Route 66, the iconic “Mother Road,” winds its way from Chicago, Illinois to Santa Monica, California. If you don’t have the time to drive the entire route, why not take on this icon of American transportation history in bite-sized pieces? We’re going to help you do just that with a series called Get Your Pics on Route 66 in hopes that you’ll capture some great memories and images as you explore this little slice of Americana. Here’s the final installment on California:
Ever since John Steinbeck made reference to the “Mother Road” in Grapes of Wrath, Route 66 has enamored many a wanderer. And what better place to dream about hitting the open road than California? Here’s an overview of all 270 miles of Route 66 through the Golden State:
We pick up the pavement in Needles, California after crossing the Arizona border. Much of Route 66 has disappeared into the desert here, as the newer Interstate 40 bypassed the towns that grew along America’s highway, but Needles holds a few relics from the past, including the Route 66 Motel.
The sign was recently refurbished by a Route 66 fan, and although the motel remains, it is currently being used as apartments. So you’ll have to move on down the road, exiting off I-40 to some of the original highway just east of Essex.
For 75 miles you’ll encounter several empty settlements, but none as interesting as Amboy.
Almost qualifying as a ghost town with only 4 living inhabitants, Amboy is a most unusual stop along The Route. Sitting squarely in the middle of the Mojave Desert is Roy’s Motel and Café—an abandoned motel that has stopped time in its tracks.
The retro sign attracts numerous Route 66 fans, but you will be mesmerized by what you’ll see inside the front desk building, as well as the bungalows at the front of the property. The night bell still exists at the front door, but the check-in counter and lobby look just as they did in the early 1960s, with flower bulb lights, burnt orange furniture, and room assignment sheets still pigeon-holed on the wall. It’s as if the front desk clerk stepped out for a smoke and never came back!
The small buildings next door have been used more recently for art displays. The doors are normally always unlocked, yet the bungalows are not disturbed by passersby. When not utilized as a gallery, these structures remain empty and dated.
Roy’s Motel lies just behind the bungalows, and it, too, is empty but undisturbed. You can, however, find a few human beings at the café/gas station, but don’t wait to get to Amboy to fill up your tank, as gas is usually priced in the stratosphere here!
Just down the road is the Amboy Crater, an extinct volcano that gives the surrounding hills their color. Black lava flows scar the land, and you can see the crater from Roy’s parking lot.
If you continue following the old Route west you will pass through several towns that no longer remain—towns with names like Bagdad, Siberia, and Klondike. Keep pushing through the desert to arrive at Barstow and the Route 66 Mother Road Museum.
Located in one of the original Harvey House restaurants, the museum holds memorabilia from the Route 66 era, when hitting the road was a favorite pastime. You will find rotating art exhibits that capture the Mother Road in a variety of mediums, collectible vehicles that once cruised the famous highway, and historic signage, among other things.
After you’ve absorbed copious amounts of transportation nostalgia, stick with Old Route 66 out of Barstow as it arches toward the south to Oro Grande.
Although Elmer’s Bottle Tree Ranch wasn’t in existence during Route 66’s heyday, it stands today along the highway in Oro Grande as a testament to man’s creativity. It also addresses the old adage “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.”
As a boy Elmer Long watched his father collect colorful bottles as they explored the desert together. At the death of the elder Long, his son inherited the large collection and decided to institute a different form of recycling. He turned the castoffs into a unique “forest” of bottle trees, and watched visitors along the Mother Road stop and enjoy the vibrant colors as sunlight lit up over 200 installations. The wind whispers through the containers, creating soulful tunes for visitors enjoying his unconventional art gallery.
The Bottle Tree Ranch is opening daily from sunrise to sunset and is free, although Elmer does accept donations.
Just a few miles on down The Route is Victorville and the California Route 66 Museum. As we’ve seen thus far in the “Get Your Pics on Route 66” series, almost every state along the highway has their own museum honoring the history of transportation. California is no exception.
This collection of travel memorabilia includes a 1950s diner, a VW “Love Bug” that traversed the Mother Road, and interactive exhibits galore. The museum hopes to highlight the cultural influences that Route 66 had on The Arts, architecture, communities, and commerce. I’d say they’ve done a great job! You’ll have to decide for yourself, so be sure to enjoy a well-deserved stop at this venue.
The city of San Bernardino holds several vintage pieces of the Route 66 legend. From retro motels like the Lido and Palms to one of two Wigwam Motels still in existence, the relics from the Mother Road are scattered throughout the area. In fact, so many of these lodges are still in operation today, either as overnight motels or apartments, you will think you hit a time warp and were catapulted into the 1950s as you cruise town!
Even the McDonald brothers knew the importance of the highway to the local economy when they established the first McDonald’s restaurant in the world here back in 1940. Today the site has become the McDonald’s Museum, exhibiting everything from $.15 hamburgers to Ronald McDonald and Happy Meal toys.
On your way out of town, be sure to visit the Santa Fe Railway Depot. It’s another Harvey House location that has been entirely renovated, retaining its Mission Revival style architecture.
Heading west from San Bernardino, the towns begin to run into one another, but you will want to slow down for a vintage gas station in Rancho Cucamonga. The Cucamonga Service Station was recently restored to its 1915 appearance, winning the 2016 California Preservation Design Award.
The station is over 100 years old, and the attention to detail during restoration included two vintage Richfield gas pumps, along with historical paint colors and signage. The building is now used as a visitors center for Route 66 enthusiasts and travelers.
Finishing your journey across California will lead you from Rancho Cucamonga through several communities like Pasadena, Hollywood, and Beverly Hills. Not much of the Old Route has survived there, but the true end of the line for America’s Main Street culminates in Santa Monica, California. The early terminus for the highway was once at the crossing of Lincoln and Olympic Boulevard in the 1940s, but a more recent alignment of the Mother Road brings her travelers fittingly to the Santa Monica Pier and the Pacific Ocean. Capture that final picture of the highway sign that ends (or starts, depending on your direction of travel) your adventure!
If you have followed our trek along Route 66 from Chicago, you’ve now completed one of the best-loved journeys in America. I, like so many others, harbor a fond affection for this ribbon of pavement that links our country to the landscapes and people on its periphery. I hope you’ve found some enjoyment in venturing through the eight states that continue to welcome travelers on Route 66.
You can drive the rest of Route 66 with our other “Get Your Pics on Route 66” articles. Read the entire series.