Route 66, California. Photo: Flickr/Lester Trigg

The Historic Route 66 runs through California, Arizona and New Mexico

America’s famous Mother Road may have been superseded by superhighways, but you can still drive stretches of Historic Route 66 in California, Arizona, and New Mexico.

Route 66 in the USA is one of the world’s most famous thoroughfares, even though it no longer exists on the map as an official national highway. But you can still drive this legendary Mother Road, and some of its best stretches are in the Southwestern states. Though it may be called by other names today, many cities, towns, and businesses have kept alive the spirit of Historic Route 66 in California, Arizona, and New Mexico.

Route 66 History

Route 66 once ran 2,448 miles from Chicago, Illinois to Santa Monica, California, crossing through three time zones and eight states. It was designated a US highway in 1926 following a 12-year road construction project that connected pieces of existing roadways and hundreds of isolated small towns, giving rise to one of Route 66’s many nicknames – the Main Street of America.

When Route 66 opened, only 800 miles were paved. It took another 11 years until it was paved from end to end. By then, it had caught the imagination of the American public, and until the mid-1970s Route 66 was the most traveled highway in the country. Many claimed it to be the most magical road in all the world.

Route 66 abandoned building. Photo: Flickr/Lester Trigg

John Steinbeck first called Route 66 the “Mother Road” in his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of 1939, The Grapes of Wrath. The story followed the destitute migrants of the Oklahoma dust bowl along with its path to a new life in California. To them, Route 66 was also the “Road of Second Chance” and the “Glory Road.”

Although it was firmly rooted in America’s car culture, during its lifetime Route 66 also attracted a host of eccentric travelers. In 1928 it was the route for the western portion of the International Transcontinental Foot Race, better known as the Bunion Derby. A year later, Happy Lou Phillips and Lucky Jimmy Parker crossed it on roller skates. Peter McDonald walked Route 66 on stilts, others ambled along it pushing everything from wheelbarrows to shopping carts.

In 1946 Bobby Troup had a hit record with the song Get Your Kicks on Route 66, and the catchy refrain came to symbolize the freedom of the great American road trip. Route 66 was also the name of a popular television show in the early 1960s, which saw the heroes Buz and Tod cruising the highway in a Corvette convertible.

But by then, government officials had already signed the death warrant for the Mother Road. Gradually Route 66 was replaced by a new system of interstate highways. With the completion of I- 40 at Williams, Arizona in 1984, the last stretch was bypassed, and Route 66 was officially decertified in June the following year.

Route 66 Today

Though large parts of the original highway have been swallowed up by the concrete freeways of I-55, I-44, I-40, I-15 and I-10, much of Historic Route 66 still exists along dusty back roads and frontage roads, or is prominently preserved on city thoroughfares such as Albuquerque’s Central Avenue. All along the way, its memory lives on in numerous museums, restaurants, and hotels filled with memorabilia from its heyday.

People still come searching for the spirit of the open road, for remnants of that lost America of diners and drive-in, kitschy motels, quirky road signs, and small-town soda fountains. Now, as ever, Route 66 is a destination in itself.

The traditional way to drive Route 66 is from east to west. It can be difficult to follow the exact traces of the original route, which were continuously altered during its lifetime, but the following main roads parallel the original course through the Southwest and take in many of the highlights.