The ultimate guide to riding Route 66 on a motorcycle - Roadtrippers

2022-04-20 09:12:13 By : Mr. Robin Mao

There's arguably no more iconic American road trip than the Mother Road—here’s how to travel it on two wheels

If your idea of a perfect motorcycle road trip involves scenic, winding roads far away from people, cities, and cars, Route 66 might not be for you. But if you’re a fan of American history, kitschy roadside attractions, classic neon signs, mid-century architecture, Indigenous heritage and culture, and talking to friendly locals, there is arguably no better road trip in the world than driving the Mother Road. 

And if you ask me, the best way to experience it is by motorcycle.

Last year, Roadtrippers published Route 66: Chicago to Santa Monica, and I immediately jumped on the chance to take the book out for a proper test run. This past October, I spent 7 days riding Route 66 from Illinois to California. Here’s what I learned along the way.

Stretching 2,448 miles (3,940 kilometers) from Chicago in the east to Santa Monica in the west, Route 66 crosses through eight states and offers a near-perfect snapshot of the U.S.—from bustling cities to crumbling ghost towns. The original road was established in 1926, and during its mid-century heyday, small towns went all in on capturing the tourism that came along with the highway’s rise in popularity. Roadside attractions, diners, and motels sprang up along the route, many of which are still standing today. But as more and more sections of the original route were bypassed by interstate, other towns and destinations weren’t so lucky, and fell into disrepair or disappeared entirely. 

Route 66 was officially decommissioned in 1985, but it has seen a revival in the last few decades. According to Rhys Martin, president of the Oklahoma Route 66 Association, a lot of the buzz can be attributed to Pixar’s 2006 movie Cars.   

“The figure that’s quoted is that the businesses along the route saw a 30 percent jump just from the movie,” he says. “And as those kids grow up and introduce their own kids to Cars, that’s getting them interested in the history and the story. And now, just from a greater cultural standpoint, you have people who are more interested in authentic experiences.” 

And despite the occasional tourist trap, you’d be hard pressed to find a more authentic road trip experience than Route 66. 

When I first started planning my trip, I knew that I wanted to do it on a Harley-Davidson motorcycle. I’d conjured up images of cruising down the highway on a chromed-out machine that, in many people’s minds, occupies the same cultural space as the Mother Road itself: a bit dated, perhaps, but still undeniably American.  

Instead of a classic cruiser, I got the opportunity to ride Harley-Davidson’s new adventure motorcycle, the Pan America. Comfortable, fast, and able to go anywhere, it ended up being the perfect choice for the trip. And I couldn’t help but appreciate the juxtaposition between riding a new generation of Harley on the most classic American road.   

For those not bringing their own motorcycle, the easiest choice is to rent a bike. Motorcycle rental company EagleRider has locations in both Chicago and Los Angeles, and the option of a one-way rental is available for an additional fee. EagleRider also offers guided and self-guided Route 66 tours. The 15-day self-guided tour package starts at about $2,500—however, it is entirely possible to ride all of Route 66 in 7 to 10 days, as long as you’re comfortable riding a few hundred miles per day. 

If you’re able to pick up and drop off the bike in the same location, you’re going to have a lot more options. Peer-to-peer rental platforms such as Riders Share and Twisted Road generally offer a wider range of models at a lower price point than traditional rental companies. I’ve also heard of people purchasing a used motorcycle at the start of the route and selling it after they reach the end—but that involves a lot more risk, money, and paperwork than most people are going to be comfortable with.

No matter what bike you end up with, make sure it’s comfortable enough to ride long distances on, and that it has space to carry all your gear. Since Route 66 crosses through multiple states with widely varying climates, you’ll want to make sure you pack for all-weather travel.  

Traveling on a motorcycle means always being exposed to the elements, with very little protection beyond what you’re wearing. Depending on the time of year you travel Route 66, you may hit everything from scorching heat to snowstorms (in fact, you’re likely to encounter both some of the hottest and coldest days of your journey just within the state of Arizona). 

The best way to handle extreme weather on a motorcycle is to bring layers. Make sure you pack both warm and cool base layers, protective gear (built-in armor and abrasion-resistant fabrics are highly recommended), and rain gear. For next-level comfort in the cold, I recommend investing in heated gear.    

