I travelled from the UK to the USA in August to drive westbound along Route 66 from Chicago to Los Angeles. I know it sounds like a cliche, but it truly was the trip of the lifetime! On the first day in Chicago I proposed to my girlfriend - it's a good job she said 'yes', or else it would have been an awkward road trip!
Here is our day-by-day itinerary including motels/hotels and a comment about each place. Although this is a long read, I hope it is of some interest to those planning their own trips. I didn't mention all of the places (i.e. attractions, stop-off points, etc), but feel free to ask questions - I am more than happy to answer them.
We travelled a total of 3,016 miles in our car. However, that includes detours to the Grand Canyon and Las Vegas. The daily mileages listed below are approximate and include short journeys within cities, i.e. to restaurants, etc.
Days 1-3: Chicago (Club Quarters, Central Loop)
The hotel was perfectly situated to allow us to explore Chicago. Everything was within walking distance. The city itself was busy and I was nervous about driving out of the city having never driven in the USA before, but it wasn't too bad. Satnav is highly recommended (although obviously it's not very good for following Route 66, but great for helping you get back on track if you get lost in a city!). The car (Ford Escape: mid-size SUV) took some getting used to, especially as it was an automatic, but it ended up being the ideal choice of car - plenty of room for luggage. In terms of tourist attractions, ittook 90 minutes to queue for Willis Tower which was very frustrating. I preferred exploring Little Italy and walking by the shore of Lake Michigan (where I proposed to my girlfriend). We enjoyed an open air concert in the park.
Day 4: Chicago to Springfield IL (approximately 220 m) (Mansion View Inn & Suites)
Driving to Springfield through corn field after corn field was tiring but rewarding; we enjoyed lots of small Illinois towns along the way, such as Atlanta and Pontiac. Springfield itself was warm and friendly. Despite only being a couple of hundred miles away from Chicago, it felt like a world away. I strongly recommend the Mansion View Inn & Suites - just two minutes away from Abraham Lincoln's old home.
Day 5: Springfield IL to St. Louis then Cuba MO (approximately 210 m) (Wagon Wheel Motel)
This was one of the highlights of our trip. I loved the small town feel of Cuba, Missouri. The Wagon Wheel Motel was superb. Very friendly staff. Cuba has some beautiful murals and a quirky coffee shop that was dirt cheap and very charming. On our way to Cuba we stopped at St. Louis and went to the top of the Gateway Arch - highly recommended, although not for those with claustrophobia! The traffic in St. Louis is quite daunting. Missouri itself was more scenic than Illinois - less corn fields and, instead, more woodlands, streams and bridges.
Day 6: Cuba to Springfield MO (approximately 145 m) (Best Western Route 66 Rail Haven)
The Best Western Route 66 Rail Haven was located right next to a busy stretch of Route 66, which meant it was relatively noisy. However, it had an outdoor pool (a real dose of 'Americana'), which was just what we needed after a few days on the road. Springfield itself was very disappointing - the downtown area should be avoided at night as it appeared to be a hangout for the homeless and drug dealers.
Day 7: Springfield MO to Tulsa OK (approximately 230 m) (Desert Hills Motel)
This was the lowlight of our trip. Numerous people at various Route 66 tourist attractions on the way to Tulsa had warned us about the northern parts of the city. It turns out, they were right. The Desert Hills Motel should be AVOIDED at all costs. We found it very intimidating; the staff are hidden behind a glass screen, the rooms stank of smoke, the doors wouldn't lock properly, and the other motel guests were not the sort you'd want to speak to - we felt extremely uncomfortable and out of place. Meanwhile, the rooms can be booked on an hourly basis (I'll let you work out why). We weren't sure whether to stay the night or not (even though we'd already paid), so we went to a diner a block away to gather our thoughts. The elderly waitress (who seemed streetwise and a tough cookie) told us that she wouldn't stay in the Desert Hills Motel and wouldn't let her children stay there. So we decided to ask for our money back, but the staff at the Motel were having none of it. So we cut our losses are headed for a local Holiday Inn instead. Peace of mind is priceless. On our way to Oklahoma, we drove through Kansas which, on a per-mile basis, is arguably the most fun section of Route 66.
