On April 30, 1926, Route 66 was officially designated in Springfield, Missouri, establishing the town as the “Birthplace of Route 66”. Stretching from the Mississippi River, through the Ozarks, to the southeastern corner of Kansas, Route 66 covered 317 miles through Missouri, and just 13 miles through Kansas. Although the interstate was constructed over the road in a number of places throughout the state, we still found many stretches tucked in the trees and over rolling hills, keeping the highway out of sight. We spent four days in Missouri and Kansas, exploring bridges, discovering crumbled ruins, and eating and sleeping like it was 1949.
What to Do
Walk the Chain of Rocks Bridge- Madison, IL/St. Louis, MO
Spanning the Mississippi River between Illinois and Missouri, the Chain of Rocks Bridge carried Route 66 vehicle traffic between the two states from 1929 to 1970. Named for a dangerous stretch of rock-filled rapids in the river (since buried under a dam), plans originally called for the bridge to be straight. However, due to its proximity to two water intake towers, local boat operators voiced objection and the design was changed to include a 22-degree bend near the middle, making passage safer for boats and the bridge quite unique.
For many years after its closure, the bridge was neglected and at risk of demolition, until the 1990s which saw a period of restoration and the bridge eventually being reopened for pedestrian and bike use in 1999. From Illinois to Missouri, the walk is about one mile and offers views of downtown St. Louis, two architecturally interesting intake towers, a photo-op with a vintage-styled motel tourist court sign and gas pump, and the mighty Mississippi nearly 60 feet below. Up early to beat the heat, we saw just two other people on our walk to the Missouri shore and back. Parking is only available on the Illinois side of the bridge; the Missouri side, which has a large modern-looking rest area, has been closed due to safety concerns. Although quite a bit of money has been spent updating the bridge to make it safe for travel, very little has been done on the cosmetic side. The steel trusses are rusted and the corroded remains of streetlights and highway signs, that haven’t been used in decades, still stand in place over the roadway. An experience not to missed, it’s a pleasant stroll that will leave you feeling as though you’ve stepped back in time.
Check out John’s Modern Cabins- Newburg, MO
If you’re not looking specifically for it, you will not find John’s Modern Cabins near Newberg. Located down a short dirt road overgrown with weeds, past a short stretch of abandoned Route 66 that dead ends quickly in both directions, hidden behind trees and unruly undergrowth, lie the remains of John’s Modern Cabins.
Originally opened in 1931 as a tourist court with six cabins and a dance hall called Bill and Bess’s Place, the property would change hands a few times before an acquisition by John and Lillian Dausch in 1951. Renamed John’s Modern Cabins, it remained much the same until a few years later when Route 66 was realigned and moved slightly east, resulting in the dance hall being demolished and the cabins no longer standing directly alongside the road. The combination of the construction of I-44 in the mid-‘60s further cutting off access to the business and John’s passing in 1971, sounded the death knell for the once thriving business.
After having devoured any and all books about Route 66, we were well aware of the ruins of John’s Modern Cabins and had designated it as one of the top things on our list of places to see while traveling Route 66. Located on private property, a sign (and common sense) urge you to check out what remains of these “modern” cabins, carefully. We cautiously checked out the site, careful to respect the important history of this holy grail of Route 66 sites and not to disturb any of the remains. More than 50 years later, most of the cabins have collapsed and it’s just a matter of time before none are left standing. We feel incredibly fortunate that we were able to see a few mostly still standing and the remains of its once bright neon sign.
Lunch at Route 66 State Park- Eureka/Former Times Beach, MO
Founded along the Meramec River in 1925, Times Beach attracted its first residents with a six-month subscription to the St. Louis Star-Times newspaper for $67.05, which also happened to include a small plot of land in the newly established town. Originally intended to be a resort community, through which an alignment of Route 66 ran from 1932-1977, the timing coincided with the start of the Depression and the town never became the weekend get-away for St. Louisans the investors had hoped for; instead becoming less of a resort area and more of a lower-income year-round community.
