Four-lane Interstates are a fine choice when you need to get from Point A to Point B pronto, but for an unforgettable road trip, try taking a ramble down one of America’s older highways. Sure, there are stoplights, stop signs, and lower speed limits—but that means you’ll need to slow down enough to actually see the areas you’re driving through. Hopefully you’ll even get out of your car to experience some of the quirky local cultures, unique culinary traditions, and natural wonders that make this such a great country.
Besides, Jack Kerouac didn’t take the Interstate. OK, maybe On the Road predates the U.S. Interstate Highway System, but that’s beside the point. Kerouac still wouldn’t have ridden our modern fast food outlet- and chain motel-crammed highways, even if he could have.
This trip was taken from our recent Essential USA, on sale now. Take a sneak peak of the guide with this pdf download, which includes a map of Route 66 and other popular drives on page 5.
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The Mother Road is America’s most romanticized classic road. One of the greatest joys of this 2000+ mile journey from Chicago, Illinois to Santa Monica, California is the ’50s time-warp you’ll experience via the many kitschy roadside attractions, old diners, and motels that crop up in the middle of nowhere (often marked by huge elaborate neon signs)—as well as the seemingly endless but never boring “get your kicks on Route 66” nostalgia that is inseparably part of this road’s ethos.
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Only scattered segments of the old highway remain, but the remnants epitomize the classic American road trip. One of the longest surviving stretches of Route 66 starts in Arcadia, Oklahoma, just northeast of Oklahoma City (while you’re here, look for the round red barn, a terrific little Route 66 museum and gift shop) and ends in Stroud, Oklahoma.
The drive in New Mexico between Gallup and Grants across the Zuni and Navajo Nation Indian Reservations (on what’s now Highway 53) is also wonderful. Other high points include the Grand Canyon; the Cahokia Mounds in Collinsville, Illinois; Albuquerque, New Mexico; and the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, Missouri.
Route 66 is not shown on modern maps. Before you set off on your journey, visit the National Historic Route 66 Federation to purchase maps and meticulous turn-by-turn directions for the entire route, or visit www.historic66.com for free instructions for following the Mother Road.
Getting off the Beaten Path
Can’t drive Route 66 this summer? Don’t worry, you have other options. Every state boasts at least one distinctive road that tells a story about that place and its people. Most can be driven from start to finish in a day or two. (The Federal Highway Administration’s National Scenic Byways Program has a great list at their website, www.byways.org.)
Photo credit: (2) Photo by emdot.