Route 66 runs through multiple large or mid-sized cities, and you’re never far from restaurants or gas stations. That said, it’s always a good idea to carry water and snacks on your bike in case of an emergency. A basic toolkit can also be a lifesaver in unexpected situations. A lot can happen in 2,400 miles—parts rattle loose, tires wear out, and oil may need to be refilled. Make sure you carry tools that fit your specific bike, and regularly check things like brakes, fluid levels, tire pressure, lights, and bolts. 

Original route mileage: 301 miles (484 kilometers) Must-see highlights: Start of Route 66 sign, Gemini Giant, Illinois Route 66 Hall of Fame and Museum, Bunyon with a Hot Dog, Pink Elephant Antiques, World’s Largest Catsup Bottle

Route 66 starts in downtown Chicago. Anyone who’s ridden a motorcycle here, or in any major metropolitan downtown area, knows it’s not necessarily the most enjoyable experience; navigating around traffic, pedestrians, and one-way streets is a far cry from the open road. But it’s definitely still worth kicking off the trip with a photo in front of one of the Historic Route 66 “Begin” signs located along East Adams Street. One is on the north side of the street near Michigan Avenue and another on the south side, in a small park near Wabash Avenue. I was able to easily find motorcycle parking just in front of the Wabash Avenue sign. 

If you’re already hungry, consider grabbing a donut hole from Lou Mitchell’s Restaurant & Bakery, or stop at Dell Rhea’s Chicken Basket just outside of the city for one of the most classic Route 66 dining experiences. Just a heads up: You’ll likely be eating a lot of greasy American cuisine over the next few days, so pace yourself.

Continuing on the greasy food theme, a favorite stop for bikers is the Launching Pad diner, a Route 66 staple in Wilmington, Illinois. The parking lot is typically packed with motorcycles and vintage cars, and the Gemini Giant Muffler Man makes for a great photo op. There’s also a gas station conveniently located across the street. I ended up spending more than an hour here talking to other motorcyclists who wanted to hear about my bike—the Pan America is still so new that seeing one out in the wild is a novelty, and I was more than happy to sing its praises. It was a good reminder: Motorcyclists love to talk about motorcycles, so make sure to factor in extra time for chit chat during gas stops.  

About 100 miles southwest of Wilmington is Atlanta, another small town packed with Route 66 attractions. Don’t miss the Bunyon with a Hot Dog Muffler Man or the Route 66 Arcade Museum, both located on the same block of Arch Street in downtown. 

After a long first day on the road, I rolled into St. Louis, Missouri, just as the sun was starting to set. I took a slight detour on the way to my hotel to check out Gateway Arch National Park, which was beautiful at sunset.  

Original route mileage: 317 miles (510 kilometers) Must-see highlights: Gateway Arch National Park, Murals of Cuba, World’s Second Largest Rocking Chair, Uranus Fudge Factory, Gary’s Gay Parita, Red Oak II

My first stop after leaving St. Louis was at the Route 66 State Park visitor center, located just off I-44 along the Meramec River in Eureka, Missouri. It started raining as I pulled into the parking lot, so I went inside to hide from the weather. The visitor center has a small museum documenting the road’s history in the state, and a helpful staffer gave me a printed map and pointed me in the direction of the route’s original alignment.

As with much of Route 66, the original road in Missouri largely runs parallel to the interstate, and it’s easy to get on and off. With my tight schedule, I ended up making a list of stops ahead of the trip and, in the interest of saving time, jumped on and off the freeway between stops. Those with more time to spend on the route will be able to meander along on its original parts. This is an excellent way to find small towns that may be less touristy, but still packed with history and hidden gems. “Generally speaking, if you find yourself on the interstate and you’re passing a lot of towns, you’ve missed something somewhere,” Martin says.

While the Missouri stretch of Route 66 is often beautiful—it crosses through the lush, green Ozarks—the weather was not in my favor. It was pouring rain for most of the day I spent riding through the state, but with proper rain gear and a quick switch to “rain mode” on the motorcycle, it wasn’t too bad. 

I stopped for lunch in Cuba, a town known for its murals depicting historical events. Since I don’t eat meat, I opted out of Missouri Hick’s famous barbecue and instead found Little Shop of Comics & Audrey’s Eatery on Main Street, a cozy comic book shop with a cafe in the back. I ordered soup and waited out the rain. 

