End of the Trail: Route 66 in California

From border to border, California provides some of the biggest contrasts in geography on all of Route 66. Entering at the eastern border, drivers find themselves a mere speck in the massive expanse of the Mojave Desert where little remains of the towns, auto camps, and gas stations that were once available to Mother Road travelers. Now, with nothing but the dirt and sand of North America’s driest desert ahead and the interstate out of sight, it’s easy to imagine how it looked for travelers back in the day. Once past Barstow and Victorville, the descent down Cajon Pass quickly leads to a stoplight-lined stretch of strip malls, big box stores, and traffic for the next 80 or so miles before reaching the ocean and the “End of the Trail” at the Santa Monica Pier. As we made our way towards the end of the road, we meandered through the desert, spending a night in Needles and another in San Bernardino. The final day of our trip took us from San Bernardino to Santa Monica, a 75-mile drive that took us a mere four and a half hours- love that L.A. traffic! Looking back, our Route 66 trip from Chicago to Santa Monica truly was the experience of a lifetime. We thank you for following along on our adventures and welcome any comments, questions, or ideas we can provide for your Route 66 trip.

What to Do

Roy’s Cafe and Motel- Amboy
In a remote stretch of the Mojave Desert, lies one of the coolest Googie-style motels we’ve ever seen and perhaps the most photographed sign on all of Route 66. Roy’s Motel and Café in the tiny town of Amboy started life as a service station in 1938. In the 1940s, a café, auto repair shop, and an auto court were added to serve Route 66 travelers. Oft-photographed and the star of many modern-day commercials, the epic neon sign was added in 1959, a beacon in the desert night for travelers for many years to come, until the opening of the interstate in 1972 essentially ended the business overnight. After some rough years, the property (and in fact, the entire town of Amboy) were acquired by Albert Okura, owner of the Juan Pollo restaurant chain, in 2005. The gas station and café were reopened in 2008 and offer some very expensive gas and a few limited food and drink options. However, the real draw is the sign and the motel that still stands, though it appears more and more deteriorated each time we pass through. A must-stop Route 66 photo op, you can explore some of the property, grab a cold Route 66 Soda, and imagine what it was like back in the day to sleep under the flashing neon lights of one of the coolest signs on Route 66.

Elmer Long’s Bottle Tree Ranch- Oro Grande
Out in the desert near Oro Grande is a crazy art installation of bottles, signs, and other random things (mattress springs, typewriters, stamp machines, and more). Elmer Long’s Bottle Tree Ranch has more than 200 “bottle trees” and is one of our favorite roadside stops along Route 66. Kitschy, creative, and a great way to stretch your human and furry legs.

End of the Trail- Santa Monica
When Route 66 was first established in 1926, the western terminus was located in Los Angeles at the intersection of 7th and Broadway. In 1936, the end was moved west to the intersection of Olympic and Lincoln Boulevards in Santa Monica which technically remained its western end until it was moved back to Pasadena in 1964, and finally to the Arizona State Line in 1974. Thanks to great marketing, most people have always assumed that the Santa Monica Pier is the end of the route, and though technically it never was, the Route 66 Alliance helped designate a “symbolic” end with the placement of the ‘End of the Trail’ sign on the pier in 2009. Regardless of whether or not it is the actual end of America’s most famous road, it is an exciting feeling and not-to-be-missed photo op to have reached the literal end of the road and finished (or started) the trip of a lifetime.

What to See

El Garces Harvey House- Needles
Before there was Howard Johnson and Ray Kroc, there was Fred Harvey. For nearly 100 years, his Harvey Houses served passengers on the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad. At its peak, there were 84 Harvey Houses, from Kansas to Los Angeles, some of which were full-service hotels, while others were just a lunchroom. Regardless of where passengers stopped, they knew exactly what to expect- impeccable service from his Harvey Girls (if you love old musicals, check out the Judy Garland movie from 1946). As travel transitioned from train to automobile, the Harvey Houses became obsolete and the Fred Harvey Company was eventually sold in 1968, the true end of an era. Sadly, most Harvey Houses did not survive, though there are, thankfully, a few gems that remain.

The “Crown Jewel” of Harvey Houses, El Garces, was built in 1908. Designed in a Beaux Arts style, it operated as a hotel and restaurant until 1949. The train continued to use the station part of the facility until 1988, after which the building was left to the elements and in danger of meeting the wrecking ball. Originally, it was hoped that the depot would be turned into a hotel and restaurant, but those plans were abandoned when it was determined that the building had received federal funding and had to stay owned by the city. A local group helped to save the depot in the early ‘90s and restoration efforts began in 2007. In 2014, it was finally reopened as an “intermodal transportation center” and offers spaces to rent for events. While not quite as exciting since there isn’t the option to truly experience El Garces as it was originally intended, it’s wonderful to see a Harvey House live to see another century.

Ludlow Cafe- Ludlow
The town of Ludlow initially formed as water stop for the Atlantic and Pacific Railroad in 1883, then later became a railhead for both the Tidewater and Tonopah Railroad and Ludlow and Southern Railways. When nearby mining and railroad activity dried up, Route 66 helped provide tourists for the few local businesses. Upon the construction of Interstate 40 in the 1970s, a “new” Ludlow was constructed just north of the highway and the old Ludlow was abandoned, left to decay in the harsh Mojave Desert. Very little remains of the original Ludlow; but businesses still survive in the new Ludlow, including the mid-modern A-frame Ludlow Cafe. We love the funky design and the rail cars that harken back to the days of ore and hope to stop in for a meal on a future trip.

Wigwam Motel- Rialto / San Bernardino
Along Route 66, there are two Wigwam Villages, Village #6 in Holbrook, AZ (where we spent a night) and this one, Village #7, in Rialto, CA. Built in the 1930s and ‘40s, there were originally seven Wigwam Villages constructed in six different states. The idea for the villages, a group of teepee-shaped motel rooms around a museum/shop, was created by Frank Redford as a way to showcase his collection of Native American artifacts. Though some of the villages throughout the country were constructed by others, Village #7 was created for Redford himself. Construction began in 1947, and the motel with nineteen teepee-shaped rooms arranged around a fire pit and picnic area was opened in 1950.

After a number of successful years, the property passed through a few owners before eventually becoming a roadside stop with a less than stellar reputation, offering waterbeds and hourly rates, advertising its services with a sign that read “Do it in a Wigwam”. Purchased by the current owners in 2002, the property underwent a full restoration bringing it back to its Mother Road glory days and was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2012. We haven’t had an opportunity to stay here, but definitely plan to on future Route 66 trips.