Stretching some 2,400 miles from Chicago to Los Angeles, Route 66 -- which John Steinbeck nicknamed the "Mother Road" in his novel "The Grapes of Wrath" -- was one of America's first highways. Though no longer part of the US highway system -- the interstates sent it packing -- a 1,410-mile stretch of the original route was designated as a National Scenic Byway.
It takes 5 to 6 days to drive the full Byway, which stretches through Arizona, New Mexico, Missouri and Illinois. Since the great joy in driving Route 66 is its abundance of restaurants, kitschy roadside attractions, photo ops, gift shops and much more, consider turning the route into a series of weekend excursions. A great state in which to start: New Mexico.
Where to Stay
Established in 1959, this excellently named motel in Tucumcari serves up a whole lot of charm (and comfort) for very little cash. When you see the hotel sign with a camel on it, you've arrived. After a long day of driving, the Sealy Posturepedic mattresses offer welcome respite. Pricier modern hotels around the country should hang their pillow-tops in shame for charging 3 to 5 times to do what the Motel Safari does -- and only half as well.
Old Santa Fe Inn
An excellent home base for a wander around Santa Fe's historic plaza -- just 3 blocks away -- the Old Santa Fe Inn's Southwestern decor never feels overdone. Before starting out on the road again in the morning, take advantage of the complimentary breakfast burrito bar.
El Rancho Hotel
Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, El Rancho's storied past in Gallup is as enticing as its good looks. John Wayne, Katharine Hepburn, Humphrey Bogart and others stayed at the Gallup hotel during movie shoots. After piling out of the car on hotter days, be sure to head straight to the outdoor pool.
Where to Eat
In Tucumcari, after you've found the camel sign at Motel Safari, look for the bull that marks Del's. Established in 1956, it doesn't look like the management has changed the interior much since opening day -- and that's just as it should be. A trip down Route 66 shouldn't be about faux retro -- it should make you feel like you're living life on the road as it's been for quite some time. And Del's is about comfort and good food. Get the chicken-fried steak or the beef chimichanga. And a jar (or 3) of salsa to go.
Golden Crown Panaderia
Snacks for the road are essential. Order one of the exceptional pizzas at Albuquerque's Golden Crown bakery and, while it's baking (or after you finish eating it out on the patio), stock up on New Mexico's official state cookie, the biscochito, and Mexican wedding cookies. Before taking off, snap a photo of one of the house specialties: bread molded in the shape of a cooked turkey.
There should be an Earl's in every town. It's a perfect local diner -- all comfort -- and the food is big so you'll be able to go for miles and miles without refueling. Earl's is a breakfast-for-dinner or a steak-in-the-morning sort of place. Nobody will bat an eye at your road-trip cravings. The food at this Gallup mainstay won't make you swoon (though it won't disappoint either) but the place will make you feel like you want to move to town. Everybody goes to Earl's. It's also an easy spot to pick up gifts as local artisans sell their crafts table-to-table.
What to See & Do
Floeck's Country Ranch
Emu and ostrich sightings don't come along all that often. After checking into the Motel Safari, pay a visit to Floeck's, a working ranch, in Tucumcari, where the big birds -- and a lot of llamas -- await. Call ahead to schedule a tour. And, yes, if you're in the market for some emu eggs to paint or some ostrich feathers, Floeck's is the place to go.
Pecos National Historical Park
With 12,000 years of history to tour, the National Park offers a good balance to some of the kitschier aspects of a Route 66 drive. Take a self-guided 1 1/4-mile tour of the Pecos pueblo and mission ruins. Stop into the E.E. Fogelson Visitor Center for exhibits and to watch a 10-minute film that will put all you'll see outside into context.
Sky City Pueblo Tours
Sitting 367 feet up on a sandstone bluff, the Acoma Pueblo has been inhabited since the 12th century (possibly earlier). Led by tribal members, the 80-minute tour, gives visitors the chance to gain a deeper understanding of Native American history and culture. At the end of the tour, it's worth looking at the crafts offered for sale by local artisans.
For photography-loving Route 66 road trippers, there's no bigger joy than the neon at night. Spend time in Albuquerque's Nob Hill neighborhood. Don't dare leave your tripod behind. It will be your best friend of the night. Then head off to Kelly's Brew Pub in Albuquerque and try some of the 20 house-brewed beers on tap.
Travel Channel Insider's Tip: The route is not always clearly marked. Bring maps and driving directions if going off-track doesn't sit well with you. For top-notch turn-by-turn directions, visit the Department of Transportation's National Scenic Byway site.