Things seemed to be copacetic for many years until the early 1970s, when the town hired someone to spray the dirt roads with motor oil to help combat dust. In later years, it would be discovered that the man responsible for spraying the roads had mixed in dioxin with the oil, a toxic waste that he had been hired to dispose of by another company. Dioxin is created as a result of the production of Agent Orange and other scary chemicals, and can be toxic to animals and humans. After a major flood in 1982 inundated the town and spread the contamination, the EPA revealed results of testing done just days earlier, showing dangerously high levels of dioxin. The situation was so bad that the entire town was evacuated and told to leave everything behind, while those that had left in anticipation of the flood were told not to return. Times Beach became a ghost town almost overnight. Declared a Superfund site in 1983, purchased by the EPA for $32M in 1984, officially unincorporated in 1985, and bulldozed by 1992; after many years of decontamination, the former site of Times Beach is now home to the Route 66 State Park.
The 419-acre park is home to wide open grassy spaces bordered by trees that we imagine were once lined with homes on the streets through the heart of town, meandering walking and hiking paths, shaded picnic tables, and more. It’s the perfect place to grab a table and enjoy a picnic lunch in this reclaimed little pocket of nature, relatively peaceful and quiet even though it’s so close to the ever-busy interstate. Though we didn’t get the opportunity to check it out, a visitor center located next to a now closed bridge that once carried Route 66 across the Meramec River into town, is said to be well worth the stop. The park is easily accessible from I-44, and a drive through will provide you with the opportunity to travel on a short stretch of Route 66. A fascinating history and a pleasant way to enjoy a peaceful respite in a beautiful setting, be sure to make the time to explore the Route 66 State Park.
Explore Gay Parita- Paris Springs, MO
West of Springfield, MO, a crazy explosion of petroliana in the form of cars, signs, gas cans, and other funky items combine to provide the experience that is Gary’s Gay Parita. Built by Gary Turner in 2004, Gay Parita is a replica of a 1930s Sinclair station that burned down on that site in the ‘50s. Until his passing in 2015, it wasn’t unusual to find Gary and his wife, Lena, hanging out and waiting to meet and greet Route 66 travelers, an experience we’re sorry to have missed. Since their passing, Gary and Lena’s daughter and son-in-law, Barbara and George, have taken over the operation.
We were the only visitors when we stopped by on a rainy afternoon and had the pleasure of chatting with the super-friendly and welcoming George. We chatted about some of the cars scattered throughout the property, and he was kind enough to give us time-saving shortcut around some road construction that lay ahead. Of course, we had to check out the gift shop and left with a Route 66 Coloring Book for adults and a deck of Route 66-themed playing cards. There is so much to see- old cars, a garage full of miscellany, a random metal dinosaur munching on a stuffed toy, and much more, so definitely plan on spending more than a few minutes at Gay Parita.
Take a Photo as Dorothy or a Biker- Galena, KS
With only 13 miles of Route 66 in Kansas, your trip through will be brief; but Kansas has done a great job of making the most of their little slice of the Mother Road. Just across the border from Missouri is a small roadside picnic area. Whether or not you choose to stop and an enjoy lunch like travelers did back in the day or you just need to stretch your legs, be sure to make a stop and take turns posing as Dorothy or a Route 66 biker. Don’t pass up a chance to be silly behind a witty sign that pays homage to the Sunflower State’s most famous expression; because before you know it, you’ll have a feeling you’re not in Kansas anymore.
What to See
Stony Dell Resort- Arlington, MO
Only a few structures of the once uber-popular Stony Dell Resort near Arlington are visible, while the rest of the remains of what was one of the busiest destinations in Missouri has been overtaken by the forest. Constructed in 1932, the resort was famous for its 100-foot long, stone swimming pool, fed by a very cold nearby artesian well. A full-service destination for Route 66 travelers and soldiers on leave from nearby Fort Leonard Wood, it provided ten cabins, a restaurant, dance hall, service station, outdoor activities (tennis, boating, fishing), a bus stop, and even a Justice of the Peace. Stony Dell was so popular for day visitors, that cars trying to enter and exit the resort regularly caused traffic jams on Route 66; and attracted celebrities like Mae West, who was a repeat visitor. Unfortunately, Route 66 was moved to the south to accommodate military traffic in 1946, bypassing the Stony Dell and ending its mad rush of visitors. Though it survived until the 1960s, it was never the same and eventually the south half of the resort, including the swimming pool, was torn down to make way for the interstate.
