Uncovering the Legacy of the Mother Road: Top Route 66 Museums to Explore

Route 66 Museum in Victorville, California | Carl DeAbreu Photography

Route 66, often referred to as the Mother Road or the Main Street of America, is a historic highway that stretches from Chicago, Illinois, to Santa Monica, California. Established in 1926, this iconic road played a significant role in the development of the United States, particularly during the Great Depression and the post-World War II era. The highway served as a major migration route for Americans seeking new opportunities and a better life. It also facilitated the growth of countless small towns and businesses, fostering a unique culture and way of life along its winding path.

Although Route 66 was officially decommissioned in 1985, it remains an enduring symbol of American freedom, adventure, and nostalgia. Today, travelers continue to explore the Mother Road, seeking to retrace the steps of those who came before them and to experience the history, culture, and natural beauty that the highway has to offer. Along the way, they can visit numerous museums, landmarks, and attractions that celebrate the legacy of this storied road.

The importance of preserving the legacy of Route 66

Given the historical significance of Route 66, preserving its legacy is essential. The highway represents a vital piece of American history and provides a glimpse into the country’s past, offering a tangible connection to the people, places, and events that shaped the nation. Preserving the road and its associated landmarks, artifacts, and stories not only honors the memory of those who traveled the route but also enriches the experiences of modern-day explorers seeking to learn about and appreciate this unique chapter in American history.

Route 66 museums play a crucial role in preserving the road’s legacy. These institutions collect, preserve, and display artifacts, memorabilia, and stories related to the highway, providing visitors with an opportunity to delve into the rich history of the Mother Road. Furthermore, these museums often serve as hubs for the communities along the route, hosting events and celebrations that foster a sense of pride and unity among residents and visitors alike.

oute 66 mural commemorates the city’s role on May 5, 2013, in Pontiac, Illinois. Created by Diaz Sign Art. | Steve Lagreca

Top Route 66 museums to explore

1. Illinois Route 66 Hall of Fame and Museum

Located in Pontiac, Illinois, the Illinois Route 66 Hall of Fame and Museum is a must-visit destination for anyone interested in the history of the Mother Road. The museum features a wide array of exhibits, including vintage cars, memorabilia, photographs, and other artifacts that tell the story of Route 66 in Illinois. Highlights include a replica of the iconic Sprague Super Service Station and the Route 66 Roadhouse, which serves as a tribute to the many roadside diners that once dotted the highway. The museum also houses the Route 66 Association of Illinois Hall of Fame, honoring individuals and businesses that played a significant role in the road’s history.

2. Oklahoma Route 66 Museum

Situated in Clinton, Oklahoma, the Oklahoma Route 66 Museum is another must-see attraction for those exploring the Mother Road. The museum is dedicated to preserving the history, culture, and legacy of Route 66 in Oklahoma, offering a comprehensive look at the road’s impact on the state and its people. Visitors can explore interactive exhibits that showcase the evolution of the highway, from its inception in 1926 to its decommissioning in 1985. The museum also features a collection of vintage automobiles, a replica of a 1950s diner, and a gift shop stocked with unique Route 66 memorabilia.

Interior of the Route 66 Museum which has exhibits on the various decades the famous highway was the main thoroughfare through the United States. | ehrlif

3. California Route 66 Museum

Located in Victorville, California, the California Route 66 Museum is a treasure trove of artifacts and exhibits related to the Mother Road. The museum is housed in a historic building that once served as a Route 66 roadside hotel and features an extensive collection of photographs, signs, maps, and other memorabilia. Highlights include a 1917 Model T Ford, a vintage teardrop trailer, and a fully restored 1950s-era diner. The museum also hosts special events and exhibits throughout the year, celebrating the road’s history and its lasting impact on American culture.

Route 66 Museum in Victorville, California | Carl DeAbreu Photography

4. Route 66 Auto Museum in New Mexico

For car enthusiasts, the Route 66 Auto Museum in Santa Rosa, New Mexico, is a must-visit attraction. This museum features a stunning collection of classic and vintage automobiles, many of which have been beautifully restored and customized to reflect the spirit of the Mother Road. In addition to its impressive lineup of vehicles, the museum also boasts a variety of Route 66 artifacts and memorabilia, including signs, gas pumps, and photographs. The Route 66 Auto Museum is not only a showcase for the road’s automotive history but also a testament to the passion and craftsmanship of the people who have helped preserve its legacy.

New Mexico, the Auto Museum on the Route 66 | Gimas

5. Missouri’s Route 66 State Park Visitor Center and Museum

Nestled within the 419-acre Route 66 State Park in Eureka, Missouri, the park’s visitor center and museum provide an immersive experience for those interested in the history of the legendary highway. Housed in a restored 1935 roadhouse, the museum features a variety of exhibits and artifacts that tell the story of Route 66 in Missouri, including vintage photographs, postcards, and other memorabilia. Visitors can also explore the park’s extensive network of trails, picnic areas, and scenic overlooks, offering a glimpse of the natural beauty that has long drawn travelers to the Mother Road.

