Route 66 - Southern California Insights

From amazing advancements in transportation, to kitschy roadside attractions, to harsh realities in American history, Route 66 offers endless opportunities to dig deeper into America's cultural heritage.

NOTE: In this post, we have included many links to additional information that will hopefully enrich your own journey along Route 66.


The famous highway, first established in 1926 and fully decommissioned by 1985, stretches all the way from Chicago to Los Angeles.


Also known as the "Main Street of America" and the "Mother Road," Route 66 is dotted with reminders of 20th century Americana ... the good, the bad and the ugly.


After enduring many months of lockdown in Southern California and in desperate need of a COVID-friendly tourist-at-home activity, we decided to hop in the car and get some kicks on our local portion of Route 66 (covering less than 200 of the highway's 2,000+ miles).


Instead of starting in Needles, where California's section of the Mother Road begins, we chose a spot closer to home. Our goal was to drive as much of the old route as possible between Barstow and the coast, arriving at the Santa Monica pier in time for sunset (about 5:45 p.m. in January).


The journey took us much longer than expected. Even with most indoor museums and sites closed due to COVID, we only made it to Pasadena the first day.


Day 1 - Stop 1: Barstow

Driving down Main Street in Barstow, you'll find several murals and signs celebrating the famous road. Be sure to take a short detour to Casa Del Desierto, a famous Harvey House.

Day 1 - Stops 2-3: Oro Grande to Victorville

After driving the open road for a while, you'll come upon Elmer's Bottle Tree Ranch in Oro Grande, and then the abandoned Mohawk Gas Station and Mini Mart. (Just look at those gas prices!) Then to Victorville for more murals and the old Barrel House building.


Day 1 - Stop 4: Cajon Pass

Cajon Blvd. runs parallel to I-15 along the lower section of Cajon Pass.

For Southern Californians, Cajon Pass is nothing more than a long, steep, often dangerous stretch of highway. Most people know very little about the rich history of the area, which dates back centuries. Before you hit the road, search the internet for "Cajon Pass history" and you'll find tons of information that will enrich your trip, from the geology of the area, to Native American culture, to the treacherous wagon routes of the 1800s, to the building of the railroad and development of the highway.


As you leave Victorville and head down the pass, it's challenging to find drivable portions of Route 66. That's because the "alignments" of the road have changed many times over the years and new construction has obliterated parts of the old. While some sections of the old road still exist, others require a four-wheel-drive vehicle to reach.


To simplify our journey, we drove I-15 out of Victorville. About midway down the pass, we exited the interstate at Cleghorn Road to join the nicely paved historic road, now called Cajon Blvd.


Tip: As you drive along Cajon Blvd., notice the blocked-off sections of pavement. Those are the old northbound lanes of the highway, in use before I-15 replaced US 66.


Day 1 - Stop 5: Original McDonald's Location & Museum

Once you're out of the pass and into the valley, take San Bernardino's "city alignment." This short business loop was part of Route 66 from the late 1940s until 1964.


There, you'll find the location of the very first McDonald's and an unofficial museum packed with all sorts of McDonald's memorabilia. (Check out the movie The Founder to gain a greater appreciation for this location.)


Tip: The outside of the building might be more interesting than the inside. Take your time admiring the intricate mural which has a fascinating story of its own.


Day 1 - Stops 6-11: Rialto to Arcadia

This section of the Mother Road takes a long time to drive, mostly because of the seemingly endless traffic lights. Still, it's filled with plenty of Route 66 kitsch.

  • Wigwam Motel - Wigwam Village #7 is one of the last surviving locations of a (culturally controversial) motel chain built during the 1930s and '40s.

  • Chris’s Burgers - Originally a Burger Chef (once the second largest fast-food chain in the U.S.), this restaurant received a facelift when the TV show Mad Men filmed a scene there.

  • Bono's Historic Orange - The giant orange, which once served as a juice stand, sits next to Bono’s Italia Restaurant and Deli, originally established in 1936.

