Driving Route 66 sounds so simple: Pick up the road in Chicago and follow it 2,448 miles to Los Angeles. If only. The patchwork of roads zigs and zags, switches names and numbers, and sometimes just dead-ends. If you are not paying attention – or even if you are – you can end up on the interstate or heading east instead of west. (I did both several times.) To help you stick to the route, plus savor the freedom of the road, here are some tips I gleaned from a two-week trip in July.
• Late spring, summer and early fall are the best seasons to drive the entire route. During summer, book lodgings in advance, because many of the classic motels sell out. Also note the opening and closing times of museums, attractions, diners, et cetera. Many places keep small-town hours, even in the summer.
• Booking a rental car with different pick-up and drop-off points can be expensive, because of the extra surcharge. I hunted around the Web and found a two-week rental through Dollar for about $1,000, nearly $750 less than quotes I got from other rental companies. I recommend paying extra for a more substantial car, such as an SUV. (I drove a very comfy Nissan Rogue.) You will appreciate the extra room as well as the sturdiness on some of the choppier sections.
• Though more time is always better, you can complete the drive in two weeks. Candacy Taylor outlines a great two-week itinerary in her “Moon Route 66 Road Trip.” I mostly followed her schedule, with a few alterations. I overnighted in Gallup, N.M., instead of Albuquerque, for instance.
• Most GPS gadgets ignore Route 66 and kick you onto major roads. So I can’t overstate the usefulness of Jerry McClanahan’s “EZ66 Guide for Travelers.” The author meticulously plots every turn from Chicago to Los Angeles (or vice versa) and also includes sightseeing and dining suggestions, historical tidbits, dirt-road options and more. Check his website, mcjerry66.com, for updates, plus a link to order his book. Taylor’s guidebook was equally critical (available on Amazon.com and through local booksellers). She offers rich details about the towns along the way, plus side-trip recommendations. My evening ritual involved circling attractions in her book so that I would be prepared for the next day’s drive.
• Keep your daily distances at 100 to 200 miles a day, so that you will have time to explore the towns and stop at roadside attractions. Also, don’t try to see everything. Be selective. Some of my favorite spots include Henry’s Rabbit Ranch in Staunton, Ill. (henrysroute66.com); Route 66 State Park in Eureka, Mo. (mostateparks.com/park/route-66-state-park); Larry Baggett’s Trail of Tears Memorial in Jerome, Mo.; Trail of Tears National Historic Trail in Waynesville, Mo. (nps.gov/trte/index.htm); McJerry’s Route 66 Gallery in Chandler, Okla.; VW Slug Bug Ranch in Conway, Tex.; Cadillac Ranch, near Amarillo, Tex.; Angel and Vilma’s Original Route 66 Gift Shop in Seligman, Ariz. (route66giftshop.com/the-angel-of-route-66); Elmer Long’s Bottle Tree Ranch in Oro Grande, Calif.; California Route 66 Museum (califrt66museum.org) in Victorville; the Original McDonald’s Site and Museum in San Bernardino, Calif., and Clifton’s (www.cliftonsla.com) in downtown L.A. That is a very short list.
• Don’t let your gas needle fall below the halfway line, especially in the Southwest, where service stations are less common. Stock up on snacks and bottles of water. If my hotel room had a fridge, I would freeze a few bottles, so that they stayed cold-ish in the triple-digit heat. Also, consider buying a cooler.
• Load up on junky souvenirs, consume lots of road food and chat up the locals. Savor the journey, even when it seems like you are chasing your tailpipe. Before you know it, you’ll be at mile 2,448 and feeling nostalgic for the beginning.