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September 2018 saw me take my all-time Bucket List trip – Route 66, something I have always wanted to do.
We flew non-stop from Gatwick to Chicago with Norwegian, good service and no charge for prebooking seats! Chicago – what a fab city, much more attractive than lots of US cities I have visited, clean, safe and easy to get around. We stayed at the historic Palmer House Hilton on Monroe Street, a grand old dame of a hotel in a good spot and walking distance to the official start sign of Route 66.
Chicago itself offers great architecture and lovely parks. I would recommend the First Lady Boat tour which takes in Navy Pier and Willis Tower, a leisurely 90 minute trip and a great way to get your bearings of the city. Magnificent Miles offers all the usual suspects for some first class shopping making Chicago a definite contender for a US City break.
Our transport for the next 19 days was a Ford Mustang Convertible and 2 Harley Davidson Low Rider bikes, getting out of the city was surprisingly easy and we were soon on our way.
First stop Pontiac – a pretty town with one of the many Route 66 Museums – ‘Route 66 Hall of Fame’ – a great introduction to the Mother road with some interesting memorabilia to get you in the mood for what’s ahead.
Next, Springfield, IL – once the home of Abraham Lincoln with lots of historic sights including the really attractive Old Capitol Building and the Lincoln home, now owned and run by the National Park Service it is free to go in but you must book a slot with the desk in the welcome centre.
Just outside of Chatham you can still find an old section of the road with handmade bricks, this was brilliant, almost deserted so we drove up and down there a few times.
St Louis – en route to the city we made our way to Chain of Rocks bridge, this mile long bridge spans the Mississippi and has a 30 degree turn midway along, no longer used by traffic but has been a significant landmark on Route 66 for decades.
There was lots of traffic as we entered the city but we found somewhere to park quite easily and made our way to the Arch – you can take a very small lift to the top, for a great view. There is also a good museum at the base of the arch but an even better one in the city, ‘City Museum’ which we didn’t have time to visit.
About an hour south of St Louis, just before you reach Sullivan make a stop at Meramec Caverns a 4.6 mile cavern system deep in the Ozark Mountains, once the hideout of Jesse James it is well worth a couple of hours stop for a visit.
We made a slight detour to visit family in Arkansas, ‘The Natural State’, such a beautiful state and often overlooked by tourists, it’s very much the outdoor life here and the Buffalo National river is named as an international dark skies park.
A short hop through Kansas to visit Galena and the garage where you can visit Tow Mater, used as inspiration for Disney’s film ‘Cars’. Rainbow Bridge is also here and is quite easy to pick up parts of the old Route 66.
Then on to the Route 66 Vintage iron Motorcycle Museum in Miami before staying overnight in Tulsa.
Oklahoma city is the home of the National Cowboy Museum & Western Heritage Museum – allow at least half a day to visit this fantastic museum, everything from Native American Headress’ to Modern Day Rodeo are featured all laid out in a very modern and high quality way.
Weatherford is really nice and worth stopping for at least a coffee break, then onto Clinton home to a very good Oklahoma Route 66 Museum which takes you through the history of the Mother Road in what I thought was the best of its kind we saw. Just across the road from the museum is an authentic diner. Today we followed the old road the whole way and it was brilliant.
Just outside Amarillo is the famous Cadillac Ranch, a must do for anyone on the road, 10 Cadillacs buried nose down in the mud, created in 1974 and now visited by hundreds daily who add their own bit of ‘art’, (don’t forget to buy your cans of paint before you go) – got to be done!
Next stop is Adrian, Texas – the half way point and then onto Tucumcari in New Mexico. For me this is when the trip started to get really good. Tucumcari itself is worth a lunch stop with some good eating places and a few shops to look around. The scenery changes and from the rolling grassland of Texas it becomes sandy and arid. This was once the hunting ground of the Comanche Indians and it feels like you are driving through film sets at times.
Here we made a detour from Route 66 to visit Santa Fe which I can’t recommend strongly enough, such a great place, spend at least the night here. The city’s architecture is pueblo and has a culture all of its own, the main plaza is bordered by great bars, restaurants and shops. There are craft stalls where you can buy items from Native American Indians, lots of art galleries too. I could have spent much longer here. We stayed at the Sage Inn which was great, a simple room but excellent price and easily walkable to main square.
