Skip to site content
Group Travel Leader Group Travel Leader Group Travel Leader

Route 66 is an American Portrait

Known for its kitschy curio shops, crazy photo ops and neon signs, Route 66 has a wealth of public art. From Chicago to Santa Monica, the best of post-World War II Americana is on display.

Plan to include some of these noteworthy public art installations the next time your group is traveling to these Route 66 destinations.

Tucumcari, New Mexico

Tucumcari, New Mexico, is one of the most famous stops along Route 66 because of its neon signs, including the Blue Swallow Motel, a Route 66 motor court, and TeePee Curios, a shop that sells pottery, jewelry and Route 66 gifts. The New Mexico Route 66 Association provided grant funds to restore much of the neon in Tucumcari that was damaged by a hailstorm. Lacita Mexican restaurant sports a large sombrero on the top of its building, as well as a neon sign. The restaurant is the first business to benefit from the neon sign grants and now has a fully working neon sign that spins.

The city is also known for its murals. Mural artist Doug Quarles moved to the area a few years ago and is responsible for painting many of the 40-plus murals around town. One of his most photographed murals is of Route 66 on the side of a grocery store. Another mural, on the side of a gas station, shows a side cutout of Conchas Lake with the dam and spillway, as well as the marine life beneath the water. Another shows the area’s prairies.

Quarles recently returned to Tucumcari to restore the murals that grace the walls of the Tucumcari Chamber of Commerce offices; one shows a map of the town and the other shows the name of the town in postcard format, with pictures highlighting the area and its history in each letter. Another local artist, Matty Mo, is developing Art City, a home for public art and artists to display their artwork, just outside of town.

Joplin, Missouri

Joplin, Missouri, has always been a major stop along Route 66, and several of its art installations date back to the road’s beginnings.

Groups with an interest in public art can visit the Route 66 Mural Park, which features two large mosaics created from tiles. The upper mosaic, “Cruisin’ into Joplin,” consists of 540 tiles, and the second mosaic, “The American Ribbon,” was made from 180 tiles. One half of a red 1964 Corvette was embedded in the second mural.

Joplin City Hall features photos and art that relay 150 years of the city’s history as a regional hub. The centerpiece is “Joplin at the Turn of the Century: 1896–1906” by Thomas Hart Benton, an acclaimed Regionalist master.

The “Route 66, Joplin, Missouri” mural, painted by Benton’s grandson Anthony Benton Gude, was created to reflect the experiences of the 1950s and 1960s along Route 66 and Main Street Joplin. Downtown Joplin features wonderful examples of 20th century architecture in the Frisco Building, the former Christman building, the Ramsay and Newman’s department store, which houses Joplin City Hall, and the Joplin Route 66 Visitors Center. The former Fox Theatre, which opened in 1930, is another example of Route 66-era architecture.

While in Joplin, groups should stop at the former garage apartment that served as a hideout for notorious criminals Bonnie and Clyde in 1933; visit Grand Falls, the largest continuously flowing natural waterfall in Missouri; and stand in Missouri, Kansas and Oklahoma at the MO-KS-OK Tri-State Marker.

Oklahoma City

Oklahoma has more than 400 drivable miles of Route 66, so visitors traveling the road through Oklahoma City have many opportunities to view public art, as well as explore some of the most iconic attractions along the road.

The city is nationally recognized as one of the top destinations in the country for street art. Visiting groups can take a selfie on Sky Dance Bridge or visit various districts to view colorful murals and sculptures. At night, the city is a beacon of light, with LED light shows, neon signs and interactive art installations.

Oklahoma City’s best known art installation, “Plaza Walls,” is a curated, rotating mural project in the Plaza District. The latest round of 40-plus murals by local and regional artists will be unveiled this September at the Plaza Walls Mural Expo, which features live music, dancing and a gallery art show featuring works from the muralists.

The Oklahoma City Public Art Gallery offers a map of various art installations around town, including sculptures and murals. Groups can take a bicycle tour through the city to learn about its history, art and architecture, or cruise through the city’s entertainment district on the Bricktown Water Taxi, which offers a guided tour of the many attractions, historical monuments, murals and local landmarks along a downtown canal.

Route 66 stops are also considered public works of art. Highlights include the historic Tower Theatre, which opened in 1937; the Gold Dome, a geodesic dome built in 1958; the POPS 66 Soda Ranch, which features a 66-foot-tall neon soda bottle; and the State Capitol complex, which features hundreds of artworks.

Springfield, Illinois

The section of Route 66 in Springfield, Illinois, features retro motor lodges that served the city during the highway’s heyday. Visitors can also enjoy movie nostalgia at the Route 66 Drive-In Theater, take photos of the 25-foot-tall Route 66 muffler man called the Lauterbach Giant and drive a short stretch of Historic Route 66 Brick Road. Groups visiting Springfield can walk the entire Illinois Route 66 Corridor at the Illinois State Fairgrounds Route 66 Experience, where they can visit Legends Neon Sign Park or learn more about the Negro Motorist Green Book at the Route History Museum, which shows what it was like to be a Black visitor traveling along Route 66.

The city is also known for its public art. Art Alley is a pop-up art event where visitors can watch artists compete to complete murals in one day. Each year, the murals change. Along Springfield’s Third Street corridor, groups will find both lighthearted and serious murals, including one featuring Homer Simpson, Springfield’s erstwhile cartoon resident, and one dedicated to anti-apartheid activist Steve Biko. “PrairieSumac” is a Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired mural that pays tribute to a stained-glass piece he designed, and “Young Abe” is a 2,250-square-foot mural of young Abraham Lincoln as a surveyor that was painted with small dots to form a larger image.

Completed in 2018 for the Illinois bicentennial, “Illinois History” is a 20-panel mural designed to represent the state. A mural at the Route History Museum pulls together landmarks in African American history that are often overlooked.

St. Robert and Pulaski County, Missouri

Pulaski County, Missouri, is home to a 33-mile section of Route 66 that features public art. In Waynesville, there are several murals downtown, two of which were created by famous artist Ray Harvey. There is also an interactive mural representing the Roubidoux Bridge, which was built in 1923 and crosses Roubidoux Creek at the location where the Cherokee encamped during their travels along the Trail of Tears. The mural features a canoe that tourists can pose with.

On the square in Waynesville, near the spot where legislation recognizing Route 66 as a scenic byway was signed, is an eight-foot, two-ton Route 66 Shield sculpture.

W.H. Croaker is a huge boulder that looks similar to a frog. In 1996, local tattoo artist Phil Nelson spent several months painting Croaker, which overlooks the town and Route 66 from the hillside.

In St. Robert, just north of 66, is St. Robert Military Tribute and Freedom Rock Display, which features boulders painted by Bubba Sorenson as part of the 50 State Freedom Rock Tour, as well as rocks painted to represent military units at Fort Leonard Wood. Just east of St. Robert, along Route 66 is Uranus, Missouri, which features a Route 66-themed neon wall and Rustic Treasures, which has several murals, including “Sasquatch on Route 66” and “The Minion.”

The city of St. Robert is developing a Route 66 Neon Park, which will open later in 2024. It is an open-air museum in George M. Reed Roadside Park that will feature more than 10 vintage neon signs with storyboards that originated along Missouri’s 66 from St. Louis to Carthage.