Chances are you’ve heard about Route 66—possibly through the popular song, Get Your Kicks on Route 66, or as a kitschy road trip across the southwestern U.S. Also called the Main Street of America or the Mother Road, today Historic Route 66 is a heritage corridor crossing eight states over approximately 2,450 miles from Chicago, IL, to Santa Monica, CA.
Most road trippers along Route 66 focus on following segments of the preserved original roadway, stopping in the many small towns, and visiting quirky roadside sites and restaurants along the way. But, in addition to having the classic historical experience, there is an opportunity to combine a Route 66 road trip with adventurous stops at some of America’s best national park units. Some of these NPS units are located directly along the route, while others require manageable detours.
With an opportunity to visit dozens of NPS units, including national parks, rivers, and monuments, customizing your own ultimate national parks road trip along Route 66 is possible. Below we’ve put together a short history and a description of the best NPS units along the way. So, load up a Google Map of Route 66 and start planning!
Why Route 66 is Famous
Established in 1926, US-66 was one of the original highways in the U.S. Numbered Highway System, and it quickly became one of the most famous roads in America. During the 1930s, the highway was the primary route to the west for migrants escaping the Dust Bowl, a dire situation dramatized in the classic American novel The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck. Along the way, the route passed through many small towns, which led to a boom of roadside businesses, including mom-and-pop restaurants, service stations, and motor inns.
Throughout the 1940s, westward migration continued, now spurred by a need for workers in war-related industries in California. After World War II, the highway was a major route for motor tourists. This led to the proliferation of kitschy roadside attractions and Americana establishments still seen today. Spanning two-thirds of the country, the route became a testament to automobile culture, with colorful billboards, themed diners, teepee-shaped motels, knickknack shops, and petting zoos.
With the establishment of the Interstate Highway System in the late 1950s, Route 66 slowly became obsolete. As these new high-speed freeways bypassed the original highway, many of the small towns went into decline. US-66 was decommissioned in the mid-1980s, but soon came calls for preservation. Today, Historic Route 66 is viewed as a living museum to a bygone age.
Route 66 in Illinois and Missouri
Though you can drive in either direction, most diehard road trippers tend to start route 66 in Chicago Illinois and head southwest. There are three NPS units along the route in Illinois. Located in Chicago, Pullman National Monument preserves a late-19th century industrial district which manufactured Pullman railroad cars. Nearby is the Illinois and Michigan Canal National Heritage Area, a vast area combining hiking trails and water activities with historic sites.
Further along the route, in Springfield, the Lincoln Home National Historic Site preserves the home and surrounding neighborhood where Abraham Lincoln lived from 1844 to 1861 before becoming president. Crossing the Mississippi River into St. Louis, Missouri, leads to Gateway Arch National Park. Highlights include exploring the Arch, visiting an onsite museum and historic courthouse, and walking across the old Chain of Rocks bridge, where Route 66 once crossed the river.
Three additional NPS units fall close to Route 66 in Missouri, including the Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site, just outside St. Louis, Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield, near Springfield, and George Washington Carver National Monument, near Joplin. For adventurous road trippers interested in paddling activities, consider a detour south from Route 66 to Ozark National Scenic Riverways. Located near Eminence, MO, this little-known NPS unit protects the Jacks Fork and upper Current River, which are easy rivers perfect for float trips.
Route 66 in Oklahoma and Texas
After briefly clipping the southeastern corner of Kansas, Route 66 eventually assumes a more westward orientation across Oklahoma. There are two NPS units along Route 66 in the state: the Oklahoma City National Memorial, which honors the victims of the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, and Washita Battlefield National Historic Site, the 1868 site of a battle between the U.S. Army and Cheyenne.
Continuing west into the Texas panhandle, a half hour detour north from Amarillo leads to the Alibates Flint Quarries National Monument. This NPS site preserves a flint quarry used by ancient tribes in the region, with advanced reservations needed for guided tours. Fans of national parks may also wish to detour south of Amarillo to Palo Duro Canyon State Park, which is considered the “Grand Canyon” of Texas.
Route 66 in New Mexico
New Mexico has a number of NPS units, most of which require detouring. The only site directly on Route 66 is Petroglyph National Monument, near Albuquerque, which offers short hikes to rock art carved into volcanic rocks. For those interested in additional ancestral Native American sites, consider detouring north for up to three units. From east to west, Pecos National Historic Park, Bandelier National Monument, and Chaco Culture National Historic Park each offer impressive collections of ruins and ancient structures to explore.
South of Route 66, in the western portion of the state, there are three additional NPS sites to consider. For those willing to make the 3.5-hour drive, one-way, south from Albuquerque, White Sands National Park protects a stunning collection of sand dunes in a high elevation valley. Closer to Route 66, El Malpais National Monument offers several hikes of varying length through a badlands-like volcanic landscape. And El Morro National Monument includes a clifftop Ancestral Puebloan ruin and oasis-like waterhole.
Route 66 in Arizona
Arizona offers some of the best NPS stops along Route 66. On the eastern side of the state, the original roadway of Route 66 passes through Petrified Forest National Park. This park includes impressive fields of petrified logs, an informative museum, and some excellent short hikes. Continuing west, few road trippers skip a detour to the South Rim of Grand Canyon National Park. A 1.5-hour drive, one-way, from Route 66 in Flagstaff, AZ, rewards visitors with stunning canyon views and a variety of easy to challenging hikes.
Around Flagstaff, several other NPS units are worth checking out. Wupatki National Monument includes remarkable Ancestral Puebloan structures to explore. Nearby, Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument offers the chance to hike atop volcanic cinder cones and through rough lava fields. Walnut Canyon National Monument protects dramatic cliff dwellings. Further south, Tuzigoot National Monument and Montezuma Castle National Monument each preserve large masonry complexes.
Nevada Detour and Route 66 in California
Before arriving to the westernmost and final state on Route 66, many travelers consider a detour north into Nevada. While there is no segment of Route 66 in Las Vegas, that doesn’t stop many road trippers from a visit to so-called Sin City. Given its own collection of kitschy themed casinos, like Circus-Circus and those on Fremont Street, for many road trippers Vegas is the ultimate side trip through classic Americana.
For outdoor adventurers, another draw might be adding a further detour to one of the most forgotten national parks by Las Vegas. Great Basin NP requires an additional 5-hour drive north into one of the most remote areas of Nevada, the heart of the Basin & Range region. But the lucky few who venture this far are rewarded with surprising mountain scenery, bristlecone pine groves, great hikes, and the stunning Lehman Caves.
Returning to California, some Vegas side-trippers circle through Death Valley National Park. The biggest national park in the Lower 48, Death Valley also contains the lowest point in America. With colorful badlands, scenic drives, slot-canyon hikes, and more, a visit can easily fill several days.
Detouring south from Route 66 leads to Joshua Tree National Park. With one of the more unique landscapes in the NPS system, the park is definitely worth a stop. Expect massive boulder formations, groves of spiky Joshua Trees, and various trails to hidden palm oases.
After crossing the San Bernardino Mountains and arriving at the Santa Monica Pier, your adventure comes to an end. But one final national park beckons. About 20 miles offshore, accessible only by boat, is Channel Islands National Park. With no services or lodging on these five pristine islands, the only way to stay overnight is to camp self-sufficiently. Alternatively, visitors can take boat trips around the islands or go ashore for day trips. A perfect way to end an adventurous national park road trip along Route 66!
We hope you’ve found this post helpful in planning your own trips along this classic American highway. There’s plenty more to share, so feel free to leave a comment below!
Cover photo: Historic US-66 through the Mojave Desert. TrekandPhoto/Adobe