Published May 01, 2014
From Illinois to California, Route 66 is paved with American history.
Before the creation of the interstate highway system, traveling throughout America meant driving along a series of small roads that connected one town to the next, and Route 66 was the most famous of them all. From the time it began in 1926 until its final decommissioning in 1985, the Mother Road connected America’s Heartland to the West Coast and provided the backdrop for millions of road trip vacations.
Though it no longer exists as a national highway, Route 66 continues to live on in American culture, and many of the restaurants and attractions that became landmarks along the road became permanent landmarks. Today’s travelers can still find many aspects of the Route 66 experience in Illinois, Missouri, Oklahoma, Texas, Arizona, New Mexico and California, and can even drive stretches of the actual route in some areas.
For tour groups, Route 66 offers numerous opportunities to explore American history, as well as the many fascinating cities and towns that it connects. Groups traveling in one of the Route 66 states can take some time in their tours to check out some of the historic attractions and communities along the way. And if your group has the time and inclination, a full-length tour along the entire route makes a great way to explore America from the prairie to the coast.
Start in Illinois
Like all highways, Route 66 ran in two directions, so it was possible to travel either eastbound or westbound. From a road trip point of view, the classical Route 66 experience went west from Chicago and took adventurers across the Mississippi River, through the Southwest and to the Pacific coast.
Though the highway started in Chicago, today Springfield is the primary Illinois destination for Route 66 enthusiasts.
“We get travelers from all over the world and around the country that are passing through Springfield as part of their journey on Route 66,” said Alicia Erickson, communications and marketing manager at the Springfield Convention and Visitors Bureau. “They’re looking for that classic Americana experience, and that’s one of the things that we promote to travelers.
“Route 66 ran right through the center of town, and there are a lot of different original sites. They’re not all still operating businesses, but the character of the streets still looks the same. A lot of those are homes, shops and businesses in the older part of town, so you get a historic charm when you’re driving through.”
One of the memorable Route 66 sites in Springfield still in operation is the Cozy Dog Drive, a roadside restaurant that has been owned and operated by the same family since 1949. The restaurant serves classic diner food — burgers, fries, chili, ham and beans — as well as their signature creation, the Cozy Dog. Originally created for the Illinois State Fair, the dish consists of a hot dog on a stick, battered and deep fried, which would become the precursor to the modern corn dog.
In addition to sampling the Cozy Dog, groups can learn about the restaurant’s Route 66 heritage during their visit.
“They have a building filled with Route 66 memorabilia: postcards, drawings, license plates and original signs,” Erickson said. “They also have a lot of Route 66 souvenirs. A lot of people stop to have their picture taken there.”
If your group enjoys Route 66 activities, consider timing your visit to Springfield to coincide with the International Route 66 Mother Road Festival, which takes place the last weekend in September. The event draws some 80,000 attendees, who go to see more than 100 classic cars on display around town and hear live performances of 1950s and 1960s music.
More in Missouri
From Springfield, Route 66 continued south and west through Illinois to the Mississippi River, where it then crossed into Missouri at St. Louis. The highway stretched 292 miles to the southwest end of the state, passing through numerous cities and towns along the way.
“Route 66 seems to be getting more and more attention these days, and we’re getting more requests for information about it from groups and individual travelers,” said Lori Simms, deputy director of the Missouri Division of Travel. “We have quite a bit of the original Route 66. There are places where you can get off the interstate and drive on the original road. Car and motorcycle groups really enjoy that.”
The Missouri run starts in St. Louis, where travelers still stop to see the Gateway Arch and visit the Museum of Westward Expansion that lies beneath it. The city and the National Park Service are in the process of redesigning the public area around the arch, adding pedestrian walkways that more closely link the monument with downtown St. Louis.
Another popular Route 66 stop in town is Ted Drewes Frozen Custard.
“The stand has been there since 1929,” Simms said. “They make a ‘concrete,’ a frozen custard with your ingredients mixed in. They serve it to you with a spoon in it and give it to you upside down. If you go on a summer night, there are lines of people waiting to get them.”
Groups can learn more about the highway’s heritage in the area with a stop at Route 66 State Park, which sits just outside of St. Louis. From there, it’s a short drive to Stanton, where Meramec Caverns has become one of the most popular stopping points for Route 66 travelers.
“It’s a great cave that you can tour,” Simms said. “Jesse James actually used it as a hideout, according to local legend, so they have a lot of exhibits within the cave on Jesse James things. He’s infamous and well known in Missouri, and we have several places in Missouri that can claim Jesse James history.”
From there, Interstate 44 travels the approximate route of Route 66 through Missouri, and there are several places where motorists can exit the expressway and travel stretches of the original road. A number of small towns along the way also have Route 66 attractions, such as the Route 66 Museum in Lebanon.
“They have re-creations, like a gas station, diner and things of that nature for people who want to relive a little bit of the Route 66 experience,” Simms said.
The town of Conway operates two visitors centers along the interstate that are both themed and decorated with Route 66 memorabilia. The visitors center in Springfield also has a Route 66 theme.
— www.visitmo.com —