Today’s highways and interstates allow us to get from one place to another quickly and efficiently. Long ago, though, highways themselves were a destination. Back when automobiles were just starting to become popular, the open road called to adventure seekers who drove miles and miles just for the sheer pleasure of taking a drive and seeing the sights.

One of the most famous highways of all time was Route 66. Inspired by the old trails used by the first explorers, Route 66 was born on November 11, 1926, in Springfield, Missouri, as one of the original U.S. highways.

Although it would not become completely paved until 1938, the Chicago-to-Los Angeles highway quickly became one of the most famous roads in America. Its original route ran 2,448 miles from Chicago, Illinois, through the states of Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico and Arizona, before ending in Los Angeles, California.

The popularity of Route 66 stemmed from the unique circumstances of the time. As automobiles began to become more popular, more people were able to drive to see places they’d never been able to visit before. Historical factors played a role, too.

In the 1930s, severe drought forced many farming families to move west to look for farming jobs in California. Many of these people simply followed Route 66 west to what they hoped would be better times.

The small communities along Route 66 also began to grow and prosper. Many people settled in these areas and opened small businesses, such as gas stations, restaurants and motels (called motor courts back then), to serve the increasing number of travelers along the highway.

During World War II, Route 66 was a popular route used by the military to move supplies west. After World War II, many young Americans, optimistic about their futures after the war, sought adventure and new experiences in the west. Route 66 became the main highway for those heading to sunny California and the excitement that awaited them in places like Los Angeles.

Traveling Route 66 became a uniquely American experience. The road took travelers near significant tourist spots, such as the Painted Desert, the Grand Canyon and Meteor Crater.

As tourist traffic increased on Route 66, entrepreneurs began to develop a wide variety of roadside attractions to lure travelers to stop and spend their money. From motels shaped like teepees to souvenir shops to reptile farms, you never knew what you might see along Route 66.

Some people also credit Route 66 with the rise of the fast-food industry. Red’s Giant Hamburg in Springfield, Missouri, was the first drive-through restaurant. The first McDonald’s restaurant also opened near Route 66 in San Bernardino, California.

Route 66’s popularity was memorialized in a hit song recorded by the Nat King Cole Trio in 1946. It was also the subject of the popular Route 66 television show.

Over the years, it became known by several nicknames, including the Great Diagonal Way, the Main Street of America, the Will Rogers Highway and the Most Famous Road in the World. Its most famous and iconic nickname, though, came from author John Steinbeck, who called Route 66 the “Mother Road” in his classic novel The Grapes of Wrath.

Unfortunately, Route 66 eventually fell into decline. Motorists increasingly wanted faster, more efficient routes. Military considerations and the growing trucking industry led to the development of the Interstate Highway System.

As interstate highways were built, they bypassed older highways like Route 66. Route 66 was officially removed from the U.S. Highway System on June 27, 1985, when it was decided that the highway had been fully replaced by interstate highways and was no longer relevant.

After it was decommissioned, many sections of Route 66 lived on as state and local roads or as business loops that are alternatives to interstates. Other sections became private drives and some were abandoned altogether.

Today, it’s no longer possible to drive Route 66 all the way from Chicago to Los Angeles without interruption. However, with careful planning, much of the original route is still drivable.

Various groups exist today for the purpose of preserving sections of the original Route 66. Some parts of the original road have been designated a National Scenic Byway with the name “Historic Route 66.”

 

62 Join the Discussion

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  1. Hello again!!! When I saw this I thought of CARS!!!! Route 66 is where they have the cone shaped houses. Were those houses in the picture inspired by them? I think cars shows how that road disappeared because NOT A LOT of Cars/People were ever seen on that road except the ones that lived there. I think tomorrow’s wonder of the day is going to be about a roller coaster and that you lean forward when you go doooooooowwwwwwwwnnnnnnnnn!!!!!! :)

    • Hi, Delanie! Thank you for being the very first Wonder Friend to leave us a comment on today’s Wonder of the Day®! The cone-shaped “teepee” motel rooms in the movie CARS were actually inspired by the Wigwam Motel along Route 66! The hotel has been there for a very long time, and the movie has only been out for a few years. It’s really cool to think of how many scenes from movies have taken place or been inspired by places along Route 66! :-)

  2. I have been on route 66 before, and it is really cool to look at all of the things you can see in the distance and close up, too. I like the movie cars when the race car goes on route 66 and finds him a little town with all of the other nice cars. I also like the song by rascal flats that’s about Route 66 because I like their music and they sing it really well. Although it has been a little while since I have been there because I was just 6 or 7 when I went, but I still remember some of it. I also think that it looks cool. I wonder if there are snakes there because I am deathly afraid of snakes, but I think there are probably some there, but I don’t think that I will be going there in a little while so I am fine. Goodbye finally!

