Some of the best places to see on the long Rt. 66 stretch between Tulsa and Los Angeles
This summer my daughter, her boyfriend, and I took our longest Route 66 road trip yet: from Tulsa, Oklahoma to Los Angeles, California, tracing the route that many Oklahomans took in the ’30’s, as fictionalized in The Grapes of Wrath. While Steinbeck’s characters in The Grapes of Wrath were escaping poverty and Oklahoma’s Dust Bowl, we were merely escaping the daily routine to enjoy some different views, visit Disneyland, and meet up with family in California, as many like to do for summer vacation. One thing that our road trip had in common with Steinbeck’s characters, was that it unified us: being together while watching the landscape out of our windows, and experiencing the sites along the way was definitely quality, bonding time.
The drive took two days, including stopping for the night in Holbrook, Arizona. Yes, it was a long time to be in a car, but, at least once, I wanted to give my daughter the experience of appreciating a good old-fashioned car trip, like many that I had in my youth. Seeing the landscape gradually change from flatland to desert oases is something that can’t be experienced in flight, and we enjoyed the natural wonders, as well as all of the cool vintage buildings and iconic signs. We also had some amazing food along the way. Here are some of our favorite historic places that we had mapped out to visit, and some of our favorite not-so-historic spots, as well.
We left Tulsa around 7 a.m. and made a brief stop on OKC to fill up the tank and see the Milk Bottle Building, named for the giant milk bottle on top of the roof. This tiny building has been a fruit stand, cleaners, grocery store, Vietnamese sandwich shop, and has served barbecue in the past! It’s hard to believe that all of these businesses took place in this 350-square foot building, but what’s even more unbelievable is that the 1930 building sits right in the middle of a street thoroughfare.
On the way out of town, we had the pleasant happenstance of finding this cute place, Mutts Amazing Hot Dogs. Unfortunately, only weeks before, the retro restaurant was hit by a storm and they were closed for repairs. The restaurant owners posted the message: “Mutts Is Closed Due To May 25th Muttsnader.”
Right before you reach the Texas state line, you’ll pass through Erick, Oklahoma. Erick has two claims to fame: Roger Miller and the West Winds Motel. Roger Miller grew up on a farm outside of the small town, and they now have a Roger Miller Museum in his honor, as well as a street named for the western musician, Roger Miller Boulevard. The 1948 stucco Mission style West Winds Motel was a bright and captivating nightspot for travelers along Route 66 in its heyday.
Our next stop was the Route 66 midpoint in Adrian Texas, where you can stay at the Fabulous 40 Motel, or try one of the famous pies at the Midpoint Café. This point is said to be the geographical center between Chicago and Los Angeles.
The slogan of the restaurant is “when you’re here, you’re halfway there.” Midpoint Café was also referenced in the movie Cars; the character Flo was based on the café owner, Fran Houser, and in turn the restaurant owners show their Cars pride with movie décor like this painted car at the entrance of the café.
Our last Texas destination was the ghost town of Glenrio, which sits on the Texas/New Mexico border. In the ’40’s and ’50’s, it was a neon retreat for wary wayfarers on the stretch of desert road. Now, every building has been long closed, and during our visit, we were literally the only people as far as the eye could see.
Cross the state line from Texas to New Mexico and you’ll see a nice rest stop in Bard, New Mexico, Russell’s Truck & Travel Center. Step inside and head towards the back to stretch your legs in their Route 66 museum, an explosion of colorful memorabilia.
The landscape gets a little more textured by the time you arrive in Tucumcari, which was named for the nearby Tucumcari Mountain. In Tucumcari, you start to see all of those desert hotels, signs, and souvenir shops that Route 66 is famous for, including Tee Pee Curios, the Blue Swallow Motel, The Roadrunner Lodge, and Motel Safari, as seen below.
Opened in 1939, the Blue Swallow Motel and Sign are some of the best icons that have been well-preserved over time. The rooms have been restored and the motel has a wonderful outdoor sitting area where travelers can share stories.
The Range Café in Albuquerque, New Mexico was by far one of the best dining experiences we had on the trip. It was decorated to the nines with cute and quirky décor, as were the menu titles, like the “Wagon Train” breakfast consisting of standard breakfast fare and pinto beans, the “Rio Grande Gorge Burger,” and the “Death by Lemon” dessert, as seen in the pictures below. The restaurant also offers a wide variety of choices, from classic burgers to home style comfort food like “Tom’s Meatloaf” to gourmet dishes like the barramundi in lemon butter wine sauce served with risotto, there truly is something for everyone here.
I opted for Rey’s Nachos, which had this wonderful combination of chile con queso, smoked chile crema, and cojita cheese that really made the texture and flavor unparalleled as far as nachos go. They were also selling bottles of delicious Sangre de Toro Spanish wine at half price, which they offered to cork for us after dinner so we could take the leftovers home.
