This post is part of a series I’ve done on Route 66. In 2022, I drove the entirety of Route 66 from Chicago to Los Angeles. 2500 miles, 8 states, countless stories, and an endless stretch of small towns, neon, diners, motels, and roadside attractions. Read through all of my Route 66 posts here. They’re also linked at the end of this post. If you’re planning your own Route 66 road trip, either the whole thing or just a part, I hope these help you out. Enjoy the drive!
We’ve finally made it to glorious California! The Promised Land! The land of eternal sunshine! The end of the road.
For generations of people driving Route 66, first as migrants and then as leisure travelers, California was the final destination. Either to settle as fruit pickers in the San Gabriel Valley or to take the family to Disneyland. California was and is the end game.
Throughout the years, Route 66 petered out different places in Los Angeles or people simply used 66 to get to LA in general before traveling on to their specific destination, but these days Route 66 has a big, shiny, official ending point in Santa Monica at the Santa Monica Pier.
Route 66 in Los Angeles
Well, Los Angeles is a BIG place (a sprawling megacity, if you will) so let’s set some parameters…
In this post I’m going to cover San Bernardino, which a lot of people consider the last big stop before heading into “LA proper,” to Santa Monica, which is the end of the road.
Here’s the thing…you’re going to need a strategy for finishing up Route 66 through LA.
From San Bernardino to Santa Monica it’s 2+hours on the freeway WITH NO TRAFFIC. And there’s always traffic ; )
So there’s a few ways you can do this.
1.Drive from San Bernardino to Santa Monica on the freeway and call it a day! A lot of people feel like this is the best option and I can’t really argue. You can get to your hotel in Santa Monica, visit the pier, and maybe even spend a day or two visiting places you want in the LA area. You don’t lose any points for doing it this way.
2.Drive from San Bernardino on surface streets following Route 66 and avoid the freeway. A worthy mission for those of you “completists” who feel the need to drive every last bit of old pavement. Plan on this option taking pretty much all day and you’ll need a good map and navigator. You’ll also probably need to spend the night before in San Bernardino because covering more distance (from somewhere in California or even the edge of Arizona) is biting off more than you can choose in one day.
3.Spend the night in Pasadena to break up the drive. If you’re really committed to seeing and doing every little thing along the route, you could split this up over two days.
When I did my Route 66 road trip, I opted for a hybrid version of options 1 and 2. From San Bernardino, we drove surface streets to Rancho Cucamonga, which felt like it took forever, then hopped on the freeway to Pasadena, tooled around there a bit and then took the freeway to our hotel in West LA.
I’ll be honest…it was a hell of a day. We started out in Kingman, AZ, drove the Oatman Highway and a lot of old Route 66 through California before even arriving in San Bernardino. I knew it was tackling waaaaaaay too much in one day, but there wasn’t anywhere I wanted to stay in between and just kind of wanted to get to the end.
Anyways, in hindsight, we just should’ve just cruised on into LA on the interstate and called it a day, but you live and you learn.
So here’s the scoop on what I saw, what I skipped, and what I would’ve done differently…
I’m not going to lie…San Bernardino is kind of sketchy. I have friends that live in Rancho Cucamonga and they’ve always said that they don’t go there and I have to admit, what I saw didn’t really help their case. It wasn’t really the kind of place that I felt like I wanted to hang out. But there are a couple of spots that you might want to check out.
The Original McDonald’s Museum
Being a young kid in the early 90s, I have pretty strong memories of McDonald’s. The days when the Playplace was THE place to be and everybody knew the Hamburglar. Those days are long gone and I can’t remember the last time I even saw Ronald McDonald or even a McDonalds with a playplace, so I guess that really does justify the museum.
Anyways, I thought I would enjoy checking this place out, but it was just so seedy that I just kind of pulled through the parking lot and reminisced about my childhood from the car ; )
IF you’re going to spend the night in San Bernardino and you want to have the classic Route 66 wigwam experience, this is where you’ll want to do it. I seriously considered it, but ended up deciding that after a long day towards the end of the trip I just wouldn’t be up for a vintage motel. And I was right.
Here’s what I will say about it…this Wigwam Motel is MUCH nicer than the one in Holbrook so if staying in a Wigwam in on your bucket list, this is the one to pick (I’ve also heard that it’s nicer than the one in Kentucky, which is the third and final remaining Wigwam in the US). In general San Bernardino isn’t the greatest place, and while the Wigwams are on a pretty busy street, it didn’t seem as bad a part of town as some places I saw. Plus the entire thing is gated.
Driving from San Bernardino to Rancho Cucamonga
Okay, so from San Bernardino we drove on surface streets to Rancho Cucamonga and it felt like it took FOREVER. The traffic didn’t necessarily feel that bad, but it’s 20 miles with 1-3 stop lights every mile, so you can just imagine. It does get progressively nicer as you go through Fontana and towards Rancho. Rancho Cucamonga is a really nice area.
Rancho Cucamonga Service Station
This was the main reason I wanted to drive through Rancho Cucamonga. I’d heard a lot about this service station, and it’s been restored really nicely, but if you’re driven all of Route 66 to this point, you’ve seen plenty already. And since it’s on such a busy street, they have a big gate around it when it’s not open. So it was kind of anti-climactic. In retrospect, unless you’re dead set on seeing every little thing, I don’t know if I would say it’s a don’t miss (especially if it means extra hours sitting in traffic).