    • What a WONDERful comment you left for us today, Cassidy! We really enjoyed hearing what you remember from your trip on Route 66! It must be super fun to see all the amazing things along the way! We’re pretty sure there are snakes that live SOMEWHERE along Route 66 because of the countryside and the climate in many of the states. :-)

  3. Hello, it’s me Austin coming in to say Route 66 was also introduced in the movie Cars, but I really don’t watch that anymore unless my sister Abbie wants to. I only remember that part for when I was at least, well, when it came out let’s just say that, because I don’t know when it came out. So, anyway, I have seen the book Grapes of the Wrath or whatever it is called but, yes I have seen that book but I never got the chance to read it. I have also heard the expression “the Mother Road.” I just want to explore the “Mother Road” wait do I have to put parenthesis because those parenthesis are my arch nemesis (if I spelled that right) Evil Dr. Parenthesis or Dr. Parent for short. Been my arch nemesis since about 2 minutes ago. Ah, he shall strike again when I say “Mother Road”…ah, he is back. Ah good times, good times. Oh one more thing, I think tomorrow’s wonder of the day is gonna be about, drum roll please…looking to the sky. Thank you, thank you very much.

    • Thanks for making us smile today, Austin! You are a very clever commenter! We think you might want to consider changing the name of your arch nemesis to “Dr. Quotation Mark,” though. We don’t want to stand in the way of justice, but we DO want to help fight evil with correct punctuation! :-)

    • Hi, Jon! The “Mother Road” (Route 66) is a highway that stretched from Chicago to Los Angeles! It was “born” in 1926, but wasn’t completely paved until 1938. We encourage you to re-explore today’s Wonder to find out even MORE about Route 66! :-)

    • Woo, hoo! Thanks for letting us know you REALLY liked today’s Wonder, Mr. P. and Mrs. Watson’s 3rd graders! We’re so glad you guys enjoyed taking a virtual road trip on Route 66 with us today! :-)

    • Thanks for letting us know you like the songs and music that accompany today’s Wonder of the Day® about Route 66, Jeremiah! We’re tapping our toes, today, too! :-)

  4. HELLO AGAIN!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    When I saw “Cars” they talked a lot about Route 66! So, what I understood, was that you can’t drive from Chicago to Los Angeles. But if you wanted to drive on Route 66, where would you start, and where would you end? Why did they make Route 66 a not actual road or something? I don’t think that was fair, because Route 66 was an important road to many people! Does Route 66 run through Jefferson City, Missouri? Does it run through a town close to Versailles, Missouri? Have you heard of Versailles? I think if I can, that I might go and see Route 66. Are any shops still open on Route 66? Sorry if I’m asking too many questions. Asking questions helps you learn!

    Hannah

    • You’re absolutely right, Hannah! Asking questions DOES help us learn! We don’t think Route 66 runs through either Jefferson City or Versailles. It runs south of both cities. We think it would be AWESOME if you got to see parts of the old Route 66 that still exist today! Please comment back and let us know if you get to take that fun road trip one day! :-)

    • We know, Elango. Thankfully there are groups of people who are trying to save and restore portions of the “Mother Road” so future generations can share in the fun of the ultimate road trip! :-)

    • We’re super sorry you didn’t care for today’s Wonder of the Day®, Hailey! There are LOTS of Wonder Friends who think Route 66 is an icon of American culture worth learning about and experiencing. We hope you’ll visit Wonderopolis again soon! :-)

  5. Dear Wonderopolis,

    We really liked your video and pictures about Route 66. It was interesting learning about it. It made us think of Cars, too! We are wondering more about the meteor, so we are going to do some research. Thanks again!

    Mrs. Johnson’s third grade

    • Happy Thursday, Mrs. Johnson’s Third Grade! Thank you for letting us know what you liked about today’s Wonder on Route 66! We would REALLY like it if you shared what you learn about Meteor Crater! We like learning new things, too, and we LOVE it when our Wonder Friends WONDER even more about something they’ve learned in Wonderopolis! :-)

    • Thank you for your apology, Hailey! That ROCKS! We know every Wonder of the Day® isn’t going to be a favorite of every Wonder Friend, so we really appreciate your honest opinion in letting us know that you didn’t care for today’s. We hope you’ll check out tomorrow’s Wonder and give it a try! :-)

    • We’ll all have to wait and see what tomorrow’s Wonder will be about, Hailey! Thanks for letting us know what YOU would like it to be about! :-)

