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!
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.
I’ve written pretty extensively about my Route 66 trip and you can read my play by play posts on the Flagstaff to San Bernardino stretch and Route 66 in Los Angeles, but this post is more of a postmortem or a post game wrap up, if you will. I’m writing this post to recap what I liked, what I loved, what I wasn’t very impressed with, etc.
And honestly, it’s going to be more of what I didn’t love.
It’s definitely not my favorite stretch of Route 66, but the desert is magnificent in its own way and there’s something special about finishing such a big trip at the ocean.
So first I’m going to do the rundown on what the major attractions are along Route 66 in California and then I’ll get into my (maybe) controversial opinions about what’s worth doing and seeing in California.
California Route 66
Okay, here we go…
Route 66 Towns in California
First off, here’s a list of towns that Route 66 passes through in California so you can lay it out on a map. This is NOT every single town, there are just the ones that I personally found to be the most noteworthy.
California Route 66 Attractions
Honestly there just isn’t a ton to see and do along Route 66 in California. It’s mostly the desert (barren, isolated, super remote) and then bam you’re in LA (hectic, city sprawl, new covering the old).
BUT here’s a list of the major California Route 66 attractions:
El Garces Harvey House
The El Garces Harvey House in Needles has been restored somewhat recently but it’s not yet open to the public. Keep an eye on it in the future now because it’s always worth stopping at a renovated Harvey House.
Roy’s in Amboy
Roy’s in Amboy is probably the best old Route 66 nostalgia you’ll find on this stretch. Unfortunately, the road south of I-40 is closed east of Amboy at this time (some bridges washed out) so you’ll have to take the exit from I-40 and then backtrack the way you came.
Fans of the cult classic movie Bagdad Cafe will probably want to stop by the cafe in Newberry Springs.
Casa del Desierto Harvey House
I really enjoyed stopping by the Harvey House Railroad Depot. It’s a little detour from Route 66, but totally worth it. There’s a Route 66 Museum and Western America Railroad Museum onsite, but they’re only open Friday, Saturday and Sunday from 11AM to 4PM
You can go inside the original Harvey House though, nicknamed Casa del Desierto. It’s been restored to its original 1913 condition and it’s pretty spectacular. It’s a working Amtrak station so you’re free to go in and look around. They also have public restrooms.
California Route 66 Museum
I had read about the California Route 66 Museum in Victorville and was kind of interested in going because they have some of the leftover “exhibits” from Hulaville (a vintage roadside–attraction? Exhibit?), but ended up passing through on a day they were closed.
Well, it was probably for the best because honestly I don’t think I would’ve stopped and gone in even if they were open. The area of Victorville where the museum is was pretty rough and it just didn’t seem like a good place to spend time.
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.
Rancho Cucamonga Service Station
While restored service stations are a little more prevalent in other places along Route 66, this is one of the few in Southern California. The Rancho Cucamonga Service Station has been restored really nicely.
Because it’s in a high traffic area on a major street, they keep it fenced off when it’s not open, so if you want to see the inside (or even just get closer than the gate), make sure you stop by when they’re open .
Santa Monica Pier
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.
The Real Truth About Route 66 in California
Here’s what maybe no travel writer/blogger will tell you (although plenty of people in the Route 66 Facebook groups I joined talk about it)…California is…tricky.
It’s honestly a pretty big let down after Arizona and a lot of people that drive 66 frequently choose to bow out after Oatman.
BUT if you’re never done it before and you want to officially “complete” Route 66, there’s such a pull to go all the way to the end at the Santa Monica pier.
There’s also a lack of nice places to stay (at least in my opinion) except for roadside chain options until you get into LA which kind of makes you (haha me) want to just push on through and get to LA.
Soooooo…there are a million ways you can drive Route 66 and wrap it up through California, but I’m going to lay out what I chose to do and what I would recommend (this isn’t how everybody wants to do it).
Before coming into California, I spent the night in Kingman, Arizona because it seemed to have the best hotel options. Looking down the road from there, there was pretty much nowhere I’d want to stay until I got to Victorville/San Bernardino where they have your basic hotel chain options.
Well by this point in my road trip, I was getting tired of switching hotels every night or two so I decided it sounded better to just drive all the way into LA and then spend part of the next day catching some Route 66 related spots in the LA area. At least that way I could just stay in one hotel for several days.
So if you’re keeping track, I went from Kingman, AZ to West LA in one day which is a little less than 5 hours on the interstate. But obviously much longer on Route 66. If you spend the night in San Bernardino, it’ll save you about an hour (plus traffic) of driving time) but then you have to switch hotels AGAIN before you get to the end of the route.
That’s a BIG day. And honestly, it was NOT fun. But we did it and in retrospect I don’t think I would’ve done anything differently (other than skipping more parts of 66 and sticking to the interstate).
Here’s the deal…just driving the interstate through the desert feels like a big deal. It’s remote and isolated (the very few gas stations you’ll find charge like $9/gallon), but it’s still very scenic.
I didn’t feel like I gained much trying to drive the stretches of Route 66 through the desert. In hindsight, I would’ve just driven the interstate from Needles to Barstow with a quick detour down to Roy’s in Amboy.
Here’s a tip for driving this stretch of road…fill up your gas tank in Kingman because once you cross into California it is EXPENSIVE going through the desert. Even in Needles it’s usually several dollars more than across the border in Arizona (Bullhead City, etc.).
We stopped at a gas station in the middle of the desert to go to the bathroom and gas was over $9/gallon and even drinks and snacks were double or triple what they would be anywhere else. Don’t panic…this is NOT California pricing, it’s desert pricing (there is literally nothing out here), but it’s smart to not need to stop for gas until you reach Barstow.
Barstow, Victorville, and San Bernardino are all sizable towns that bridge the desert and Los Angeles.
If you’re going to spend the night in San Bernardino, you’ll have plenty of time to stop and explore and even stick more closely to Route 66.
If you’re going all the way to LA, stop to see the Harvey House in Barstow, the Route 66 California Museum in Victorville if you must, and the McDonald’s Museum and Wigwam Motel in San Bernardino. By the time you wrap all of that up, you’ll know if you have time to stop in Rancho Cucamonga and Pasadena or if you just want to hop on the interstate and head to your hotel.
Once you leave San Bernardino, I’d say strictly sticking to surface streets vs the freeway is just a matter of personal choice. I would just map out certain spots you want to see and hop on and hop off because I do NOT have the patience to spend 4-6 hours in stop and go traffic just to drive through a city that honestly doesn’t have a whole lot of Route 66 references left.
If you want to kind of just hit the highlights, I’d visit Rancho Cucamonga, Pasadena, Hollywood, and Beverly Hills before wrapping up in Santa Monica. And you can do all of that as a day trip once you’re already staying in LA.
Honest confession: My personality tends towards the “completist type” and I like to finish things and cross them off. But even I would think long and hard about just hopping on the freeway in San Bernardino and cruising to Santa Monica and then spending a few days just doing the things in LA that interest you. And I don’t think I’m alone in that. For a lot of people (even Route 66 enthusiasts), the wheels kind of fall off once you hit San Bernardino.
Which honestly was kind of the whole point of the road. It was to get you to California so you could go…wherever you were going. Historically once you passed through the desert on Route 66, it became less about following the route and more about getting to where you were going.
So where are you going? ; )
I’d suggest Disneyland or a trip up (or down) the Pacific Coast Highway, but wherever you’re going, you want to AT LEAST visit the Santa Monica pier for a bit.
Nowadays, the Santa Monica Pier is the official “end of the trail” and you’ve earned that photo op.
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.