Rancho Cucamonga to Pasadena
It’s 35+ miles from Rancho Cucamonga to Pasadena which would take roughly 45 minutes on the freeway with no traffic and I can’t even imagine how long on surface streets. I skipped this part because I was short on time, but if you decide to stick it out, here are the towns you’ll drive through: Claremont, Glendora, Azusa, Monrovia, and Arcadia.
Glendora is supposed to have one of the best historic downtowns in the area.
We got off the freeway in Pasadena and drove around a bit downtown. The Pasadena City Hall is pretty spectacular and I saw enough about the town to know that I’d like to come back when I have a few days to spend.
Pasadena is most famous for being home to the Tournament of Roses (a.k.a. The Rose Parade) on New Year’s Day and the Rose Bowl Flea Market on the 2nd Sunday of every month.
Pasadena to Santa Monica
Once you leave Pasadena and head towards Santa Monica, you’ll be going into “LA proper.” You’ll hop on the 101 which is also the Arroyo Seco Parkway which is also Route 66. This is one of the first freeways built in the US so it’s only fitting.
I know we Route 66 travelers traditionally hate the interstate, but this one that was originally built to connect Pasadena and LA is pretty iconic.
The parkway is kind of set down low so even though it’s a pretty drive, you don’t see much of what you’re passing. But Dodger Stadium is in the area which could be a fun diversion, especially if you’ve been able to catch ball games in Chicago and St Louis.
Just before you get to downtown LA, you’ll want to exit the 101 onto Sunset Blvd (yes, that one) and follow it through Echo Park and Silver Lake and then connect to Santa Monica Blvd (yes, that one) which will take you through Hollywood and Beverly Hills before dropping you off right at the Santa Monica Pier.
It sounds quick and easy, but it’s not and if you’re driving surface streets you should plan on spending most of the day and that’s not really including stopping that much.
Now. While there’s not necessarily a ton of old Route 66 related things to see left in the LA area (not unusual for such a large city that’s constantly being built and rebuilt), as you probably know…there is a LOT of history and things to see and do in these areas in general. Hollywood and Beverly Hills are iconically LA and if you’ve never been to LA before, they’re probably places that you’ll want to see.
But you don’t have to drive surface streets the entire route to do it. You could do surface streets from San Bernardino to Pasadena and then get to your hotel on the freeway and spend part of the next day or two backtracking to do classic LA things. If you’re staying near Santa Monica, Beverly Hills and Hollywood aren’t all that far.
Finally! You’ve made it to the end of the line!
Santa Monica Pier
I’d been to the Santa Monica pier and downtown Santa Monica years ago and honestly didn’t have the best memories. Mix that with stories about an out of control homeless population and I wasn’t super looking forward to it.
But it wasn’t as bad as I thought.
Here’s what I did: We timed it so we ended up at the pier on a weekday and we went in the morning (10-11ish). This was in October and it wasn’t crowded or crazy but there were plenty of people everywhere. It felt fairly clean and not as seedy as I can imagine it does at night.
There is plenty of parking down at the pier and in garages in Santa Monica within walking distance.
You’ll definitely want to take your picture at the End of the Trail sign on the main boardwalk.
But don’t miss the sign that’s more towards the end of the boardwalk near the roller coaster.
And I didn’t know about it at the time, but apparently there’s a store or kiosk near the sign where you can get a certificate of completion for Route 66. I guess I have to go back now ; )
There’s a lot going on at the Santa Monica Pier and even in downtown Santa Monica, but if you’re looking for one last classic Americana diner experience, try Mel’s Drive-In just a few blocks from the pier. This location wasn’t originally on Route 66, but it’s a local franchise that started in San Francisco in 1947.
You Finished Route 66, Now What?
It feels like a big accomplishment, but I’ll be honest, driving through LA and ending at the Santa Monica Pier isn’t necessarily the most picture perfect California experience.
Personally, I would probably add a few days at the end of your trip and do something more iconically California like visit Disneyland, drive down to Orange County to Huntington, Newport, and Laguna Beach (soooo pretty!) or drive up the Pacific Coast Highway through Malibu and Santa Barbara.
California is such a great state and I feel like what you see sticking to Route 66 isn’t necessarily the best representation.
Planning a Route 66 road trip? I’ve got all of the info you need!
I’ve written about my cross country road trip pretty extensively section by section. Read them all here: Part 1 (Chicago), Part 2 (Chicago to St. Louis), Part 3 (St. Louis), Part 4 (St. Louis to Springfield MO), Part 5 (Springfield, MO), Part 6 (Springfield, MO to Tulsa), Part 7 (Tulsa), Part 8 (Tulsa to OKC), Part 9 (OKC), Part 10 (OKC to Amarillo), Part 11 (Amarillo), Part 12 (Amarillo to Albuquerque), Part 13 (Albuquerque), Part 14 (Albuquerque to Flagstaff), Part 15 (Flagstaff), Part 16 (Flagstaff to San Bernardino), Part 17 (Los Angeles).
I’ve got the scoop on where to stay including the best Route 66 motels recommendations.
And finally, my final trip recap where I spill the beans on how many days you need, the best itinerary, my favorite don’t miss spots, and other tips.