All that remains are a few of the cabins, a house with a sign on the roof claiming “Gas – Food – Bait – Handmade Gifts”, a crumbling stone arch, and a few other structures barely visible through the trees. It’s a fun photo-op (private property, so please take your photos from the roadside) that provides a moment to pause and imagine a time when lines of cars and throngs of people clamored for a chance to hop into the pool and dance the night away.
Gasconade Bridge- Hazelgreen, MO
Deep in the Missouri Ozarks near the town of Hazelgreen, the Gasconade River Bridge carried Route 66 travelers across the Gasconade River for 90 years. Constructed in 1924, using three different styles of trusses, the 525-foot long bridge was closed in 2014 due to structural issues, and has spent the last few years in danger of being demolished. Still viable for pedestrians and cyclists, local groups and Route 66 enthusiasts have been working together with state officials to “repair, don’t replace” and will hopefully find a way to save the bridge. While you can’t drive across the bridge, you can park and stroll up to either end and enjoy some vibrantly green views and a little piece of Route 66 history.
Cars on the Route- Galena, KS
Located in a former Kan-O-Tex gas station (a new one for us), Cars on the Route in Galena has a little of something for everyone. Restored by four women, it was originally called 4 Women on the Route, but has since changed ownership and names. Before we go any further, we have to ask if you’ve seen the movie, Cars. If you consider yourself even the slightest fan of Route 66 and you haven’t seen this movie, stop reading and go watch it. Seriously, it may be a kid’s movie, but it’s filled with so many Route 66 references that you’ll find yourself watching it over and over trying to find them all. Now that you’ve all seen Cars, we can mention that Cars on the Route is home of the tow truck that inspired the character, Tow Mater. After your celebrity photo-op with Tow Tater (so named because Mater is trademarked), step inside, grab a snack, and be sure to pick up a souvenir. Beautifully restored inside and out, it’s part of what makes the 13 miles through Kansas so memorable.
Rainbow Curve Bridge- Baxter Springs, KS
The Brush Creek/Rainbow Curve Bridge sits north of Baxter Springs on a short one-way early alignment of Route 66. Designed by James Barney Marsh, the 130-foot long March Rainbow Arch bridge was constructed in 1923 in an effort to help connect the Kansas towns of Galena, Riverton, and Baxter Springs with a paved road. Not surprisingly, this road became Route 66 in 1926, and Mother Road motorists used it to cross over Brush Creek until 1960 and the construction of the interstate. Strikingly white, beautiful lines, historically significant- don’t pass up an opportunity to see the last remaining Marsh bridge on Route 66.
Where to Stay
Wagon Wheel Motel- Cuba, MO
Being the seekers of Americana that we are, we were super excited to stay in some vintage Route 66 motels. The first one of our trip was the Wagon Wheel Motel in Cuba. One of the first businesses that you encounter as you head into Cuba from the east, what struck us was the lack of modern development around the motel. It wasn’t hard to imagine when the Wagon Wheel was the only thing along this stretch of road, the hum of its neon sign a beckoning call to hungry and tired travelers (please excuse the Finley noises in the background of the video, he was excited to be out of the car).
