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Route 66 California driver’s guide
May 25, 2021

California Route 66 driver’s guide

Birthed from the foot of towering skyscrapers of downtown Chicago, stretching all the way to Santa Monica Pier, Route 66 was once the ultimate symbol of freedom. Referenced in countless songs, movies, and novels, “The Mother Road” served as a way to see America firsthand on your own terms. The final stretch of Route 66 is one the most remarkable, leading through the vast Mojave desert and down into the sunny Los Angeles basin. Just driving a portion of these 420 miles leads to incredible landscapes and quirky Americana in the form of roadside cafes, hotels, and towns that time forgot. Don’t miss out on these kitschy and nostalgia-drenched spots that transport you to the early days of American road tripping. 

Needles, CA

California’s Route 66 begins in the small town of Needles. There’s not much here, but with much of the desert, that’s the appeal! There are a few small old motels from Route 66’s prime, as well as a few old diners and foodstands: The Wagon Wheel Restaurant, Gus’ Fresh Jerky, and the Honey Stand. There’s also an old schoolhouse museum in the nearby town of Essex.

Mojave Desert National Preserve

Slightly north of Route 66 is the expansive Mojave Desert National Preserve. It doesn’t get much more remote than this 1.6 million acre wilderness containing incredible sand dunes, volcanic cinder cones, desert tortoises, and the iconic Joshua Trees. Smack dab in the middle of the Mojave stands Kelso Depot, an old train station used by Union Pacific to service the blossoming and lucrative ports of Los Angeles. 

Bagdad Cafe

Novelty lovers will swoon for this famous restaurant miles away from anything else surrounded by desert. Popularized by the movie of the same name, this hole-in-the-wall joint in Newberry Springs is worth the trip if you’re already out in the middle of nowhere. 

The Wigwam Hotel

Once you push past the Mojave and break through the welcome, lush mountains of San Bernardino and Angeles National Forest,  check out the Wigwam Hotel. The Wigwam is kind of an Airbnb experience before Airbnb was a thing. Every single room is built into a large (heavily-anglicanized) teepee structure. It’s not authentic in many ways, but it is certainly authentic Americana and grade-A kitsch. While the Wigwam certainly isn’t a luxury motel, it’s not half bad. It’s fun, affordable, and a great place to pull off for a night. 

Cruise Around Los Angeles

The final miles of Route 66 in California will take you straight through Los Angeles. Make sure to detour to drive through the Hollywood hills, cruise Mulholland Drive, and visit some of the most iconic movie and TV filming locations (we made a guide for you). Or, grab some excellent tacos from one of the thousands of food trucks. 

The Santa Monica Pier

What better way to end your journey on Route 66 than jumping in the ocean? If an invigorating, cold-water swim isn’t your thing, you can just appreciate it from a safe distance while grabbing a bite on the iconic Santa Monica Pier. Try aiming for a weekday if you can, as this is one of the most popular tourist destinations in all of LA. After 420 miles of driving, you deserve a relaxing day at the beach!