Day 8: Tulsa to Oklahoma City (approximately 140 m) (Skirvin Hilton Oklahoma City)
Ahh, Oklahoma City was a pleasant improvement on Tulsa. It's a really beautiful city, especially the Bricktown district. We took a water taxi down the canal and attended a minor league baseball game. Our hotel was beautiful - very different to the motels, but we wanted to experience a range of accommodation. The Oklahoma City bombing memorial is extremely emotional but worth visiting. Driving through the state of Oklahoma, we listened to country music on the radio - it just felt 'right' and, as a result, I'm now a converted country music fan. I recommend doing the same. The Oklahoma countryside is exactly as you'd imagine; lots of farms and open expanses of land.
Day 9: Oklahoma City to Shamrock TX (approximately 200 m) (Sleep Inn & Suites)
I loved Shamrock - what an experience! We drove around the town and realised quickly that it has its rough parts. However, the Route 66 part of the town seemed safe and there is a great choice of motels and hotels. We decided that, for an extra $25 or so, the Sleep Inn & Suites was a better option than the motels (we checked out a few rooms but, like in Tulsa, they smelt of smoke). We chatted for half an hour to a drunk 20-year-old man who was attending a wedding in the U-Drop Inn. He agreed that the Sleep Inn & Suites is the most comfortable and best value-for-money accommodation in town. He was such a friendly guy and chatting to him about Shamrock was one of the highlights of our trip! Driving through Texas, the terrain is flat and arid while Route 66 itself is very straight and easy to navigate (unlike in Illinois, where it was easy to get lost and it felt like we were constantly going around in circles, traversing through small town after small town).
Day 10: Shamrock to Tucumcari NM (approximately 240 m) (Motel Safari)
Tucumcari is similar to Shamrock, although a bit bigger and a few more attractions to visit. Personally I preferred Shamrock though. The Motel Safari was one of the nicest motels that we stayed in. Over the road is the Blue Swallow Motel which was fully booked when we visited, although a great place for a photo at night time. New Mexico is very hot and arid. Take lots of water with you! However, the views are stunning - some really beautiful scenery.
Day 11: Tucumcari to Santa Rosa then Santa Fe NM (approximately 210 m) (Silver Saddle Motel)
I highly recommend visiting the Blue Hole (a very cold and very deep natural pool) in Santa Rosa! We had a blast jumping in off the high rocks. While we were there, we met some Hawaiian tourists who were really friendly. We then drove to Santa Fe through an incredible thunderstorm. By the time we arrived, the Silver Saddle Motel was beginning to get flooded so I helped the owner put out some sandbags - she rewarded me with some free drinks and board games to while-away the time as we waited for the power supply to come back on after a powercut. Once the city regained power, the Motel itself was a delight (very quaint) and the city was just brilliant. It felt different to all the other cities in the USA. Very historic and quirky. A true highlight of the trip!
Day 12: Santa Fe to Albuquerque NM (approximately 100 m) (Non-Smokers Motel)
Albuquerque was much bigger than we expected. It is very spread out with a busy interstate running through it. The Non-Smokers Motel had a great pool and is run by a friendly elderly couple who were very helpful. The city itself is like a poor man's Santa Fe; it's definitely worth visiting, but not as special as Santa Fe. We visited a basketball card shop (my obsession is collecting sports cards) and I can't explain how unbelievably friendly the staff were in the store - they struggled to get their head around the fact we'd driven half way across the States to be there. Again, one of the highlights of the trip.
Day 13: Albuquerque to Holbrook AZ (approximately 260 m) (Wigwam Motel)
Holbrook itself is a bit ho-hum. By now we'd been spoiled by some impressive locations, so Holbrook didn't really offer us anything we hadn't already experienced. But the Wigwam Motel was definitely something a bit different! Be prepared for a small shower room but a pleasant family-friendly stay. On the way to Holbrook we drove through the Petrified National Forest. A real treat. Arizona also features the impressive Meteor Crater... although, at $20 (what a con!), was nowhere near as good value as the Petrified National Park or the Grand Canyon. But when else will you get to see a meteor crater?
Day 14: Holbrook to Grand Canyon National Park (approximately 225 m) (Yavapai Lodge)
The Grand Canyon is, of course, well worth the detour from Route 66. It's only about 50 miles out of your way, not far from Flagstaff (an entirely different Geographical experience to the rest of the trip, due to the beautiful forests and hills) and just north of Williams in Arizona (which is worth stopping in for a coffee and a walk around). Getting up at 5:30am to watch the sunrise at the Grand Canyon is something that I'll never forget. It's not cheap, but when else in your life will you get to experience something as beautiful as this?
