It’s a gas to tour the towns along Route 66
For nostalgia nuts, a trip on America’s most historical highway is a darn near perfect getaway. Missouri is rich in Route 66 traditions, and the stretch from St. Louis to Joplin is chock full of cold custard, homemade pie, diners and dives, and quirky tourist stops. So tie an American flag to your convertible’s antenna, grab a few old Beach Boys tapes, and hit Missouri’s section of the Mother Road for an all-American adventure.
Custard and cars in St. Louis
Since 1929, Ted Drewes Frozen Custard (6726 Chippewa) has served “concrete” shakes to residents who know this could be the best dessert in the world, as well as to Route 66 visitors from around the globe. The thick vanilla custard is blended with fruits and candies to create the shakes or sundaes. A sure sign of spring is the growing lines at the ordering windows that reach to the street.
The Donut Drive-In (6525 Chippewa), with its landmark neon sign and apple fritters the size of a hubcap, is a staple of Route 66. The buttermilk donuts are the best.
When I was a kid, Sunday dinner meant either fried chicken or roast beef. If you hunger for good fried chicken that takes you back to your childhood, check out Hodak’s Restaurant (2100 Gravois Ave.) Get a fried chicken dinner and drink for about $10.
Now that taste buds are satisfied, it’s time to find more Route 66 history. Traveling west on Interstate 44 from the city, take Interstate 270 north to the Dougherty Ferry exit. The Museum of Transportation (3015 Barrett Station Road) boasts almost 300 vehicles in its collection of trains, planes, automobiles, trolleys, boats, and tractors. Check out Bobby Darin’s 1964 dream car that contains real diamond dust in the apple-red paint. Some Route 66 memorabilia can be seen here.
Southwest of the museum is Route 66 State Park in Eureka just off I-44. The park’s visitor center, open March through November, is housed in a 1930s restaurant. Photos and memorabilia tell the route’s history in St. Louis. A cute gift shop allows visitors to take part of the story home.
Caves, murals, and more
Travel west on I-44 and around St. Clair, Mo., you’ll start to see the first of many billboards for Meramec Caverns in Stanton. The cave offers guided tours along lighted paths, float trips, camping, and more.
A short drive west from Stanton brings you to Cuba, an interesting town with an impressive collection of outdoor murals, some devoted to Route 66. If you’re in town on March 22, you’ll likely see runners participating in the annual Race to the Rocker. The world’s largest rocking chair–according to the Guinness Book of World Records–is in Cuba. You’ll also find the restored Wagon Wheel Motel, 901 E. Washington. Several restaurants, including Missouri Hick Bar-B-Q, are in town and well worth sampling.
About 45 minutes west of Cuba, Pulaski County is home to Fort Leonard Wood. It’s also home to scenic drives along Route 66. Take exit 169 off Interstate 44 and make your way to the hamlet of Devil’s Elbow. Stop at Shelden’s Market, which opened in 1954. The post office, located within the market, has a visitors’ book, with notations of people passing through from Italy, Norway, Sweden, and England.
Grab a satisfying plate of Ozark barbecue for little cash at the Elbow Inn (21050 Teardrop Road in St. Robert), another Route 66 fixture. Don’t let the motorcycles parked out front deter you. Bikers always know where the good food is, and they know a little about adventure, too.
Get your souvenirs here
Hop back on I-44 and head west to Lebanon. You’ll find a fun retail spot, Mr. C’s Routepost, and a great selection of Route 66 souvenirs. And grab some Route 66 sodas for the road. My favorite is the cream soda, but there’s also lime, root beer, orange, and black cherry.
Check out the Munger Moss Motel (another Route 66 original) or eat at Dowd’s Catfish and BBQ. Reservations are recommended for weekends. Anglers know Lebanon for trout fishing at Bennett Springs State Park, and gospel music fans come for the annual Brumley Gospel Sing in July at Cowan Civic Center.
Just west of town at Exit 127 off I-44 is a five-mile stretch of the original route. Driving west on I-44 toward Springfield, you’ll see a Missouri Department of Tourism Welcome Center at Conway. Its distinctive Route 66 motif beckons to motorists to pull off the interstate for a stretch. A playground, picnic sites, and restrooms are here for the traveler’s comfort.
Birthplace of the Mother Road
Officially recognized as the birthplace of Route 66, it was in Springfield on April 30, 1926, that officials first proposed the name of the new Chicago-to-Los Angeles highway. In 1938, Route 66 became the first completely paved transcontinental highway in America stretching from the Great Lakes to the Pacific Coast.
Explorers coming through Springfield should stop by the Route 66 Information Center at 815 E. St. Louis Street (directly on the route) to pick up a Route 66 scavenger hunt, learn about Route 66 history and other things to see and do in Springfield, and even pick up a souvenir from your trip.
Springfield has bountiful hotel options, but an interesting choice for Mother Road adventurers is the Best Western Route 66 Rail Haven motel (AAA Two Diamonds) on South Glenstone Road. The 1950s motif in the lobby and breakfast area is a cool touch, and themed rooms–such as the Elvis Suite–are a fun change from usual motels.
About an hour west of Springfield on I-44 is Joplin, which has about six miles of the original route running through the city. Some interesting stops here include the Candy House, known for wonderful hand-dipped chocolates, and Sandstone Gardens, a premier home and garden shopping destination that also has a lovely café.
At Carthage, 15 miles northeast of Joplin, take in a movie at the 66 Drive-In Theater, which opens in April for the season.
There are plenty of ways to get your kicks on 66 in Missouri.
Deborah Reinhardt is managing editor of AAA Midwest Traveler.
Jan/Feb 2014 Issue
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