U.S. Highway 66 (Route 66) is one of the most well-known driving routes in America, slicing across two-thirds of the continent.
It is rich in history, having been made famous over the years through constant promotion and heavy usage by holiday goers.
Presently, its allure attracts people from all over the world, and acts as the experience of a journey through time, bridging the new and old, reflecting the stages of America’s path to freedom.
Experiencing the full offerings of Route 66 takes time, and before embarking on your drive, it’s good to have a thorough understanding of the journey, so let’s find out how long it takes to drive the route and what to expect along the way.
Route 66 covers 2448 miles (3939 km), and driving it nonstop takes 50+ hours and a little over two days to complete.
Realistically, you’ll likely be planning to stop off at popular attractions along the way or drive on side routes to famous landmarks.
You can comfortably spend two to three weeks driving the route and still have lots to see and explore.
The history of Route 66
U.S. Highway 66 debuted in 1926 and was one of the original US highways.
Initially, it was a bridging of existing road networks, making it the shortest route to travel from St. Louis to Los Angeles, lowering the previous shortest distance by 200 miles.
It took a further 12 years for paving completion; then in the 1930s, it acted as an alternative route attracting drivers who enjoyed pleasant driving conditions compared to the dust-filled roads traveling in a similar direction.
It also served as a business opportunity for many previously isolated, smaller rural areas, allowing smaller businesses to open.
It later grew in significance, acting as a military transport route throughout World War II for equipment and personnel traveling between camps, as well as a motel hot spot for the families of nearby stationed servicemen.
In the 1950s and 60s, it served as a popular route for families going on vacation, passing through the Midwest, and heading to the Grand Canyon or Disneyland.
In 1990, Route 66 was recognized as a “symbol of American people’s heritage of travel,” and an order was made to preserve the most significant historic resources along the route so tourists can enjoy them today.
Changes to the route through the years
Although the highway has undergone changes throughout the years, roughly 85% of the original alignments are still accessible, including some dirt roads dating back to the 1920s and 30s.
During World War II, emergency efforts led to the fast building of segments along the route to support the war.
As a result of heavy truck usage and overcrowding, the route was left filled with road cracks, potholes, inadequate bridge structures, and in desperate need of modernization.
This has led to the route being modernized throughout the years, with the states it runs through spending a considerable amount to update their sections of the highway, with five interstates being replaced along the route over 30 years.
Changes include four-lane highways, a reduction in the number of curved bends, larger roads, resurfacing, and changes to fight off bad weather, allowing drivers added comfort when driving the route in harsher weather conditions.
As it stands today, some of the original sections are no longer drivable. However, they are still viewable, serving as dirt roads, and showcasing the evolution of American road engineering throughout the years.
The US States you’ll drive through on Route 66
Route 66 runs from northeast to southwest of the US, from Chicago, Illinois, to the Pacific Coast in Santa Monica, California.
Along your journey, you’ll slowly bear witness to a timeline of history, bridging the past and present to the lives of communities throughout the nation.
You’ll encounter varying landscapes, from vast deserts, beaches, rocky mountains, farmlands, thriving cities, and small, quaint towns.
From East to West, the route passes through eight US states, each offering something interesting and different from the last.
- Illinois: Agricultural fields, Grant park, the Old Chain of Rocks Bridge, Downey Building
- Missouri: Gentle hills, Rock Fountain Court Hotel, Gillioz Theatre, Meramec River Bridge
- Kansas: Small mining towns, Brush Creek Bridge, Historic District East Galena, Baxter Springs Independent Oil and Gas Service Station
- Oklahoma: Cowboy culture, the Milk Bottle Grocery, Fort Reno, Rock Cafe, Chandler Armory
- Texas: Flat open ranch lands, Ranchhote, Glenrio Historic District, McLean Commercial Historic District
- New Mexico: Beautiful landscapes, Pueblo of Laguna, Park Lake Historic District, Rio Puerco Bridge
- Arizona: Cacti, cowboys, and desert, Painted Desert Inn, Old Trails Bridge, Querino Canyon Bridge
- California: Upbeat vibes, Broadway Theatre and Commercial District, Colorado Street Bridge, Harvey House Railroad Depot
What to expect on the drive
When driving Route 66, while it’s good to plan out some destinations you want to see, it’s impossible to plan every place you’re going to stop off at, and with so many places to visit, it’s also a viable option to let time and emotion dictate where you go and what to see.