Day 15: Grand Canyon National Park to Seligman AZ (approximately 105 m) (Stagecoach 66 Motel)
After Tulsa, this was our second disaster. Seligman itself is worth a visit... but you need to be prepared for some monstrous cockroach-like beetles. Apparently they're called rhino beetles. Whatever they're called, they scared the crap out of us - they're the size of tennis balls and they somehow found their way into our room. Unimpressed, I asked for our money back and, to her credit, the Stagecoach 66 Motel (which is strangely located a mile east of the town) owner kindly obliged. We stopped at the Roadkill Cafe for a beer and met the scariest hillbilly couple you can possibly imagine. We sat in fear as the man told us he is a bounty hunter who wraps people in barbed wire until they hand over money. Needless to say, we downed our beers and headed west for Kingman, where we found a Marriott's Hotel. Again, peace of mind is priceless.
Day 16: Seligman to Needles CA then Las Vegas (approximately 260 m) (New York, New York)
I've been to Las Vegas before and, to be honest, didn't need to go there again. One night would have been enough. Two nights was unnecessary. Frankly, I missed being on Route 66. It's only worth the detour if you've never been before. Otherwise, save the money and spend it in more worthy Route 66 attractions instead. The heat was unbearable and, being a weekend in August, the streets were packed with tourists. At least the gambling was fun. On our way to Las Vegas, we stopped at Oatman - an incredible experience and worth the drive through the windy roads and dusty mountains.
Day 17: Las Vegas (explore)
Day 18: Las Vegas to Needles CA then Barstow CA and onto Laguna Beach CA (approximately 450 m) (Route 66 Motel)
We intended to stay in Barstow but, after driving for a few hours, we were happy to keep going to Los Angeles. So we cancelled our booking at the Route 66 Motel in Barstow and headed west for Laguna Beach, just south of Los Angeles. It was an gruelling day of driving... and a regretful decision not to complete our trip along Route 66 to Santa Monica, but I was desperate to avoid the LA traffic and just wanted to spend the last few days of our trip lying on a beach in Orange County. The Californian sections of Route 66 weren't as fun as the previous sections of the road. By now, we really missed Illinois, Missouri, Kansas and Oklahoma. We certainly preferred the earlier stretches of the road.
Day 19-21: Laguna Beach (explore)
I've been to Laguna Beach before and was desperate to go back, this time with my fiance. It is expensive and a bit pretentious. But the town attracts arty folk and surfers in equal measure. It was the perfect relaxing end to an epic road trip and a chance to reflect on the memories of our three weeks driving along the Mother Road. Ok, so we missed the last hundred miles of Route 66, but you've got to do what feels right at the time and live with your decisions.
Here are some photos of our trip.
Moments after proposing to my fiance in Chicago
Chicago skyline from Willis Tower (formerly Sears Tower)
A cobbled section of Route 66 in Illinois
Beautiful views from the Devil's Elbow bridge in Missouri
The vehicle that inspired the 'Tow-mater' character from the films Cars, in Galena, Kansas
Patriotic signing of the flag in Kansas
We saw a few of these giant crosses as we crossed the Bible Belt
The Oklahoma City bombing memorial - a chair for each of the victims
My fiance enjoying an onion burger in a typical Route 66 diner
I stopped the car to take these photos of a tornado/storm that was brewing on the horizon in Oklahoma. As a Geography teacher, it fascinated me.
This storm cell moved towards as at alarming pace in Oklahoma
Without doubt the worst storm I've ever experienced
The U-Drop Inn in Shamrock, Texas - an iconic Route 66 landmark
Cadillac Ranch, Texas
A typical abandoned house in a typical ghost town in Texas
The iconic Blue Swallow Motel in Tucumcari, New Mexico
The beautiful Blue Hole in Santa Rosa, New Mexico
A beautiful stretch of Route 66 in New Mexico
The Petrified National Forest in Arizona
The Wig-Wam Motel in Holbrook, Arizona
The Meteor Crater in Arizona
Route 66 in Flagstaff, Arizona
The south rim of the Grand Canyon, Arizona
Some of the wildlife at the Grand Canyon, Arizona
Route 66 in Oatman, Arizona
New York, New York - our hotel in Las Vegas, Nevada
Enjoying a cocktail in Laguna Beach, California
Wood's Cove, Laguna Beach, California