Sam's Top 10 Route 66 Rides (Part 1)
October 20, 2015
My last two blog postings listed my top ten Route 66 towns. Although I always look forward to visiting all of those and many more towns, for me, it's all about the journey, not the destination. With that in mind, I have assembled my top 10 rides Route 66.
The original 1926 alignment of Route 66 did not involve the construction of a new road; rather it was assembled by connecting existing roads. Those existing roads often went through the business sections and even residential neighborhoods of the towns along the way. The result was a single, but circuitous, way to navigate from Chicago to Los Angeles.
Almost immediately Route 66 began to be realigned to eliminate inefficiencies. Although some downtown areas and residential neighborhoods were bypassed in favor of more streamlined pathways, new businesses cropped up, and that worked fine for the places that relied on Route 66 traffic for their livelihoods.
The construction of the interstate highway system changed everything. Sooner or later, almost all of the Route 66 towns were bypassed all together. Sometimes there were exits off of the interstates leading into the business districts of the bypassed towns, but with the high speed travel that the interstates offered, people skipped the towns in favor of convenience.
The interstates cut off access to many towns all together. These are the sections of Route 66 that I tend to most enjoy because they can be traveled without seeing an interstate highway for miles. Some of these sections of Route 66 are nearly abandoned and are littered with ghost towns, while others remain prosperous. In either case, these are the places that give me the best sense of what it must have been like to travel on Route 66 when it was The Main Street of America.
Although each of the sections of Route 66 I have identified as my favorites have interesting things to see, those things are of secondary interest. I picked these places for the sheer joy of riding on them.
So, here are my 6-10 favorite sections of Route 66 to ride. The top five will be in my next blog posting.
10. Joliette to Towanda
Joliette claims to be the gateway to Route 66 and the claim is not without merit. It is the most western town that could be considered a Chicago suburb, and once past Joliette, Route 66 takes on a rural presence. It passes through a series of prosperous small towns that each have attractions of note. They include the Gemini Giant in Wilmington; the Polka Dot Drive In in Braidwood; the Two Cell Jail in Gardner; Becker's Marathon Station in Dwight; a restored 1932 Standard Oil Station in Odell; the Old Log Cabin Restaurant in Pontiac; and Memory Lane in Lexington.
But the best thing is the road itself. There is no interstate in sight. The road is tree lined and runs parallel to an older roadbed that once was the Route 66 surface. Although closed to traffic, it is accessible.
The towns themselves are well kept, and the 1926 alignment of Route 66 still passes through the downtown areas, and in some cases through residential neighborhoods, in each of them. In some of the larger towns alternate routes over later alignments of Route 66 are available. Brisk speeds can maintained between towns as well as through them because there are few stop signs and fewer stop lights. All of this gives a feel for what it must have been like to travel Route 66 through Central Illinois decades ago.
9. Miami to Catoosa
When leaving Miami, Oklahoma heading toward Catoosa, there are two choices. The easy choice is to follow the signs to Narcissa. The more adventurous choice is to follow the "Ribbon Road," which predates Route 66. It is the last surviving section of the 13 mile road built in the early 1920's to connect Miami and Afton. The construction budget was so tight that the State of Oklahoma paved only one of the nine foot wide lanes. That one lane still exists, although it no longer goes all the way to Afton. It is a bit rough but passable, and it is worth the effort.
Once through the Ribbon Road, the rest of the ride to Catoosa is quick and easy. Route 66 passes through several ghost towns and near ghost towns, but the relics are interesting. Afton has a restored DX Station that has a collection of Packards. Foyil has Totem Pole Park, which claims to have the world's tallest totem pole. Claremore is Will Rogers' hometown. It also has the JM Davis Arms Museum, which has the world's largest collection of firearms. Finally, Catoosa has the Blue Whale, which Time Magazine named as one of the 50 best roadside attractions in the United States.
8. Springfield to Carthage
The ride from Springfield to Carthage is another stretch of Route 66 that passes through a series of ghost towns. It is rural and it is flat. Once out of Springfield there are no stop lights, and off hand, I can think of only three stop signs before reaching Carthage.
Halltown is the first town west of Springfield. It once had gas stations, cafÃ©s and stores, but Whitehall Mercantile is about all that's left. Nearby Paris Springs has Gay Parita's Station, which is a replica of an early 20th century Sinclair station. The stone ruins of the original garage are on the property. Unfortunately, Gary Turner, who rebuilt and owned the station, died in January of this year, and his wife Lena died a few months later.
Spencer is just a few miles past Gay Parita's. It is a remarkably well preserved ghost town and is the only ghost town on my top 10 Route 66 towns.
Once past Spencer it is a strait shot to Carthage. Just before getting to Carthage its worth visiting Red Oak II, which is a community built by artist Lowell Davis out of buildings he transported from nearby locations. Lowell has lived on Route 66 his whole life, and he is a delightful guy to visit.
7. Tulsa to Arcadia
Route 66 exits Tulsa over the Arkansas River. The original 11th Street Bridge, now called the Cyrus Avery Memorial Bridge, opened in 1915 and was part of Route 66 until it was bypassed in 1978 by a newer bridge that now accommodates Route 66 traffic. The original bridge no longer is open for traffic, but it has been preserved on the National Register of Historic Places.
Once out of Tulsa, Route 66 passes through several industrial neighborhoods until arriving in Sapulpa. After that, the ride to Arcadia is one of the best Route 66 has to offer. Segments 10-8 of Route 66 described above are wonderful rides, but they mostly are flat and strait. This is the first of my top 10 Route 66 rides that has gentle tree-lined hills and curves as it passes through a dozen small towns.
Along the way riders can check out the Giant Penguin at the Chrysler dealership in Bristow. The Rock CafÃ© in Stroud has been serving Route 66 since 1939. Davenport has Guy Wooly's Food and Fun. Chandler has a restored 1930 Phillips Station and the gallery of famed Route 66 historian and artist Gerry McClanahan. The Seaba Station Motorcycle Museum is in Warwick. Arcadia has the 1898 Round Barn.
After Arcadia, Route 66 gets caught up in Oklahoma City traffic. Although OKC and its suburbs have a lot to offer, it's just not the same as riding at a steady 50 mph over the 100 miles of rural roads to get there.
6. Ellisville to Gray Summit
Getting through St. Louis and its suburbs can make you go postal. Route 66 in St. Louis is stop and go, but riding on Chippewa and Watson Roads is not too bad as it passes through some well-kept interesting neighborhoods. Ted Drewes Frozen Custard is on Chippewa and is a must stop spot.
But the suburbs on the edge of St. Louis are not fun. Route 66 through more than half a dozen small towns is lined with strip malls and slow moving traffic. But enduring all of that is worth it for the ride from Ellisville to Gray Summit. After Ellisville, the urban feel of St. Louis transforms almost magically into rolling hills through communities so rural that there are no town centers and few stores. That's the best thing about this ride; there is not much out there. It's just pure riding that's all the more relaxing because it comes up so suddenly after the frustrating battle through the St. Louis urban sprawl. Plus, it's a gateway into riding Route 66 across Missouri. Practically all of those rides are a treat.
So, there are rides 10-6. Stay tuned for my top five in my next posting.
Sam Allen wrote The Motorcycle Party Guide to Route 66. He also created www.route66mc.com, which is the most complete single source of information about Route 66 available on the web.