Opened in 1938 as the Wagon Wheel Cabins and renamed the Wagon Wheel Motel in 1947, it is oldest motel still in operation on Route 66. Originally, nine cottages constructed of local Ozark sandstone provided a room with a private bath and an enclosed garage. In the 1940s, the garages were converted to motel rooms. In addition to the modern rooms, the Wagon Wheel also offered a restaurant and gas station. The Wagon Wheel Café was a popular restaurant and was well reviewed in Duncan Hines’ travel guide. As with most Route 66 businesses, it changed ownership a few times before falling into a state of disrepair. In 2009, the property was purchased and meticulously restored. The café is now a gift shop full of Route 66 souvenirs and other wares. If you’re looking for a bite to eat, Missouri Hick Bar-B-Q is just next door and offers a good meal, great service, and a very dog-friendly patio.
From the moment we pulled up, the aura of yesteryear was everywhere, from the beautifully restored buildings to the vintage gas pumps and ’40s-era Chevy parked out front. The vintage experience continued at check-in with the handwritten registration cards and keys hanging on a pegboard, each with an old-school plastic engraved key fob. We stayed in #18, a small room in a back building that was once a garage, but more recently converted into rooms. Since we had Finley with us, we weren’t able to stay in one of the original rooms, but appreciate that the Wagon Wheel does offer two pet-friendly rooms. Our room was clean, quiet, and nicely decorated with a wagon wheel and some Route 66-themed decor. One of the best parts of our stay was listening to the click and hum of the neon sign as its arrow and wheel blinked on and off, just as it had since 1947.
Cuba is a sleepy little city, but don’t miss it. The next morning on our way through town we stopped for coffee at the Cuba Bakery & Deli and found the best oatmeal cookies we’ve ever eaten.
Boots Court Motel- Carthage, MO
Boots Court Motel in Carthage sits at the “Crossroads of America”, the intersection of Route 66 and Route 71, once known as the Jefferson Highway, one of the original auto trails that ran from Winnipeg, Canada to New Orleans. Built in 1939 by Arthur Boots in an art deco/streamline moderne style, each room had a covered carport and a “radio in every room”. After many years of success and popularity, including a stay in room #6 by Clark Gable, and a number of owners, it eventually fell into disrepair before being purchased by two sisters at auction in 2011. Since then, they have been meticulously restoring the rooms to their 1949 appearance and even had the neon sign restored by the original sign maker. We had the great pleasure of staying here and, without question, this was one of the coolest and most authentically vintage places that we stayed on Route 66.
A night at Boots Court will cost you just $66 (chosen for Route 66) for a single and $71 (chosen for the cross-street, Route 71) for a double, an unbelievable deal for such a memorable experience. If the rate had been two or three times that amount, we still would have been begging them to take our money. With a short drive that day, we were waiting at the door when the office opened at 3pm. Warmly greeted by Debbie Dee, who provided some fascinating trivia and history about the motel and Carthage, she even escorted us to pet-friendly Room #9. Greeted by warm lights glowing and a vintage-looking radio tuned to a 1940s station when we opened the door, we’d been at Boots Court for ten minutes and we were already in love. And the neon hadn’t even come on yet. Running along the top of the buildings and outlining the windows, the Boots Court has always been identifiable by its architectural green neon. Restored and relit in 2016 after nearly 15 years of darkness, it is in a word, awesome. Making for striking views on its own, we were treated to a gorgeous sunset that made it that much more breathtaking and memorable.
This was one of those places that makes it easy to imagine yourself in a different time. Sure, the radio and lights were modern, but there were none of the modern distractions that make it so easy to ignore what’s around you. It’s obvious that the restoration of the motel has been thoughtfully done in an effort to truly recreate the experience of a 1949 traveler. As mentioned, our room had a radio, but not a TV. Why? Because the town of Carthage didn’t get television until 1953. Was the bed the most comfortable we’ve ever slept in? No, but that doesn’t matter when you open the door with a real key or pull up the era-appropriate chenille bedspread. The best part of our stay, however, was the evening, which we spent playing gin rummy and sipping wine from plastic cups while listening to ‘40s tunes. Definitely a night we’ll remember forever.
