I traveled it once and had to go back. Here in America, Route 66 road trip is somewhat of a tourist thing to do. Sure, getting two weeks off and doing the full stretch from Chicago to LA is almost impossible with the vacation time we get. So I narrowed down my favorite Route 66 attractions on the Western side and put my list together here...
The photos here are the compilation of two trips, summer and winter. I'm fascinated with the history and how new generations left their mark on the old way of life. The spots mentioned here will probably take you 5 days or so to cover, which is more manageable than 14 days it takes to ride the Mother Road and have enough time to see anything outside of gas stations. So here we go, from East to West on the most iconic highway in the USA.
Blue Swallow Motel
Located: Tucumcari, New Mexico
Since 1939, Blue Swallow Motel has served weary and excited travelers along The Mother Road. Today, it gives a sense of what it felt like to be a part of the roadtrip craze of the '30s and '40s, along with a good old-fashioned feel of the Old West. The model motel is in a good shape and mostly serves and a display of the historic Route 66.
Its bright neon sign is a beacon that calls travelers into the family-owned motel for many years. It is also one of the best neon signs, in my opinion, on the 60s. Blue Swallow Motel was originally called The Blue Swallow Court, and was built by W.A. Huggins. The property exchanged hands to Ted Jones who operated it with his wife into the 1950s.
Lillian Redman and her husband took over the motel and it soon became a bustling hub for travelers along Route 66. She welcomed any stranger, even if they could not pay, which is the definition of humble hospitality.
The spirit of Blue Swallow Motel has lived on through several renovations which have earned it the praise of being the most well maintained Route 66 attraction.
Across the road, you can still wander around abandoned motels and see vacuum cleaners in open motel rooms all dating back to the 60s.
Located: Santa Fe, New Mexico
At the center of Santa Fe is the Plaza, where you can see the price tags for silver and turquoise from $50 to $5,000 and up. At first you believe all the price tags you see, they are always accompanied by a card of a local silversmith who made the item. Walk around the square before you make any purchases. You'll get a feel for what everything should really cost.
In the spirit of the west, Santa Fe remains a town where you are free to negotiate with any shop owner in town for a better price. You can buy something for $200 that costs $4,000 around the corner. This place is exhilarating for any dealmakers out there.
Santa Fe also connects to the Turquoise Trail, which is now registered as a one of America's great National Scenic Byways. The roads in this area are also very peaceful as soon as you get out of towns.
El Rancho Hotel
Located: Gallup, New Mexico
El Rancho Hotel is the definition of America's Old West. In its golden years, it served as a luxury stop for travel that provided a premium experience that other hotels in the day did not have.
Movie stars like Katherine Hepburn, Lucille Ball, and the Marx Brothers all stayed at the El Rancho Hotel, as it proved to be an important area for the film industry in the days when Westerns were the hits.
Each room is named after the celebrity, many of whom stayed in the same room. The hotel is very cozy and costs about the same as most hotels in that area. This will definitely be a nice break for the ordinary hotels you see along the highways. The hotel store has pretty decent pricing and is 30% or so cheaper than what you pay in Santa Fe.
The motto of El Rancho Hotel continues to be the "charm of yesterday...convenience of tomorrow" that attracts tourists from all around with its convenient location to the surrounding National Parks and unique insight into the charm of the American West. Sounds like an advertisement, right?
Located: Seligman, Arizona
The town of Seligman spent its early years being known as Prescott Junction, an important railroad stop for the Santa Fe Railroad line. As the years passed, it soon became a booming town for Route 66. After the wake of WWII, the United States road tripping took on a new form as many veterans and citizens alike headed to the Southwest in their vehicles for a good old-fashioned vacation.
Seligman later became known as the "Birthplace of Historic Route 66" in 1987 because of the collective efforts of residents who advocated for Route 66 to become a historic highway for the State of Arizona.
The historic district is still well-preserved with the Pitts General Merchandise Store, Seligman Garage, and the Seligman Pool Hall from the early 1900s. Photos alone can convey the overall vibe of this town which actually takes less than 5 minutes to drive through.
Located: Apache and Navajo Counties in Arizona
Petrified Forest is not only stunning to see, but also has a rich history in the region. Dating back to prehistoric times, Petrified Forest has been a safe haven for many explorers, geologists, and homesteaders. Expect to see a few distinct sections of the terrain within the same park, which is also a really awesome 50+ mile ride.
The trees of Petrified Forest grew in a lush tropical jungle over 200 million years ago, but were smothered by volcanic sediment that preserved the wood. Over a long time, the wood was turned into the rocky quartz that you see today.
Each ring in the petrified trees represents how many growth cycles each tree went through during its lifetime. Geologists have discovered that many of the petrified trees date back over 211-218 million years, and had grown to heights of more than 150 feet.
Summer is definitely a more colorful time to drive through this amazing National Park.
Twin Arrows, AZ
Located: Near Flagstaff, Arizona
Twin Arrows, AZ is a ghost town that is tucked away and it almost invisible from the highway. Twin Arrows was originally named Canyon Padre Trading Post, before the name changed in 1954 to Twin Arrows Trading Post.