Unique exhibits and artifacts at Route 66 museums

Each of the Route 66 museums offers a unique array of exhibits and artifacts that celebrate the road’s rich history and diverse culture. Some of the standout attractions include:

  • The Illinois Route 66 Hall of Fame and Museum’s replica of the Sprague Super Service Station, offering a glimpse into the roadside businesses that once catered to weary travelers.
  • The Oklahoma Route 66 Museum’s interactive exhibits, which trace the highway’s evolution from its inception to its decommissioning.
  • The California Route 66 Museum’s collection of vintage automobiles and its fully restored 1950s diner, providing a taste of the road’s automotive and culinary history.
  • The Route 66 Auto Museum in New Mexico’s impressive lineup of classic and customized cars, showcasing the creativity and craftsmanship of the road’s automotive enthusiasts.
  • Missouri’s Route 66 State Park Visitor Center and Museum’s restored 1935 roadhouse, which serves as a testament to the architecture and ambiance of the Mother Road’s golden age.

Events and celebrations at Route 66 museums

In addition to their permanent exhibits and collections, many Route 66 museums also host special events and celebrations throughout the year. These gatherings not only provide an opportunity for visitors to engage with the road’s history in a more interactive way but also serve to foster a sense of community among those who share a passion for the Mother Road. Examples of such events include:

  • The Illinois Route 66 Hall of Fame and Museum’s annual Red Carpet Corridor Festival, which celebrates the road’s history with live music, classic car shows, and other festivities.
  • The Oklahoma Route 66 Museum’s annual Route 66 Festival, featuring a variety of activities, including a car show, live entertainment, and food vendors.
  • The California Route 66 Museum’s special exhibits and programs, which often highlight specific aspects of the road’s history or showcase the work of local artists and historians.
  • The Route 66 Auto Museum in New Mexico’s annual car shows and swap meets, which bring together automotive enthusiasts from across the region and beyond.
  • Missouri’s Route 66 State Park Visitor Center and Museum’s annual Route 66 Days, featuring guided hikes, educational programs, and other activities designed to celebrate the road’s history and natural beauty.
Custom Cars outside The Route 66 Auto Museum. | Andy Sutherland

Planning your Route 66 museum road trip

A Route 66 museum road trip offers an unforgettable journey into the heart of the Mother Road’s history and culture. When planning your adventure, consider the following tips:

  • Research each museum’s hours of operation, admission fees, and any special events or exhibits that may be taking place during your visit.
  • Plan your itinerary to include a mix of museums, landmarks, and natural attractions, ensuring a well-rounded and engaging experience.
  • Allow ample time to explore each museum and to fully immerse yourself in the stories and artifacts on display.
  • Be prepared for varying weather conditions, particularly if your trip includes outdoor activities or scenic drives.
  • Keep a travel journal or create a scrapbook to document your journey, and be sure to collect souvenirs and memorabilia from each museum to remember your trip.

Tips for visiting Route 66 museums

To make the most of your Route 66 museum visits, keep the following tips in mind:

  • Arrive early to allow plenty of time to explore each museum at a leisurely pace.
  • Participate in guided tours or attend special events and programs to gain a deeper understanding of the road’s history and culture.
  • Ask questions and engage with museum staff, as they are often a wealth of knowledge and can provide insights and anecdotes that may not be included in the exhibits.
  • Take photographs of the exhibits and artifacts, but be sure to follow each museum’s photography policy.
  • Consider purchasing a membership or making a donation to support the museums’ preservation efforts and to ensure that the legacy of the Mother Road continues to thrive.

Supporting Route 66 museums and preservation efforts

By visiting Route 66 museums, travelers not only gain a deeper appreciation for the road’s history and culture but also contribute to the ongoing efforts to preserve its legacy. Many of these institutions rely on visitor support to maintain their collections, host events, and engage in preservation and restoration projects. By purchasing admission tickets, attending special events, and shopping at museum gift shops, travelers can help ensure that these vital resources continue to thrive and inspire future generations of Mother Road explorers.

Old Chain of Rocks bridge on the Mississippi river, Granite City Illinois. | StockPhotoAstur

Other notable Route 66 attractions and landmarks

In addition to the top Route 66 museums, there are countless other attractions and landmarks that celebrate the road’s enduring appeal, including:

  • The Chain of Rocks Bridge in St. Louis, Missouri, which once carried Route 66 traffic across the Mississippi River and now serves as a pedestrian and bicycle path.
  • The Cadillac Ranch in Amarillo, Texas, an iconic roadside art installation featuring a row of vintage Cadillacs buried nose-first in the ground.
  • The Wigwam Motel in Holbrook, Arizona, a unique lodging option that allows guests to sleep in concrete teepee-shaped rooms.
  • The Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona, which boasts not only stunning natural landscapes but also a section of the original Route 66 pavement.
  • The Santa Monica Pier in California, marking the western terminus of the Mother Road and offering a fitting conclusion to any Route 66 adventure.

The enduring legacy of the Mother Road

The legacy of Route 66 continues to captivate and inspire travelers from around the world, and the road’s museums play a vital role in preserving and sharing its rich history and culture. By exploring these institutions and supporting their efforts, visitors can help ensure that the Mother Road’s stories and traditions endure for generations to come. So, pack your bags, hit the road, and join the countless adventurers who have journeyed along this iconic highway in search of adventure, nostalgia, and the enduring spirit of the American Dream.