What to Eat
Frozen Custard at Ted Drewes- St. Louis, MO
Whether or not it’s true, it seems that there were once gas stations on just about every corner of every small town along Route 66. We don’t have any actual statistics, but it feels like there were almost as many ice cream stands and shops. Even today, there are no shortage of places along Route 66 to cool off with a frosty cup or cone of ice cream or frozen custard. One of the most famous on Route 66 is Ted Drewes Frozen Custard in St. Louis. Providing a tasty treat to Mother Road motorists since 1941, Ted Drewes is famous for their “concretes” (similar to Dairy Queen’s Blizzard) that have frozen custard so thick, it is served to the customer upside down.
With many combinations to choose from, we asked our cashier for one of the most popular flavors and ended up with the Dutchman, a mix of chocolate, butterscotch, and pecans. As it was 10:30am, we opted to share a small Concrete (because, of course, we had to save room for lunch). Growing up in Northern Illinois, Jen spent most of the summer after she graduated high school eating Banana Concretes from Julie Ann’s Frozen Custard, a tasty treat she speaks fondly of more than twenty years later; and sadly, for him, until our stop at Ted Drewes, Jay had never experienced frozen custard. Despite coming with very different outlooks, the thick and creamy treat was amazing and exceeded both of our expectations. It was definitely a friendly fight to the last bite.
Cheeseburger at Whisler’s Old Fashioned Hamburgers- Carthage, MO
There are a lot of burger joints alongside America’s roads, and most have recognizable names and can be found off pretty much any interstate exit. Hop off the interstate and head into the small towns along Route 66, however, and you can still find some family owned and operated burger restaurants. Since 1953, Whisler’s Old Fashioned Hamburgers (or Whisler’s Drive Up, we’ve seen both names) has been serving up made-to-order, ridiculously delicious burgers to locals and visitors. Always on the hunt for the out-of-the-way, hole-in-the-wall, and/or local favorites that are dog-friendly, we found ourselves at Whisler’s on a drizzly afternoon. Located just two blocks north of Route 66 in a vibrant red building tucked into a mostly residential neighborhood, Whisler’s provides a simple and inexpensive menu with various burger options; from the traditional hamburger and cheeseburger to combo options with catchy names like the Sow ‘n Cow (burger with bacon) and Pig ‘n Bull (burger with ham). The only other options on the menu, a bag of chips and a drink. We each ordered a cheeseburger and headed outside, raincoats in hand, to eat at the outdoor table.
Relatively small by modern-day hamburger standards, the burger from Whisler’s managed to pack a ton of flavor into a little package. A simple white bun grilled alongside the burger, this was without question one of the best meals that we had on our entire Route 66 trip. Quickly consuming our burgers, Jay ran back in to get us some more. We each ended up eating two; but to be honest, we could have each eaten at least three or four more.
Sandwich from Nelson’s Old Riverton Store- Riverton, KS
In the small town of Riverton, right smack in the middle of the 13 miles of Route 66 in Kansas, is Nelson’s Old Riverton Store. Once a one-stop shop for locals and travelers, the Williams’ Store, opened in 1925, offered everything from a hot meal to shoes to nighttime tournaments played on its lighted regulation croquet court. Purchased by the Eisler family in the 1970s, it became Eisler’s Old Riverton Store, the name still most frequently associated with it. Now part grocery, part deli, and part souvenir shop, a step inside is a step back in time. Wooden shelves lined with cans of food and household goods, a pressed-tin ceiling, and an old school deli counter in the back of the store sitting just in front of a roll top desk overflowing with paperwork, made us wish we’d been around to remember a time before gigantic grocery stores and warehouses.
Even if it’s not lunchtime or you’re not hungry (because you will be at some point in time), be sure to step back to the deli counter and order a sandwich. Simple options and pricing that probably predates our lifetimes, we opted for turkey on sourdough with mustard, pickles, and jalapeños. Although it sounds simple, it was one of the best basic turkey sandwiches we’ve ever eaten. And the coolest part of the whole experience? Our sandwiches came wrapped in wax paper, like they used to be served back in the day, making it that much easier to imagine traveling along Route 66 in simpler times.