Back on the road, I made my way to the World’s Second Largest Rocking Chair (it used to be the largest, until 2015, when an even bigger rocking chair in Casey, Illinois, knocked it down to second place), the Devil’s Elbow Bridge, and the Uranus Fudge Factory and General Store. The latter may be a classic tourist trap, but anyone who enjoys potty humor will have a good time in Uranus. 

One of my must-see stops was Gary’s Gay Parita, a replica of a 1930 Sinclair gas station. The property is packed with memorabilia from the heyday of Route 66, including vintage cars, gas pumps, signs, old glass bottles, and more. The current owner, George Bowick, has a wealth of Route 66 knowledge and is happy to share it with anyone who asks. As we were chatting, Lady Bird, his tame goose, nibbled on my boots. Bowick recommended I visit Red Oak II on my way into Carthage, so naturally I obliged. 

Red Oak II is a unique type of place. Created by artist Lowell Davis, it’s a replica of the real Red Oak, Missouri, where Davis grew up. After leaving for many years and returning to find that his hometown had turned into a ghost town, Davis started moving buildings from the old town and restoring them on his farm just outside Carthage. The result is a quaint but eerie town that feels completely frozen in time. I didn’t see a single person during my visit, but a very sweet dog showed up out of nowhere and escorted me around. 

Original route mileage: 13 miles (21 kilometers) Must-see highlights: Cars on the Route, Gearhead Curios, Rainbow Bridge

The Kansas section of Route 66 is short but sweet. In just about 13 miles, the state manages to pack in several can’t-miss stops. Entering into Kansas through Missouri’s Old 66 Boulevard puts you at the north end of Main Street in Galena (population: 3,000). Your first stop here should be Cars on the Route, a restored Kan-O-Tex service station. Grab some snacks or Cars memorabilia, and check out the old truck that inspired the movie’s Tow Mater character.     

As you ride down Main Street, you’ll come across the Galena City Jail, another vintage service station called Gearhead Curios, and a large “Galena on Historic Route 66” mural. I can never pass up a good bridge, so from Galena I continued onto the Rainbow Bridge, a beautiful Marsh Rainbow Arch bridge built in 1923 over Bush Creek.

If you have time for a detour, the Tri-State Marker just a few miles south of the route allows you to stand in three states at once: Kansas, Oklahoma, and Missouri, a worthy photo op.

Original route mileage: 432 miles (695 kilometers) Must-see highlights: Blue Whale of Catoosa, Buck Atom’s Cosmic Curios on 66, Seaba Station Motorcycle Museum, POPS Soda Ranch, Lucille’s Service Station, Sandhills Curiosity Shop

If you’ve ever traveled I-44 through Oklahoma, you’re already familiar with its most annoying feature: the frequent cash-only toll booth stops. From the Missouri state line and all the way to Oklahoma City, old Route 66 runs parallel to I-44, and if you have the time (and want to save a few dollars), it’s a much more pleasant way to travel. It’s also the easiest way to make sure you don’t miss any roadside attractions along the way.

The first must-see stop in Oklahoma on my list was the Blue Whale of Catoosa, one of the most recognizable stops along the route. I sat down at a picnic table for a snack while admiring this roadside attraction, originally built as an anniversary gift to a wife who loved whales. 

In Tulsa, I took a much-needed break from greasy diners with lunch at Chimera Cafe. I had originally planned to avoid bigger cities as much as possible on this trip, but Tulsa is a real Route 66 goldmine and I ended up spending more time here than I originally planned. One of the highlights was Buck Atom’s Cosmic Curios and its Space Cowboy Muffler Man. Just as I was about to leave, a guy rode in on a dual-sport motorcycle to ask me about my bike. This turned out to be Chris Wollard, the local artist who designed and built the Space Cowboy’s shiny rocket ship (Mark Cline fabricated the Muffler Man). 

A few hours later I stopped at the Seaba Station Motorcycle Museum. While chatting with the guy at the front desk, I quickly realized we had friends in common. The museum is small but jam-packed with vintage motorcycles dating back to the early 1900s. Entry is free, but donations are appreciated. 

I stayed the night in Elk City, home to the National Route 66 Museum. The next morning I was on the road by sunrise, heading toward my final stop in Oklahoma: Sandhills Curiosity Shop. Owned by “hillbilly hoarder” Harley Russell, it’s neither a store nor a museum—but it’s a classic Route 66 stop that makes for a great photo op. 