  • Cucamonga Service Station - Built in 1915, this vintage-style gas station somehow survived the wrecking ball and, 100 years later, reopened as a museum.

  • The Aztec Hotel - This unique hotel, which opened in 1925, pre-dates Route 66.

  • Van de Kamp's Bakery/Denny's - The famous windmill that sits atop the old Van de Kamp's Bakery (now a Denny's) barely avoided demolition back in 1999.

Day 1 - Last Stop: The Gamble House

The Gamble House, which you might recognize as Doc Brown's house in Back to the Future, is super accessible and easy to visit. Technically, it's not part of Route 66, but it's only a short drive away, so why not stop by?


As you can see, the sun was setting when we arrived at Doc Brown's, so we called it a day.


It's a good thing we did! Truth be told, following Route 66 gets incredibly complicated once you enter Los Angeles County. With no less than SIX different alignments, planning an efficient driving route can make your brain hurt.


So we took a break, did more research, and returned to Pasadena two weeks later to finish our journey.


Tip: If you're short on time, focus on the sites you want to see rather than driving the various alignments.


Day 2 - Stop 1: Colorado Street Bridge

Just around the corner from Doc Brown's house, you'll find the beautiful Colorado Street Bridge. Upon its completion in 1913, it was the highest concrete bridge in the world.


During the past century, it has become famous for many things, most tragically as a suicide bridge, especially during the Great Depression, but also as an impressive engineering accomplishment, a 1926 airplane stunt, and a popular filming location for TV and film.


Tip: To get a panoramic view of the bridge from below, add a hike along Lower Arroyo Seco Trail.


Day 2 - Stop 2: Arroyo Seco Parkway

For us, part of the fun/challenge of Day 2 was figuring out how to incorporate each of the six alignments into our journey. (See the above image for the route we took.) We also wanted to drive as much of Arroyo Seco Parkway as possible.


Known mostly for its terrifying entry and exit ramps, the significance of this stretch of road often gets overlooked, especially by those who drive it every day.


Tip: Notice how the bridges and tunnels along the Parkway differ from other freeways in California.


Day 2 - Stop 3: Chicken Boy on Figueroa St.

Once the mascot for a fried chicken restaurant in downtown Los Angeles, the 22-foot-tall Chicken Boy statue now sits atop an art gallery in Highland Park ... after spending almost 24 YEARS in storage! Chicken Boy and the woman responsible for saving him have a truly unique story worth reading.


Quirky Culture Alert: Do an internet search for "Muffler Men of Route 66" to learn everything you never knew you wanted to know about the giant statues that tower over the Mother Road.


Day 2 - Stop 4: Original End of the Road

From 1926 to 1936, Route 66 ended at the intersection of 7th and Broadway in downtown Los Angeles. Today, this part of the city still bustles, even during lockdown. (We had to drive around the block multiple times to capture the photo above.)


Tip: The old Theater District on Broadway is a treasure trove of Los Angeles history. To enrich your understanding of LA, old and new, we recommend taking a walking tour of the area.


Day 2 - Stops 5-6: Mel's Drive-in & the Official End of the Road

In 1936, the end point of Route 66 was extended to Santa Monica, at the intersection of Lincoln and Olympic, and remained there until the highway was decommissioned in 1964.


An iconic (and recently restored) Googie-style building also sits at that intersection. The restaurant, which is now a Mel's Drive-in, has its own interesting backstory.

Day 2 - Last Stop: Santa Monica Pier

Despite popular belief, historic Route 66 does not end at Santa Monica Pier. However, for tourism purposes, the site received a special designation in 2009.


When we visited, the pier was closed (because of COVID), so we couldn't snap a photo of the famous "End of the Trail" sign. Guess we'll just have to go back another day.


The Wrap-Up

Exploring just this small section of Route 66 allowed us to ponder America's ever-changing relationship with its own culture. The things we destroy vs. save. The places we neglect then restore. The stories we share. The stories we hide.


And that's how a simple road trip through our local area became its own version of Travel That Matters to us.

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