Sam's Top 10 Route 66 Towns (Part 2)
October 15, 2015
By Sam Allen
I get lots of inquiries about my favorite places on Route 66. That can be a complex question because the answer is different depending on the context. For instance, my favorite Route 66 attractions are different than my favorite Route 66 towns. My favorite Route 66 towns are different than my favorite segments of the road. My favorite restaurants are different than my favorite bars. So, it struck me that it might be fun to put out a series of my Route 66 favorites for a variety of categories. The first is my favorite Route 66 towns.
There is a lot to say about my top ten towns, so I broke my list into two blogs. My last posting had towns 10-6. They were:1. Oatman, AZ
2. Devil's Elbow, MO
3. Spencer, MO
4. Carlinville, IL
5. Cuba, MO
Here are my top five.
5. Albuquerque, NM
Albuquerque has the best combination of riding and Route 66 attractions of any large Route 66 town. There are two different alignments into and out of Albuquerque, each with its own unique personality. The pre-1937 alignment from Santa Fe enters town on 4th St. The post-1937 alignment from Moriarty enters town on Central Avenue.
Downtown Central Avenue is the heart of Albuquerque's Route 66. There are plenty of bars and restaurants that are biker destinations, and everything is close enough that you can park and walk from place to place. Several reasonably priced hotels are within walking distance too.
When leaving Albuquerque, the pre-1937 route passes through several old towns and ancient pueblos. The post-1937 route goes through Albuquerque's "Old Town" neighborhood. The pre-1937 route takes a little more time, but it is worth it because goes by a bunch of classic Route 66 sites, including the Red Ball Cafe' (home of the Wimpy Burger since 1922), a 1950s Dairy Queen and the Blue Castle Auto. There also is a giant statue of the Roadrunner.
4. Tulsa, OK
Downtown Tulsa is like being in in Art Deco museum, and guided tours are available. It has some of the best preserved sections of Route 66 of any major city. Coming into Tulsa from the east on 11th Street must be much like it was 50 years ago. It's about ten miles of old Route 66 motels, restaurants and other businesses.
The newly restored 1927 Campbell hotel is one of the best along Route 66. Each of the 26 rooms has a unique theme. There are two bars and a terrific restaurant.
Eleventh street has several other classic Route 66 restaurants like Tally's Cafe', the Corner Cafe' and the El Rancho Grande', all with great Route 66 neon signs.
There are biker bars like the Ed's Hurricane Lounge, the 11th Street Bar, the Blues City Bar & Grill, the Grey Snail, the Crow Creek Tavern and McNellie's. Be on the lookout for a 1950s Tastee-Freez building that now houses an automotive business. Also be on the lookout for the Medal Gold Milk Ice Cream sign. It should be viewed at night.
3. Santa Fe
Santa Fe is one of the oldest settlements in the United States. It is rich with history, including being on the original 1926 alignment of Route 66.
The Palace of the Governors on the Plaza is an adobe structure built in about 1610 to serve as Spain's seat of government in the southwest. It is the oldest continuously occupied public building in the United States. Lew Wallace wrote parts of Ben Hur there while he was territorial governor. Wallace also met with Billy the Kid there.
The Chapel of San Miguel por Barrio de Analco is the oldest continuously operated church in the United States. The Mission of San Miguel of Santa Fe has a bell from 1356. The oldest house in the United States, dating from 1200, is in Santa Fe.
Santa Fe also has plenty of Route 66 spots. On the way into town through Apache Canyon, you can stop at Bobcat Bite and Harry's Roadhouse, both local biker destinations. The La Fonda just off the Plaza is one of the oldest and best hotels on Route 66 and has shops, a good bar and several restaurants. Evangelo's two blocks off the Plaza has cold beer, live music and good prices. The Shed has been around forever. Its southwestern Mexican food is as good as you will get anywhere.
There are many old Route 66 motels with colorful neon signs on Cerrillos Rd. My favorite is The El Rey Inn, which opened in 1936.
The original alignment of Route 66 through Santa Fe followed the severely winding La Bajada Hill. It was so steep that cars driving up sometimes had to go in reverse so that gas could feed into their gravity fueled engines. Traversing La Bajada Hill today would require a four wheel drive vehicle and a skilled driver with lots of nerve, but the base of the Hill is accessible on a motorcycle and the summit can be reached in a car.
2. Springfield, IL
Springfield has a strip along Route 66 with a bunch of biker bars, including Dude's Saloon and Knuckleheads (across the street from Dude's). Weeble's is not as old school as Dude's or Knuckleheads. Guitars and Cadillacs is a newer spot that is more upscale than the other biker joints in Springfield. The Cove stays open later than all the other biker spots.
Each year over the Memorial Day and Labor Day weekends, the Springfield Fairgrounds hosts motorcycle races around a dirt track known as the Springfield Mile. Thousands of bikers attend, and most of the biker bars put on special events with live bands.
Chief among Springfield's Route 66 attractions is Shea's Gas Station Museum. Shea's has been around a long time, but it never seems to be open when I go by. A Shea's neighbor tells me it's rare to find anybody there these days. Still, it's right on Route 66 and a lot can be seen from the street.
The Cozy Dog Drive-In claims to have invented the corn dog. I am picky about hot dogs (Nathan's with skins are the best), so I never had eaten a corn dog before going to the Cozy Dog, but I must admit it was pretty good.
Of course, Springfield has Lincoln's Tomb, the Lincoln Presidential Library and lots of other Lincoln attractions, but they are not along Route 66.
1. Williams, AZ
Williams reminds me of how Jackson Hole, Wyoming was 25 years ago. The towns don't look like each other, but they have the same feel. The high altitude keeps the air is fresh and crisp at night, even in the summer. The stars are on top of you. Folks walk around in cowboy hats and boots that are not costumes. They listen to real country music. Stuff like George Jones, Ray Price, Don Williams and guys like that. Not the modern Nashville stuff that Merle Haggard famously called "Nothing but bad rock and roll."
The Grand Canyon Railroad gives rides in vintage rail coaches pulled by a steam engine to the Grand Canyon 50 miles away. There is a nice Bar Car. On at least some of the trips, they stage a train hold-up by masked horsemen who ride along side and then board the train. The bandits go from car to car robbing the passengers (of tips for the performance).
The "World Famous" Sultana Bar has been in continuous operation since 1906, which is six years before Arizona became a state. The atmosphere is Old West, with an original tin ceiling that must be 15 feet high, and stuffed animals including a moose, a mountain lion, a caribou and some elk.
The Canyon Club is another cool vintage bar on Main Street. They have cocktails and dancing.
The Red Garter Bed & Bakery is in a restored 1897 whore house. It is one of the best places to stay along Route 66. It operated as a brothel for decades after prostitution was outlawed in Arizona. The rooms are the ones where saloon girls plied their trade. Lodging includes breakfast from its own bakery. There are stories of ghost sightings. The only thing that could improve this place would be the addition of a saloon (and the former pros!).
If you are looking for a respite after many days of riding, Williams is worth visiting for more than a day.
So, that's it! These are my top 10 Route 66 towns. Stay tuned for my top 10 rides.
Sam Allen wrote The Motorcycle Party Guide to Route 66. He also created www.route66mc.com, which is the most comprehensive single source of information about Route 66 on the web.