Even COVID couldn’t stop Route 66 from kicking.
The highway has achieved legendary status around the world — so much so that the majority of its travelers over the past several decades have been international. That changed during the pandemic, however, as American travelers turned their attention to road trips and rediscovered the charm of the historic highway
If your group is planning a Route 66 adventure, here are five essential stops to help your travelers immerse themselves in the sights, sounds and history of this beloved highway.
Oklahoma Route 66 Museum
The Oklahoma Route 66 Museum in Clinton tells the story of America’s Mother Road through one of the largest repositories of photographs and artifacts in the country. Before the interstate highway system was developed, people and commerce traveled the two-lane Route 66 between Chicago and Los Angeles, breathing life into hundreds of small towns that sprung up along the way with their neon signs and kitschy roadside attractions.
Visitors to the museum can learn about the labor that was needed to build the road, experience the Dust Bowl of the 1930s as thousands of people streamed along the road looking for a fresh start somewhere else or learn more about how the road was used after World War II.
Many of the small towns along the road fell into ruin after the interstate highway system bypassed them, but the road itself is making a resurgence. The pandemic, in particular, has sparked a renewed interest in family road trips. Visitors from all over the world flock to Clinton to see the red 1957 Chevy in the front window and the restored 1950s diner on property.
The galleries use technology and interactive elements to tell the story of each decade along the road using music and artifacts from businesses that no longer exist. QR codes allow visitors to take an audio tour of the exhibits.
The museum is home to the Oklahoma Route 66 Association Hall of Fame. In conjunction with the 2022 induction ceremony, the museum is adding a new photo exhibit called Route 66 Transitions, which follows the evolution of Route 66 through the photography of Jerry McClanahan.
Route 66 Car Museum
Guy Mace began collecting cars in 1991. It started with a 1967 Austin-Healey and grew from there. Mace’s car collection became so large, he decided to open his own museum, capitalizing on the renewed popularity of Route 66. Mace’s car museum opened five years ago on Route 66, just west of Springfield, Missouri’s downtown square. It now has 80 cars in its inventory, and Mace says he adds three to four new vehicles every year.
“I opened the museum because I enjoy cars and talking with the public,” he said. What surprises Mace the most is the number of international travelers who stop in to see his cars. About one-third of his visitors are from foreign countries. “That has proven to be a wonderful boon to tourism all along Route 66, especially for my museum.
“I found over the past several years that Route 66 has a mystique to people outside the U.S. as being literally the Mother Road of our country if you want to see the real U.S. outside of New York and Chicago and L.A., see real Americana,” he said.
Along with vehicles spanning the generations, the car museum also has a selection of movie cars, including a Batmobile, a Ghostbusters car and a DeLorean similar to the one featured in “Back to the Future.” Since most visitors are not motorheads, it is the movie cars that attract the most attention, he said. In particular, the DeLorean is very popular with guests.
In 2021, the museum saw the most visitors in its five-year history, and Mace said he is hopeful this year will break even more attendance records.
Arizona Route 66 Museum and Route 66 Electric Vehicle Museum
Arizona’s Route 66 Museum is different from other Route 66 museums across the country in that it tells the chronological history of the Mother Road. Many people don’t realize Route 66 follows a migration path carved by Native Americans for centuries that eventually was followed by early settlers with their wagon trains, prospectors searching for precious minerals and scouts looking to map the area. The railroad and then the highway followed.
The museum, which opened in 2001, is housed in a historic power station that was built between 1907 and 1911 and was operated by the Desert Power and Light Company. The facility powered Kingman and area mines beginning in 1909. It also provided power for the construction of Hoover Dam until that operation began generating power in the late 1930s. The building opened up as a visitor center in 1997. The museum features brilliant murals, photos and life-size dioramas showing scenes from Route 66, U.S. Army-led survey expeditions and North American trade routes.
In 2014, the Route 66 Electric Vehicle Museum opened as part of the Arizona Route 66 Museum. The 3,600-square-foot museum displays 28 vehicles that are on loan from the Historic Electric Vehicle Foundation to preserve the history of the earliest electric vehicles, from those built 100 years ago to those produced in the 21st century, including a 1909 Elwell-Parker baggage tug, one of only two known to exist in the world; the Buckeye Bullet, the fastest electric vehicle in the world until 2018; and a golf cart that belonged to country music legend Willie Nelson.
In 2021, the city of Kingman acquired a new 20,000-square-foot facility in its historic downtown area to better accommodate the famous collection. Renovations are expected to begin in 2022. The foundation and its members own 113 electric vehicles, and the collection keeps growing.
New Mexico Route 66 Museum
Tucumcari, New Mexico
The New Mexico Route 66 Museum in Tucumcari features memorabilia from the road’s younger days, including old gas pumps, classic cars on loan from private owners and Coca-Cola merchandise that was prevalent in Route 66’s heyday. The oldest vehicle on display is from 1915, but most of the vehicles are from the height of the road’s popularity, when families would load up the family car and road trip across country. The museum originally started as a way to highlight photographs taken by Michael Campanelli, who has documented the road for years, driving the route more than 75 times from Chicago to Los Angeles. The collection includes 166 photographs and is the largest Route 66 photo collection on display anywhere in the country.
The museum also features a vintage diner display with a Rock-Ola jukebox, old neon signs from along the route, a Route 66 guitar signed by Loretta Lynn and New Mexico history displays. There’s also an audio-visual presentation visitors can watch to learn more about Route 66 through the state.
The museum is located in the Tucumcari Convention Center and is one of four museums along Route 66 that are working together to attract visitors with one entrance pass. The pass will include the Route 66 Museum; Mesalands Community College’s Dinosaur Museum and Natural Science Laboratory, where visitors can see dinosaur skeletons and other artifacts found in an active dig site nearby; Tucumcari Historical Museum, which is home to dinosaur fossils, wagons, trains, an F-100 Super Sabre jet, cowboy, military and other historical artifacts from New Mexico; and the Tucumcari Railroad Museum, which is housed in the town’s restored Union Station depot that was built in 1926.
California Route 66 Museum
The California Route 66 Museum is hard to miss when traveling the Mother Road in Victorville, as the building’s exterior is covered in Route 66-themed murals. The museum has two exhibit areas: one focusing on Route 66 and the other using historic images to depict the evolution of Victorville from a small mining town in 1860 to its current status as a Route 66 destination.
Everything in the museum was donated by private sources, including a 1917 Ford Model T, which the museum obtained from a silver mine in Colorado; a 1966 VW bus that makes a great photo stop for visitors; and a battery-powered washing machine from the 1930s that would be hooked to a tractor or other vehicle for power.
The museum also has one of the first transistorized radios to be installed in an automobile and a teardrop or honeymoon trailer that looks like an airplane wing from the side and was built to be pulled by four-cylinder cars. In the Victorville room, one of the oldest photos in the museum is from 1860, one year after California became a state and a year before the Civil War started. Hanging beneath that photo is the same picture taken 90 years later showing the expansion of Victorville. There’s also a tribute exhibit to Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, since they lived in Victorville, and a dining area with a pinball machine, jukebox and an old 1960s-style Pepsi-Cola machine.