The long highway of Route 66 isn’t constantly filled with unforgettable sites, but a sense of history remains present throughout.
Along the majority of the route, you’ll experience early roadside Americana, passing through segments abandoned many moons ago, left untouched, with buildings decaying and names unrecognizable, adding a sense of intrigue and mystery.
Additionally, you’ll often see smaller roadside charms, such as statues and decorated murals.
You’ll also come across smaller towns and businesses, such as diners, with residents residing there for decades. You can stop off and chat about the town’s history and visit a town hallmark, such as a local brewery.
Although there are a good number of businesses that have been closed down for years, a fair amount is still operational, for the opportunity to experience the same food spots and sleeping accommodations as people did in the 1940s and 50s.
In some towns, you’ll have access to guided tours, such as caves, railroad depots, and other heritage sites.
If you intend on taking a detour from the route, then you have plenty of options to consider.
This might include viewing the vibrant Santa Fe in New Mexico, the Grand Canyon or Monument Valley in Arizona, a memorable and exciting time in Las Vegas, Nevada, or taking the kids to Disneyland in Anaheim, California.
Why does Route 66 take so long to drive?
Route 66 has a distance of 2,448 miles and a driving time of roughly 45-50 hours, which means that by driving nonstop, it would take roughly two days to complete with constant driver rotation, and taking into consideration passing through speed-restricted towns and residential sections.
The reason the route takes much longer to complete is that, realistically, this is a vacation experience, and completing the drive takes up to 2 weeks if you’re planning to stop off and see what’s on offer.
If you’re including side trips to your itinerary, then it’s important to note that they can run over 100s of miles and will add a fair amount of time to your journey, and you’ll most likely need three weeks spare.
The best time of year to drive the route
As you drive through Route 66, you’ll pass through different states, coupled with changing climates and varying weather conditions throughout the year.
For instance, Oklahoma sees turbulent rain throughout April, and during the peak summer months, Las Vegas can reach soaring temperatures throughout long stretches of road.
In contrast, other states experience lower temperatures during the winter, such as Chicago.
Winter weather can be harsh, and it’s generally regarded as more pleasant to drive the route between springtime in May to the end of summer at the beginning of October.
Between November and April, you run the risk of encountering more extreme weather, such as heavy rainfalls and snowy and icy roads.
When planning what time of year to drive the route, it’s best to consider which areas you’ll spend the most time in and find out the weather forecasts for the said locations.
Things to note
- As you drive through various US states, road laws change, so make sure to check the speed limits as you’re crossing over into different territories.
- The peak seasons of July and August will see the most tourists and events going on, with the highest prices and busy crowds.
- The bigger city areas will have a higher volume of traffic all year round, and in the summer months, you’ll most likely be held up in jams.
- For two people, you’ll need to budget $200-300 dollars per day, including $50 fuel, and for comfort, including a decent spot to eat, a motel, and freedom to explore.
- Things to pack include sunscreen, insect repellent, snacks and lots of water, a map, and a car safety kit.
Route 66 was originally put together for faster access between points A and B; and presently serves as a thriving vacation experience, with many places to stop off and see along the route, taking roughly two weeks to complete if visiting different locations, driving steady and staying on track.
If you include side detours, then you’ll need three weeks to complete the journey.
Overall, when considering driving Route 66, there’s a lot of ground to cover, and you’ll need to prepare well and allocate enough time to make the most of what’s on offer.
1. nps.gov: Demise and Resurgence of Interest in Route 66 (link)