CC Road Trip: How To Tour Route 66

Me and Paul

As you know from my recent postings, my dad and I spent the week before Labor Day touring Route 66 from Chicago to Albuquerque (and thanks to all of you who offered best wishes during our trip). To prepare, we gathered some resources (an old school reference book, and several websites loaded onto my laptop hard drive), and confirmed connection details via phone.

Dad and I tend to operate from the seat of our pants, so our planning during the trip often consisted of a morning discussion regarding our mileage goal for the day, and then allowing events to evolve organically. Not everyone is comfortable with this approach, but trying to lock down every detail of a Route 66 road tour is well-nigh impossible. However, if you want to attempt it, I’ll review some of the lessons we learned on this trip, using the classic question and answer format, and then open things up for discussion (blog style).

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Question 1: Self directed or guided tour format?

Dad and I never considered the guided tour format, but it is an option. A quick Google search rings up multiple Route 66 guided tour operations, and for some, it’s an attractive option. By using a tour package, you don’t have to get a car from your house to Route 66 (which can be a very long drive), and for our out-of-country friends, a tour guide can handle all the food and lodging decisions, allowing tourists to focus on the Mother Road.

Some tour companies offer a car rental option, an attractive approach for folks in Seattle, Bangor, or Miami. Instead of spending several days driving to Route 66, you can fly into Chicago or Los Angeles, jump in a classic car and head out.


Question 2: What to drive?

I could spend a couple of paragraphs discussing options, but it really comes down to this: classic style or modern comfort? Beyond that, your decision will be guided by the resources available. Don’t forget the full tour runs 2,100 miles, and you’ll be buying fuel to cover every inch of it.


Question 3: How much time do I budget?

The short answer is as much as you can. The guided tours run two weeks, and I guarantee there are things they skip over to make that timeline. While Dad and I had a great time on the trip, every stop included a discussion about allotted time, and we often felt we were rushing through museums and other sites. If you budget six days or less, you’re going to spend most of your time behind the wheel rather than touring sites along the way.


Question 4: Where to start?

Don’t feel compelled to start in Chicago or Los Angeles. People living in Kansas City, Denver or Dallas would be better served to start at a mid-point city (Albuquerque, Amarillo or OKC), and head toward a terminus. This approach also allows you to break the tour into multiple trips.

Question 5: Which Route 66?

This question will come up every day. There is no definitive map of Route 66–over its life, it evolved from a patchwork of existing roads into a limited access highway that bypassed town centers and straightened convoluted pathways. Because of this, you’ll constantly encounter alternative pathways, all of which are marked Route 66.

Stair step Route 66

For example, here’s a picture of the path through Illinois. The blue line represents the original route from Chicago to LA, while Route 4 represents the later straightened path. Which route is correct? Both, since they were both signed as Route 66 at one point in their life.

St Louis AligmentRoute 66 Alignments in St Louis Over the Years

Then issue gets worse when you hit a major city. You’ll find multiple paths through town, based on alignments from the thirties, forties, and fifties. Bridges that used to carry thousands of cars a day have been torn down or downgraded to foot and bike traffic. You’ll find that many of the older choices lead into dead ends, due to missing bridges or a limited access bypass cutting across the right of way of the older road. Dealing with these changes, and deciding on the preferred path affects both travel time and available viewing options.

Santa Fe BypassAlignments in New Mexico: The Newer Green Path Bypasses Santa Fe

The biggest route question you’ll face is to whether or not to Santa Fe. Up until 1937, Route 66 angled north of Albuquerque and ran though Santa Fe. Following the pre-’37 alignment adds over 90 miles to the trip, but takes you through plenty of breathtaking New Mexico landscape.

Concrete pathExample 1: Old Alignment in Illinois Countryside (Road Width: 10′)

In my view, there is no wrong choice. We explored several of the older alignments and determined that one narrow, winding path from 1930 is much like the next one. Based on that, we typically used the newer alignments. While we used the two lane alternatives when available, it didn’t always make sense.

Old pavementExample 2: Pavement on an Old Alignment

When the original path runs alongside an interstate highway, you can see all the same sights from the four lane, while maintaining a much higher average speed. I can guarantee that dogmatically following the initial Route 66 path will significantly slow your progress. As these pictures show, these early roads are narrow (about ten feet wide in the case of the concrete path), with eighty year old, pockmarked surfaces (or in the case of the second path, paved with bricks).


Question 6: Where to stop?

Ah, the fun question. The answer could be anywhere you want. While there are plenty of great car sites to see (check out my write ups on The Pontiac-Oakland Museum and Cadillac Ranch), Dad and I checked out many other sites including the St Louis Arch (the elevator is both claustrophobic and fascinating) and the National Western Heritage Museum and Cowboy Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City (the most impressive museum we visited). During your planning, check out ALL the options, and be sure to look North and South of the main road. We took a short drive south of Amarillo to see the Palo Duro Canyon (very impressive), and folks traveling west will pass the Grand Canyon a mere sixty miles to the north. Though obviously not automobile-related, they offer spectacular views nonetheless.

One Stop map

My Recommended One-Stop Route 66 Reference Map

Final Question: When will you get off your butt and go?

Yep, I’m talking to you. Today is a great day to start planning, and I’ve only got one specific suggestion: obtaining one of the laminated maps sold by Global Graphics.  It features multiple Route 66 alignments and includes detailed paths through each big town. The ISBN number is 0-918505-40-2, and you can order it from I bought my copy in Texas on the fourth day of travel, and regretted not having I found it sooner. I plan to use it for future tours of the Mother Road, since placing all road information on a single sheet makes navigating much simpler. In addition, the map also includes information on major sites along the route.

That completes my list of recommendations, but I’m sure many folk will weigh in with their observations, advice and tips. Let the posting begin!