As far as desserts go, few can rival a lemon dish with lots of zest in my world, which “Death by Lemon” definitely had. It was the perfect ending to this amazing meal.
Holbrook is home to some of the most famous hotels along the route, including the Wigwam Motel, the sixth of the chain of Wigwam Villages originally designed in 1937 by architect Frank Redford. Chester E. Lewis bought the plans from Redford and built the sixth one in 1950. The rooms are actually in the shape of tee-pees, but Redford disliked the word and opted to call them ‘wigwams’ instead. Here visitors can sleep in a tee-pee for the night. But make a reservation at least several months in advance if you want to stay here, or it will likely be filled!
This town also has a lot of cute signs and vacant buildings from a bygone time.
Flagstaff doesn’t really have the nostalgia that Tucumcari and Holbrook had, but was just a really beautiful place to stop for a meal and relaxation. Downtown Flagstaff is shaded in mature trees and has a lot of interesting little shops and restaurants. We had an amazing lunch at a local restaurant called Ewa’s Thai Cuisine, where I had a fresh, flavorful larb salad and my daughter enjoyed a delicious vegetarian panang curry.
Seligman was almost a ghost town, except for the droves of tourists that were visiting the shops and restaurants. As a matter of fact, the town only had a population of 456 in the 2000 census.
Seligman Sundries, built in 1904, is the place for classic Route 66 souvenirs and antiques. Visitors can also see one of the most fantastic retro soda fountains, and although it isn’t currently in service, if you want a beverage you can enjoy a gourmet coffee during while shopping for souvenirs.
Delgadillo’s Snow Cap Drive-In was definitely the most hopping place on the strip! It was founded in 1953 by Juan Delgadillo, who added kitschy decor to every bit of the place, even in back by the outhouse, which appeared to be the only public restroom in town! Route 66 is known for its cute historic soda fountains and drive-ins, and this is another one you won’t want to miss.
We also had to see the wonderful Supai Motel neon sign while we were in Seligman. It would have been great to see it lit in the evening, too, but we had places to be.
Desert Hot Springs
Talk about a desert oasis, after our long drive, we were thrilled to meet up with more family and spend two nights in Desert Hot Springs, which has a number of hotels featuring mineral pools, and they are truly incredible. The staff swears to their health benefits, too!
There are two mineral pool resorts in the center of town, and after perusing both, we opted to stay at the more relaxing looking Miracle Springs Resort & Spa, recommended by my sister, where guests can lounge under the shade of palm trees, soak in a mini pool shrouded by desert flower landscaping, and choose the perfect pool based on temperature – ranging everywhere from cool to positively steamy!
Another nice thing about Miracle Springs Resort & Spa was the view of the mountains in the distance. We stayed in the pools all night, watching the sun set over the mountains, and the sky transition to a starry show in the clear desert sky.
Then, the water babies that we are, we were back in the pools bright and early the next morning.
After our morning swim, we took a short twenty minute drive to Palm Springs to get a better view of the San Jacinto Mountains, and to explore the amazing architecture. We started at the Palm Springs Visitor Center, a mid century Enco service station, turned Tramway gas station, turned visitor center, that was designed by Albert Frey and Robson Chambers.
The Palm Springs Tramway is only a few minutes up the road from the visitor center, and from there you can take the rotating tramway to the mountain station at San Jacinto Peak. We leisurely arrived at the tramway in the afternoon, thinking that it would be a quick ride, but that was not the case. We had to park in our appropriate parking lot, take the bus to the base of the tram, purchase our tickets, wait in several queues until we actually set foot on the tram, and then, we were finally able to enjoy the mountain ride.
After our tramway adventure, we explored the beautiful neighborhoods of Palm Springs, dotted with colorful Swiss Miss houses.
Here we got to see one of the finest international style homes, the 1946 Kaufmann Desert House designed by Richard Neutra.
And we visited the Elvis Honeymoon Hideaway where Elvis and Priscilla honeymooned on May 1, 1967, and lived for two years. The house was designed by Robert Alexander, and is also known as The Alexander Estate and The House of Tomorrow.
We had a castle at the end of our rainbow road trip, one of my family’s favorite vacation spots, home of ‘the happiest cruise that ever sailed’ and the Enchanted Tiki Room – the original Disneyland!
Afterwards, we had a family reunion in Los Angeles, until we were on the road again a week later…
One of my favorite road trips as a child was also from Tulsa to Los Angeles, and we got to stop at the Grand Canyon on the way, so I wanted to do the same. On the way back, we took a detour from just west of Flagstaff to the Grand Canyon, which my daughter had never seen before, and as spectacular as it was, it was more exciting watching her experience it for the first time than it was for me to see it again.
On that note, I wish you happy trails, and urge you to check out some of these iconic places and natural wonders!