Not every dream vacation starts with an airplane or a cruise ship. It can begin by sliding behind the wheel with miles of highway and a promise of something spectacular ahead.
This promise is swirling in my head as my daughter and I head west from Missouri to the Grand Canyon in Arizona for our summer vacation. Along the route, we’ll take in some iconic Route 66 culture.
With a backpack filled with AAA travel planning material, we’re ready to drive more than 1,500 miles along Route 66 (Interstates 44 and 40) from St. Louis, Mo., to Williams, Ariz. The challenge won’t be the drive, but deciding what sights to see along the way.
St. Louis to Oklahoma City
Wanting to make Oklahoma City, Okla., by dinner, we cruise through Missouri on Interstate 44 and pick up the Will Rogers Turnpike. Travelers who want to follow the historical Route 66 might make a stop in Galena, Kan., to see Cars on the Route. Four women restored this 1930s-era service station that sports a tow truck said to have inspired the Mater character in the Disney Pixar movie, Cars.
After a long day’s drive, the lovely Ambassador Hotel in Oklahoma City is a welcome sight. It’s located in the Midtown neighborhood, a residential area near downtown that’s experienced a rebirth. Utilize the hotel’s valet parking and walk to neighborhood restaurants or take a complimentary shuttle to downtown or the popular Bricktown district, which is our choice for dinner and an evening stroll.
The Ambassador’s O Bar is a great choice to top off any evening. Drink in the city’s skyline at night while sipping an Ambassador Sling, the bar’s signature cocktail. This boutique AAA Four Diamond hotel on North Walker Avenue offers stylish and spacious accommodations along with an attentive staff.
Revived after a great night’s sleep at the hotel, we’re ready to visit the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum on Northeast 63rd Street. Recommendations from a knowledgeable docent point us to select galleries, including one featuring Native American art, and Prosperity Junction – a replica 1900 cattle town – for our morning experience.
There is more than enough to explore during an entire weekend in Oklahoma City and our brief visit is but an introduction to a city I’d enjoy returning to. But it’s time to hit the road as we push on toward Texas.
Oklahoma City to Amarillo
Continuing on Interstate 40 from Oklahoma City, we stop in Elk City, Okla., about 45 minutes east of the Texas border. The lure of the world’s biggest Route 66 highway sign at the National Route 66 Museum pulls us off the interstate.
Photo opportunities are plentiful here, first at the humongous outdoor sign then inside the museum next to beautifully restored vintage cars, including a 1955 pink Cadillac. If you come through the area in June, you could time a visit to coincide with Route 66 Days.
Back on the highway, we travel to Shamrock, Texas, and another recommended Route 66 stop, the U-Drop Inn and Conoco Tower Station. This impressive restored Art Deco building dates to 1936 when it was the swankiest place to eat between Oklahoma City and Amarillo, Texas. Supposedly, Elvis Presley ate at the café; a photo of the king and a short, framed description of the event sit on a corner table.
Today, the building serves as the Shamrock tourist information center. Stop in and you’ll see travelers on Route 66 odysseys registered from all corners of the globe. You also may recognize the site from Cars, as this was the inspiration for Ramone’s House of Body Art. And in mid-July, Shamrock hosts an International Route 66 Festival.
With 95 miles separating us from Amarillo, we jump back on I-40 to cross the Texas Panhandle that’s dotted with wind farms and towering turbines. After freshening up at the comfortable Courtyard by Marriott Amarillo Downtown (AAA Three Diamonds) on South Polk Street where we would spend the night, we had to try the wonderfully wacky Big Texan Steak Ranch just off I-40, a short drive from the hotel. This is home of the 72-ounce steak dinner challenge; anyone who can eat 4 ½ pounds of steak plus sides in an hour or less is awarded a free dinner. Otherwise, pay Big Texan $72. During our visit, a man from Florida was attempting the challenge in front of the entire dining room.
Big Texan has served big, silly fun for more than 50 years. Kitsch is king here, but you’ll also find good steaks and barbecue, plus a brewery, huge gift shop, shooting gallery, motel, and more on site.
Plenty of Route 66 lore can be found in the Route 66 Historic District. A newer attraction tied to Route 66 is the Traveland RV Museum featuring some 20 restored, vintage RVs from the personal collection of Jack (father) and Trent (son) Sisemore.
Just outside the city, spend time at beautiful Palo Duro Canyon State Park and see the Texas music drama during summer. Or head west on I-40 to Cadillac Ranch to see 10 graffiti-covered vintage Cadillacs buried nose-down in a field.