Jean and William Troxell managed the trading post from 1955 to 1985 before it closed in 1990. It briefly re-opened up for some time but was officially closed in 1995. Travelers still would stop at the original Twin Arrows Trading Post that served food at the Valentine Diner, until the speed of travel along the I-40 made stopping at small towns to gas up and get a bite to eat more convenient.
The Hopi tribe and Route 66 supporters restored parts of the trading post along with the two famous arrows, but it is still slowly decaying with time. All that remains are two graffiti-covered buildings and several gas pumps. Two arrows look like they are ready to collapse, and this may be the saddest and most authentic stop to see.
It's easy to miss the turn to the Twin Arrows from the highway, so you may need to either stay super alert or make a few rounds like we did.
Located: Holbrook, Arizona
Personally, this is the most exciting stop on the Route 66 for me. If someone asks me to show a single image of the Mother Road, this is the place I'd show. It's authentic, iconic, very 60s, and also very well maintained with props, cars, and even open wigwams with cleaning carts outside them.
In the height of motoring vacation, Wigwam Motels were the roadside places to stop. The creator of Wigwam Motels, Frank Redford, had a love for Native American history that kindled the business idea that soon developed into several tepee-styled villages to stay at across the United States. The Wigwam Motel chain featured seven locations that reached across the country from Kentucky to California.
This popular Wigwam Motel to stop at is otherwise known as Wigwam Village #6, as it is one of the motels located along Route 66. It was built in 1950 by Chester E. Lewis, who purchased the rights to Redford's original design. It became a popular stop along the route, but as Interstate 40 came calling, it too closed in 1974.
Two years after Lewis's death, his children renovated Wigwam Motel and reopened its doors in 1988. It is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places and continues to be a unique insight into the thriving days of roadside stops that we get to experience today.
Here are some of my summer shots:
Located: Newberry Springs, California
Easily bypassed because it's not on any major road and is not a drive-through destination, Bagdad Cafe has the looks of the 60s and an abandoned Airstream in the back that's pretty sweet to explore. The neon sign on the road is the only indication you're about to see something exciting.
The Bagdad Cafe in Newberry Springs, California has served as a thriving hub along Route 66, but it also became more famous after the German film titled Bagdad Café. The film is loosely based on the 1951 novel The Ballad of the Sad Café by Carson McCullers. Never read the book nor saw the film.
The movie won Best Foreign Language Film in 1988 for its captivating plot of two unlikely women becoming friends at a remote truck-stop in the middle of the Mojave desert. With a feel-good vibe of the film, it has drawn many tourists over the years to the iconic cafe.
The current Bagdad Café used to be known as the Sidewinder Café, but somehow the name stuck as Bagdad over the years, even though it is roughly 50 miles east of the original Bagdad Café in Bagdad, CA.
The café now serves thousands of tourists that travel along Route 66 as it preserves the spirit of the American West, and for the simple pleasure of a cool drink in the middle of the Mojave desert.
It's not uncommon for travelers in the desert areas to literally be put in the ice coolers at gas stations. So hopefully you keep yourself hydrated for desert exploration.
Located: Amboy, California
The final and probably the stop I'd go back to over and over again is this very clever rendition of an abandoned motel turned into a learning lesson. All rooms are empty and white and you can walk into any of them. The building at the very end has a display of the whole area with how the motel was originally planned to be.
With dusty schematics and little wooden blocks to indicate buildings, this is a pretty exciting stop. So don't assume the neon sign and quick break at the shop are all you get here. Explore and you will find... some kind of answer this place can provide. It did for me, it can do the same for you.
Roy's Cafe in Amboy, California was opened up by Roy Crowl in 1938. On the outside, it may appear like an abandoned motel and gas station, but after WWII it was a booming town that welcomed visitors along the Historic Route 66.
Crowl, alongside his son-in-law Buster Burris, developed a small empire that once employed around 70 local people. The cafe and gas station was kept open 24 hours a day and 7 days a week to keep travelers and locals alike happy. Their business efforts boomed until the I-40 came killing down everything that was not on its way. The new highway was much faster to travel and all local business was mostly nonexistent after that.
As the years passed, the iconic neon sign in the middle of the Mojave desert served as a reminder of the pastime in summer, road trips across the United States, and the rush of industrialization. Roy's rustic western look has been featured in many movies.
There is something special about seeing all white motel rooms, some with furniture, and think about where we are really going with this digital world.
My most famous shot was taken on a motorcycle tour with EagleRider, the best moto rental and touring company out there.
There was something transformational for me, not just because I did my first trip on a motorcycle, but also because somewhere along the way I cleared my head from all the clutter.
Being on the road, disconnected from the daily drama and anybody's expectation of me. It was a refreshing experience and this route and these stops make a great plan for a road trip.
The Historic Route 66 is deteriorating, you get to see fewer stops that are preserved well and there are only a few real segments of the original paved road, mostly in Missouri. This would definitely be the ride I recommend if you have 5 days to unwind and enjoy the road adventures.