Back to the Route and onto Gallup and into Arizona – highlights were the Petrified Forest National Park and Painted Desert – great day, very leisurely drive with minimal traffic. Overnight at the Wigwam Motel, Holbrook – another must do – your room is in a concrete tepee – very basic but with everything you need including a very small bathroom, seating outside and lots of vintage cars to pose with. Supermarket directly over the road for provisions.
Meteor Crater is about an hour west from Holbrook and somewhere I had never heard of, fascinating to visit this crater is almost a mile wide and the world’s best preserved meteorite impact site on Earth.
Grand Canyon – strongly recommend at least an overnight here in the village which needs to be booked at least a year in advance, failing that then Tusayan is around 7 miles (15 mins) from the village. Definitely a major highlight of this trip, walk to Hopi Point, approx. 50 mins from Bright Angel Lodge (or take the shuttle bus) to see sunset which is just magical and then get up in the dark to await sunrise, you will never forget it.
Williams was next and this was a great surprise, it’s from here that you can take the Grand Canyon railway to/from the Canyon – a lovely town with a choice of good restaurants and diners.
We then made our way to Grand Canyon West which was approx. 4 hours drive, to be honest I don’t think this was worth it. The whole place is run by the Hulapai Indians and is very touristy, you can go out on the Skywalk but I found this a disappointment and expensive at 70$ each just to walk out on a bridge, you can see the Colorado river which was the only plus for me.
On recommendation from other bikers on the route we took a trip to Oatman which turned out to be one of the best drives the Harleys had, they loved it, hair raising bends you snake across the mountains to the town that time forgot. Burros (donkeys) still roam the streets in this old gold mining town, a bit cheesy – they still have mock gun fights at noon every day but the drive made it worth it, from here you can continue to Needles on the Route but we headed back up north for another detour.
Next stop – Hoover Dam – well worth a stop – good value tour is really interesting.
Viva Las Vegas – love it or hate it you have got to give it a try – we stayed at The Venetian which is ENORMOUS – beautiful rooms and complete luxury after some of the motels we had stayed in. Freemont Street (Old Vegas) is well worth a visit, it has been cleaned up so much since the last time I was here and well worth an evening ride up there.
And finally……. Santa Monica the end of the road – as you get closer the traffic gets busier and the lanes grow in number.
We stayed at the Sea Blue Hotel which was the original Hotel California, a great place to stay, no frills rooms either surfing or rock n roll memorabilia, clean and tidy, great location and friendly staff. Ditch the vehicles here though if you are spending a couple of days as you wont need them and parking can be tricky. Santa Monica is now linked to downtown LA by metro, we took the Hop on hop off tour bus which was great but took a bit too long to come home (should have took a taxi) you must visit the Hollywood Walk of Fame and see the Hollywood sign but other than that I preferred to be on the coast. You can eat and drink just about anything in Santa Monica, there is a good old British pub Ye Old Kings Head, great Mexican and sea food restaurants too.
Santa Monica is wild and whacky and a fab place to finish up.
A bit of background
Route 66 no longer actually exists, US Route 66 also known as the Will Rogers Highway was constructed in 1926, and decommissioned in 1985. The Mother road now exists in parts and how much of it you follow is down to personal choice. Road conditions and signage varies between states, as many of the road signs are simply stolen sometimes knowing you are on the road is tricky, certain states will have it painted on the road which helps.
Pre book hotels for those places you know you HAVE to visit, if this includes Las Vegas, make sure you avoid Fri and Sat when you will pay double for a room. Although much of the fun is rocking up to a motel to find a bed for the night this is also the most expensive way to do it. If you work out where you are going to be during the day, book ahead to get a better rate, also DON’T use hotel booking sites to make the reservation, by all means do your research this way but when you want to book go onto the actual hotel chain website or ring them direct, we found that bookings make via a third party booking site where treated as inferior with the worst rooms being offered.
I would highly recommend the book EZ66 Guide for Travellers by Jerry McClanahan – although at first glance it seems gobbledygook it is actually invaluable, and if you follow it closely you can pick up much of the old road and have the most amazing experience. You will need patience and a good navigator, don’t rely on GPS as much of the time it just wont work, but that’s part of the fun.
Do some research to get an idea of what interests you, there are so many things to see and so much we didn’t do. Keep an open mind and be prepared to deviate if somewhere takes your fancy.
This trip is not a holiday in the true sense of the word, it can be hard work and full on. I would recommend at least 3 weeks to do it properly but the more time you have the more leisurely you can do it in.
It was absolutely the BEST experience and one I will never forget.