Original route mileage: 186 miles (299 kilometers) Must-see highlights: Tower Conoco Station & U-Drop Inn, Slug Bug Ranch, Palo Duro Canyon State Park, Jack Sisemore Traveland RV Museum, Cadillac Ranch, Midpoint Cafe

The Texas Panhandle, with its flat plains and unrelenting stretch of I-40, isn’t necessarily known as the most scenic place to ride a motorcycle. However, this part of the Mother Road features some of its most iconic stops—and some of the best detours.

There are so many vintage service stations—restored or abandoned—along Route 66 that it’s impossible to visit them all. But if you only have time for one, the Tower Station and U-Drop Inn in Shamrock is a stunning art deco masterpiece that should not be missed. As a bonus, Ramone’s House of Body Art, the auto body shop in Cars, was heavily inspired by this building.    

One of the more famous Route 66 attractions in Texas is Cadillac Ranch. And while that’s absolutely worth a stop, I found Slug Bug Ranch to be a less crowded and equally enjoyable alternative. Located just 15 miles east of Cadillac Ranch, this whimsical tribute features a row of Volkswagen Beetles buried nose down and covered in graffiti. 

During my jaunt through Texas, I decided I’d had enough of riding straight, flat highways and needed a change of scenery. After grabbing lunch in Amarillo, I took a 30-mile detour south to Palo Duro Canyon State Park. Home to the second largest canyon system in the country, the gorgeous scenery and steep switchbacks of the park did not disappoint. If you go, remember to check the forecast beforehand—due to its microclimate, temperatures at the bottom of the canyon can be significantly higher than at the rim. 

As I continued my journey west, I made a final stop in Texas at the Midpoint Cafe in Adrian. This roadside diner and gift shop marks the official halfway point of Route 66—1,139 miles down, 1,139 miles to go.

Original route mileage: 487 miles (784 kilometers)  Must-see highlights: Russell’s Travel Center & Car Museum, Tee Pee Curios, Blue Swallow Motel, Blue Hole of Santa Rosa, Tinkertown, Old Town Albuquerque, Laguna Pueblo, Bandera Volcano and Ice Cave, El Rancho Hotel

While New Mexico has no shortage of mid-century kitsch, it’s also arguably the best state along the route to dive deep into Indigenous history and culture. However, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the state’s pueblos and Native American villages were all closed to visitors during my trip. 

I spent the night at one of the most iconic accommodations along the route: the Blue Swallow Motel in Tucumcari, a classic 1940s motor court (each room comes with a private garage for your motorcycle) known for its spectacular neon signage. I rolled in right before sunset and was lucky enough to get the last available room, despite not having made a reservation in advance. This irked my neighbors in the room next door, who had made their reservations months earlier. But as several people I spoke to during the trip confirmed, the route was much less busy than normal because the pandemic had temporarily halted the influx of one of the most prevalent Route 66 travelers: the European tourist. 

Tucumcari is worth a visit whether you’re staying the night or not. Pick up a souvenir from Tee Pee Curios, grab a home-cooked meal from Del’s Restaurant, or get a photo in front of one of the town’s Route 66 murals. 

Heading west through the Land of Enchantment, Albuquerque contains the longest continuous stretch of Route 66 within a single city. Here, you can stand at the intersection of two different historical alignments of the highway. Beyond its Mother Road legacy, the city is also home to mid-century modern architecture, a Historic Old Town area packed with museums, the famous Balloon Fiesta (which, coincidentally, took place during my visit), and tons of artsy Southwestern charm. On my way into town, I took a detour to ride some proper switchback roads to the top of the Sandia Crest ridge. 

Before heading into Arizona, I stopped in Gallup to admire the historic El Rancho Hotel and say “howdy” to the cowboy Muffler Man at John’s Used Cars. 

Original route mileage: 401 miles (645 kilometers) Must-see highlights: Chief Yellowhorse Trading Post, Petrified Forest National Park, Jackrabbit Trading Post, Standin’ on the Corner Park, La Posada Hotel, Two Guns, Twin Arrows Trading Post, Delgadillo’s Snow Cap, Hackberry General Store, Cool Springs Gas Station

In just over 400 miles, the Arizona stretch of Route 66 packs in so many must-see stops—including ghost towns, a national park, vintage service stations, interesting architecture, and roadside attractions—that it might be worth budgeting in some extra time to make sure you don’t miss anything. If you can, add an additional day to your itinerary for a detour to the Grand Canyon as well.   