    • Those are GREAT questions, Caelah! Route 66 was a fictional television program from the 1960’s about two young men who drive a Corvette and travel along Route 66 looking for adventure. We think it might be available on DVD (by season) or you might be lucky enough to catch it on the “TV Land” channel one day! :-)

    • Let us know if you do, OK, Caelah! We’d love to hear what you think about it and if they show any of the cool things we learned about in today’s Wonder! :-)

    • We’re so glad you liked the video for today’s Wonder, Ashlyn! We’re doing WONDERfully…thanks for asking! You’re a GREAT Wonder Friend! :-)

    • We think it would be GREAT to find out the Cozy Cone Motel was inspired by the Wigwam Motel, Annette! We think it might have been, but we’ll have to do some more WONDERing to find out for sure! Thanks for sharing your WONDERful comment with us! :-)

    • Well, we’re super glad you stopped by this Wonder of the Day® then, Maya! Thank you so much for leaving us this comment to let us know you were here! :-)

  6. The video was kind of interesting and it had so many pictures of Route 66. I never knew that route 66 is something we could have used to ever drive on. :)

    • Thanks for letting us know you thought the video for this Wonder of the Day® was interesting, Bryce! We’re glad you learned some fun new facts about Route 66! :-)

    • What a SUPER, GREAT, FANTASTIC, WONDERful comment, Mykaela! Thank you for being such an AWESOME Wonder Friend and encouraging others to visit Wonderopolis! :-)

  7. Hey, it’s me I haven’t commented in a while, but I think this video was awesome. The music was great. Mr.P in the library is my library teacher and Ms. Watson is a third grade teacher at my school. But anyways, this video was awesome!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! You always put WONDERful WONDERs on your website!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! I was just checking out the other comments and my family is watching cars 2 right now so I think that is WONDERful!!!!!!!!!!!! Bye!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    • It’s really great to hear from you again, Tman! Thanks so much for letting us know that Mr. P. is your library teacher and that Ms. Watson teaches third grade at your school! We think it’s awesome that you read all of the great comments for this Wonder! Our Wonder Friends (like you!) ROCK for leaving us such cool messages! :-)

    • Hi, Sarah! The Wonder Friends we know who have been on parts of Route 66 say it’s AWESOME and there are LOTS of cool things to see and visit! Thank you for exploring this Wonder and also for leaving us a SUPER comment! :-)

  8. Our 3rd grade class really enjoyed learning about Route 66! Everyone was tapping their feet to the song that played during the video. Two of our favorite things were the whale and the Wigwam Motel. We also found the Meteor Crater to be fascinating! Do you think that might be a Wonder of the Day in the future? We were WONDERing why it was called Route 66. Thanks!

    • We think a future Wonder about Meteor Crater would be a WONDERful idea, Cassidy’s Crew! Thank you so much for leaving us this comment to let us know you enjoyed this Wonder of the Day®! We appreciate hearing what our Wonder Friends like learning about in Wonderopolis! :-)

  9. Dear Wonderopolis, I live in Yadkinvill, and I am 9 years old. I just want you to know how great I love this website!!! I hope you keep up the good work!

    P.s. I love the new wonder of the day, oh and please let the wonder of the day be about keeping healthy! Love, Hailey

    • We’re so happy to hear that you love this Wonder of the Day®, Hailey! Thank you for wishing us a WONDEROPOLIS day, too! We like the sound of that! :-)

  10. That is like crazy! I wish I could drive route 66 get your kicks on route sixty six! I love that song!
    I hope one day I can go on a part of route 66! You know my class is going on a field trip to Chicago, Illinois in the end of April, May or maybe March! So exciting!!!!!

    • Your class field trip DOES sound super exciting, Mak! There are LOTS of fun, WONDERful things to see and do in Chicago! Have fun! :-)

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Have you ever wondered…

  • Where was the Mother Road?
  • How long was Route 66?
  • What led to the decline of Route 66?

Wonder Gallery

route 66_shutterstock_23287585Vimeo Video

Try It Out

Ready to get your kicks on Route 66? No, you don’t need a car and you don’t need to drive. You just need a computer!

The World Monuments Fund has developed the Route 66 Virtual Reality Tour, which you can download to your computer to take a virtual ride along a section of Route 66 in California. You can also take a virtual tour via photographs of Route 66 in all the states it passes through.

Route 66 was known for a wide variety of oddities and interesting roadside attractions. Here are a few you can check out online:

 

Still Wondering

Use the Mapping the Big Idea activity from Smithsonian’s History Explorer to teach children how to connect oral history statements to places on a map of Route 66.

 

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