Amarillo to Albuquerque
Having traveled more than 750 miles, we’re about halfway to the Grand Canyon. The flat topography of Texas’ Panhandle slowly gives way to red mesas as we head for New Mexico. We stretch at Santa Rosa, N.M., and dip in the Blue Hole, an unexpected surprise within this desert climate. The sapphire-colored water is 60 degrees and is 82 feet at its deepest point.
At the end of the day, we reach Albuquerque’s Old Town where we have a satisfying Southwestern dinner at Church Street Café. This charming restaurant is in the city’s oldest residence, Casa de Ruiz, which dates to the early 1700s. A homelike atmosphere is retained, and even those passing through for the evening, like us, can feel welcomed and cared for.
We also are well cared for at the Downtown Historic Bed & Breakfast, a collection of three historical homes (AAA Three Diamonds) turned into inns on High Street. Travelers, many of whom are on their own Route 66 odyssey, will love the B&B’s comfortable rooms, tranquil gardens, homemade breakfast, and the hospitality offered by owners Steve and Kara Grant.
Albuquerque to Arizona
More than 350 miles to Williams, Ariz., waits for us, so it’s back to I-40. We drive until lunchtime, stopping in Gallup, N.M., at the historical El Rancho Hotel. When the Southwest was a popular filming location for a host of Western films, the El Rancho hosted a number of celebrities in the 1940s and 1950s.
Crossing into Arizona, travelers will find several Route 66 attractions just off I-40, including a meteor crater about 20 miles east of Winona, Ariz. This one is just too weird to pass up.
The largest natural feature along Route 66, the crater was formed more than 50,000 years ago when a meteor crashed into the desert. Almost a mile wide, the rim can be explored on a guided tour – weather permitting – or at observation platforms. There’s an elaborate visitor center that offers a theater, museum, and gift shop any rock hound will bay over.
At last, we reach Williams, Ariz., a popular gateway for the Grand Canyon, which is about an hour’s drive north of town. It’s also possible to take the Grand Canyon Railway from Williams to the canyon.
Our home for two nights will be the Best Western Plus Inn (AAA Three Diamonds) on Route 66. Rooms were comfortable, and the hotel’s restaurant beckons that night as an easy choice for dinner. We toast another adventure-filled day with wine while watching the sunset above the pine trees.
The next morning offers a stop at Bearizona, an attraction in Williams that features a drive-through wildlife park that’s home to bears, bison, wolves, and more. Walk through Fort Bearizona and see more animals, including otters, foxes, and barnyard critters. It’s a popular family attraction, and we enjoy the visit, but it’s time to see the canyon’s South Rim, the reason we drove across four states.
Grand Canyon National Park is visited by nearly 5 million people every year, according to the National Park Service. It’s a bucket list item for many travelers, and we’re finally here, so I want to make each moment count.
It’s possible to see the Grand Canyon without a guide, but given the limited time we have at the South Rim, I arrange for a Pink Jeep Tour. Our guide takes us to the best photo stops and gives us insightful stories. It proves to be the perfect introduction, and after the tour, we utilize the thorough bus system that moves people within the park.
The tour doesn’t go through Market Plaza or Grand Canyon Village, so we ask the driver if it’s possible to drop us off within the village.
Catching the park bus (blue route), we head into the village to see El Tovar Hotel, nearby Hopi House, and Bright Angel Lodge, where we pause to enjoy an ice cream cone while drinking in the extraordinary views. From Bright Angel, we can hop on the red route and ride to Hermits Rest.
Stretch a one-day visit like ours into evening by having dinner at El Tovar or Bright Angel Lodge. Then experience the sunset at nearby Mohave Point that’s accessible via the red bus route along Hermit Road. Evening programming is offered at the South Rim’s McKee Amphitheater. Take in a lecture, star walk, or night hike.
If you have more time, consider the mule ride into the canyon or rafting the Colorado River. There are numerous trails to hike and ranger-led programs.
But the moment I’ll never forget is seeing my first view of the Grand Canyon and gasping at its beauty. And that instant made our 1,500-mile journey completely worth it.
Deborah Reinhardt is managing editor of AAA Midwest Traveler.
BEFORE YOU GO
For more information, contact:
• Grand Canyon National Park,nps.gov/grca
• Oklahoma City Convention & Visitors Bureau, (800) 225-5652, visitokc.com
• Amarillo Convention & Visitors Council, (800) 692-1338, visitamarillo.com
• Albuquerque Convention & Visitors Bureau, (505) 842-9918, visitalbuquerque.org
• Experience Williams, (928) 635-4061, experiencewilliams.com
To plan your Route 66 journey, first stop by your nearest AAA service office for maps, reservations, and TourBook® guides.
Order free information about Arizona, Kansas, and Missouri through the Free Information Card found online.