You’ll know you’ve entered Arizona when you see the big yellow signs for Yellowhorse, a Navajo-owned trading post set against a dramatic red rock backdrop. Both Yellowhorse and the neighboring Teepee Trading Post are perfect places to stop for souvenirs, photos, and snacks. 

My next stop was Petrified Forest National Park, the only national park to have a section of Old Route 66 preserved inside it. Exploring the entire park can easily take a full day or more—but for those only interested in the Mother Road marker, it’s located in the northern part of the park, a 20-minute ride from I-40 along a scenic road (note that you will need to pay the park entrance fee to access it).   

Arizona has several towns that have gone all in on their Route 66 legacy, including Holbrook, Winslow, Seligman, and Kingman. But one of the more intriguing stops along the entire Mother Road is located off I-40 right in between Holbrook and Winslow. Those who’ve been paying attention may have noticed a few bright yellow mileage signs at other locations along the route. These all point to the Jack Rabbit Trading Post, an unassuming roadside souvenir store, and you’ll know you’ve arrived by the massive “Here it is” billboard.  

Some other highlights in the Grand Canyon State include standing on the corner in Winslow, exploring the ruins of the Two Guns ghost town, grabbing a sundae at Delgadillo’s Snow Cap in Seligman, and riding the Oatman Highway—not for the faint of heart, it features 191 curves in 8 miles, a narrow roadway with no guardrails, and roaming burros that tend to be standing in the middle of the road as you’re coming around a tight turn.    

The Arizona section of Route 66 also contains what is probably the most drastic change in climate you’ll find in a single state during your trip. On one of the days I spent here, I woke up to 45-degree weather in Flagstaff. A few hours later, as I was crossing the Colorado River and making my way into California, the temperature was closer to 95 degrees Fahrenheit. Make sure you’ve packed layers, or chances are you’ll be uncomfortable at some point.

Original route mileage: 314 miles (505 kilometers) Must-see highlights: Roy’s Motel and Cafe, Amboy Crater, Calico Ghost Town, Elmer’s Bottle Tree Ranch, First Original McDonald’s Museum, Wigwam Village Motel No. 7, Aztec Hotel, Santa Monica Pier

The California section of Route 66 starts in Needles. As I was grabbing food at the local Wagon Wheel Restaurant, I noticed a hand-written sign inside, summing up the town: “Needles, California, hot spot known for absolutely nothing; 20 miles from water, 2 feet from hell.”  

Heading west through the California desert, the first can’t-miss stop on this part of the route is Roy’s Motel and Cafe in Amboy. This gas station and souvenir shop is a popular stop for photos thanks to its iconic—and recently restored—neon sign. Nearby you’ll also find Amboy Crater, a 250-foot-tall volcanic cinder cone, where you can hike by lava lakes, basalt flows, and collapsed lava tubes. 

Make a pit stop at Calico Ghost Town, walk through the glass forest at Elmer’s Bottle Tree Ranch, and get nostalgic at the First Original McDonald’s Museum before it’s time to leave the more quiet and remote parts of this trip behind and enter the busy city streets of Los Angeles. 

As you get closer to the coast, you may experience something you haven’t seen since you left Chicago: traffic. Los Angeles has a lot of it—however, since lane filtering is legal in the state, you can easily bypass it on a motorcycle. Just go slow and stay alert. 

The western half of California’s Route 66 passes through several bustling cities and towns, where strip malls and chain restaurants greatly outnumber quirky roadside attractions. But keep your eyes peeled for mid-century architecture, neon signs, and vintage service stations along this stretch, including Cucamonga Service Station; built in 1915, it actually predates the route. 

Unfortunately you can’t ride a motorcycle all the way to the finish line—but when you reach the Pacific Ocean, park your bike and walk to the end of the Santa Monica Pier to get a photo in front of the iconic “End of the Trail” sign. Congratulations, you made it.

Sanna Boman is the editor in chief at Roadtrippers. You'll most likely find her riding a Harley on a scenic road somewhere in the desert. She lives in San Diego, California.

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