ant Farm, the display features 10 Cadillacs (1949 – 1963 vintage) that are half-buried nose first into the ground, in a striking Easter Island sort of fashion. The cars were chosen to show the design evolution of Cadillacs in terms of their changing tail fins. It’s hard to tell one from the other these days, given the 45-year plus decay combined with layers of spray paint that have been applied by visitors to the cars over the decades. The site’s current location (the display was moved in 1997) beside Interstate 40 ensures a steady stream of visitors, spray paint cans in hand.
Petrified Forest National Park – Petrified Forest, AZ (Day 5)
The Petrified National Forest is really a sight to behold. Covering about 600 square km (230 square miles) in the Northeastern corner of Arizona about 42 km (26 miles) from the small town of Holbrook, the site is a fascinating mix of desert scrub and colourful, eroded badlands. Oh, and there are massive deposits of petrified wood. Located right off Route 66, the Petrified National Forest has a visitor centre and is a big tourist attraction for hikers, backpackers and photographers. Due to time constraints, we zipped through it rather quickly in a convoy, but the vistas are truly stunning as is the natural flora and fauna. It’s worth a return visit for sure.
Standin’ on a Corner Park – Winslow, AZ (Day 5)
Okay, for this one it helps if you’re: a) past the age of 40, and b) an Eagles fan. I qualify on both counts, so this one was a must-see for me. As the story goes, singer-songwriter Jackson Browne was working on the song Take it Easy in 1971 but was having trouble finishing it. His friend, Glenn Frey of the Eagles, helped him finish the lyrics and the song eventually became the Eagles first single in 1972 and it remains one of their most popular songs.
Route 66 runs right through Winslow, Arizona, a town that was chosen for the song lyrics because it sounded better than Flagstaff, Arizona, the place where Browne actually stood on a corner and a young woman in a ‘flat bed Ford’ slowed down to take a look at him as she drove past.
Standin’ on a Corner Park was opened in 1999 as a tribute to the song, and while I was there snapping photos and looking around, I heard Eagles music being played and noticed a gift shop dedicated to the band right across the street from the mural. Incidentally, the mural wall is free-standing due to a 2004 fire that forced the town to tear down the building that was behind it.
Grand Canyon, Northern AZ (Day 6)
If you’re passing through Northern Arizona as we were on Route 66, there really is no good excuse for not stopping by the Grand Canyon, one of the most incredible sights one can experience, not only in Arizona or the United States, but also in the entire world. I saw it for the first time via helicopter in 2015 when I was flown down from Las Vegas, but this visit was my first by car. It was quite cold and windy the day we were there, but I managed to get a few photos of the Canyon’s stunning vistas. There’s not much else to say really, apart from the fact that visiting the Grand Canyon should be on everyone’s bucket list.
Oatman, AZ (Day 6)
After crawling along some very narrow and treacherous canyon roads, Route 66 runs through the old mining town of Oatman, Arizona and what a sight it is to behold. It literally looks like a movie set for every American Western ever made, as one can easily envision a shootout occurring at high noon along its main drag with tumbleweeds blowing past.
The mining industry left Oatman by the early 1940s due to the U.S. government’s need for other metals besides gold during World War II, which essentially turned the town into a tourism destination thanks to the presence of Route 66. When a bypass opened in 1953 tourism suffered and the town’s population shrank considerably in the years that followed.
Today, like many towns along Route 66, Oatman survives on tourism with a few big attractions such as the Oatman Hotel, built in 1902, which served as the honeymoon spot for Clark Gable and Carole Lombard in 1939. The walls and ceilings of the hotel’s entrance, bar and restaurant are lined with American $1 bills that people sign and attach to the wall with a nail gun. Yes, I took part in the tradition.
Bagdad Café – Newberry Springs, CA (Day 7)
The Bagdad Café is a small diner / truck stop, located along Route 66 in the town of Newberry Springs, California in the Mojave Desert. Its main claim to fame is that it was used as the setting for the 1987 film Bagdad Café, although it was called the Sidewinder Café at the time of filming.
The film was set in the town of Bagdad, California, which was located 80 km (50 miles) east of Newberry Springs and existed as an old mining support town until Interstate 40 opened in 1973, which starved local businesses and forced residents to leave. It turned into a ghost town and the remaining abandoned buildings were torn down in 1991.
Meanwhile, in Newberry Springs, the Sidewinder Café was renamed Bagdad Café to take advantage of renewed interest in the site after the film’s release, and while the old motel is gone, its sign remains, and the Café is alive and well.
Mel’s Drive-In – Santa Monica, CA (Day 7)
The Mel’s Drive-In in Santa Monica, California sits on the northwest corner at the intersection of Lincoln and Olympia Boulevards which marks the official west coast terminus of Route 66, and there are a bunch of signs there to confirm. I thought the end point was the Santa Monica Pier, and while there is a Route 66 souvenir stand on the pier (which I bought a few keepsakes from), Mel’s is the proper end of the road.
The restaurant itself is also worth checking out, as it re-uses a vintage 1959 building that was once home to the Penguin Coffee Shop. Re-opened in mid-2018, Mel’s retains the Penguin’s peaked roof, huge windows and terrazzo floors, and serves up typical diner fare (burgers & fries), along with vegan options, a soda fountain and craft beers. It’s the perfect place to celebrate the end of a great Route 66 adventure!