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!
After driving the entire stretch of Route 66 this year, surprisingly (at least to me), I found Missouri to be the most diverse state that it traverses. Which is a little odd because I’ve actually spent a lot of time in Missouri (I have family there) and diverse isn’t necessarily a top word I would use to describe the state.
BUT as I’ve been writing up my Route 66 road trip by state, I’ve found that I’m able to describe pretty much every state on the route in about 3 words that paints a very clear picture of what to expect. Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California all have such distinct cultures and landscapes that you can close your eyes and see them.
But Missouri…has a lot of different things going on. Before this trip, I would’ve said it’s the Great Midwest, but after driving through Illinois, well, it’s not on their level. It’s definitely an agricultural state. Plenty of farms and cows and barns and rolling hills. But you’ve also got the Mighty Mississippi and St. Louis with its rich culture of blues, bbq, beer, and baseball. And then the Ozark Mountains in the southern end which are an absolute haven for outdoor enthusiasts. There’s a hunting and fishing culture there that’s so ingrained that it’s become an overwhelming commercial success.
And that’s just what you’ll find along Route 66! So all of this to say…with over 300 miles of Route 66, Missouri has a lot going on.
I’ve written pretty extensively about my Route 66 trip and you can read my play by play posts on St. Louis, the St. Louis to Springfield stretch, Springfield, and the Springfield to Tulsa stretch, but this post is more of a postmortem or a post game wrap up, if you will. I’m writing these state by state posts to recap what I liked, what I loved, what I wasn’t very impressed with, etc.
I’ve got notes on what turned out to be my favorite spots and favorite restaurants plus recommendations of what I’d do differently next time. And I’ll also make recommendations on places that I would actually stay (because I’m not usually a $79/night motel kind of gal).
Missouri Route 66
Okay, here we go…
Route 66 Towns in Missouri
Let’s start off with a list of towns that Route 66 passes through in Missouri 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.
My Favorite Missouri Route 66 Attractions
Gateway Arch National Park: St. Louis, MO
There’s no bigger icon in St Louis (along Route 66!!) than the Gateway Arch. I mean, really…it just does not get enough attention. Surprisingly, a lot of people don’t know that you can actually go all the way to the top. Reserve your tickets in advance because they sometimes sell out. Read more about visiting the Gateway Arch here. If you only make a handful of stops in Missouri, this has to be one of them.
Chain of Rocks Bridge: St. Louis, MO
In all of my Route 66 research and travels I’ve discovered that there are…bridge people. Sure I know about some of the big ones…the Golden Gate Bridge, Brooklyn Bridge, London Bridge is always falling down…but some people really get into seeking out all kinds of bridges and apparently Route 66 has some noteworthy ones.
I’m not going to lie…some are overgrown, pretty rickety, or just not that interesting looking to your average non-bridge obsessed traveler, but even I can appreciate Chain of Rocks Bridge that crosses the Mississippi between Illinois and Missouri in St. Louis.
I’m sure you could go on and on about the architecture, engineering, and historical significance of the bridge (well, I couldn’t but somebody who knows about bridges could), but what’s neat about this decommissioned bridge is that you can WALK ACROSS THE MISSISSIPPI RIVER. For some reason that just strikes me as a really cool thing to do and there surprisingly aren’t too many places where you can do it, especially spots that are so pedestrian friendly (walking along an interstate isn’t too fun).
But on the old (not to be confused with the new) Chain of Rocks Bridge, you can park on the Illinois side, walk out onto the bridge, and stand over the Mighty Mississippi.
The new Chain of Rocks Bridge is actually I-270 so that’s the route you’ll want to follow coming into St. Louis if you’re planning a stop at the bridge. If you’re on I-270, take the first (or last) exit in Illinois and turn east and then pretty much immediately back south. You’ll actually have to cross an initial bridge (with stop and go lights) before you come to the base of the Old Chain of Rocks Bridge.
There’s a big parking lot and some signs to read about it and it’s all set up really nice for pedestrians and bikers, but be aware of your surroundings because it’s really isolated.
Meramec Caverns: Stanton, MO
Route 66 is supposed to be all about roadside attractions, right? Well, Meramec Caverns is a roadside attraction at its finest. There’s so much hype for the cave tours all along the route (their barn advertisements stretch across the country both on Route 66 and the interstates that trace it), but I’d say it’s actually worth the hype.
They’ve got a hotel, campsites, and all kind of water activities to keep you occupied for a few days, but you can also pop in for a couple of hours and see a lot.
It’s the largest commercial cave in Missouri (a state that’s known for its caves!) and it has some truly unique and wonderful formations. They offer tours every 20-30 minutes that last about an hour and 20 minutes and it’s worth the time. Take a jacket or risk having to buy one in the gift shop ; )
I wrote all about the cave tour at Meramec here.
Fanning General Store: Fanning, MO
I love a good general store with racks of candy, chips, and the most unhealthy snacks imaginable and the Fanning General Store delivers.
Plus they have a wall of sodas that besides Pops in Arcadia, OK, has the best selection of sodas I’ve seen along Route 66.
And you surely won’t miss the giant rocking chair out front…once the world’s largest.
Devil’s Elbow, MO
This is my favorite part of Route 66 through Missouri. It’s miles and miles away from the interstate and very scenic.
Through Hooker is the first bit of 4 lane Route 66 built in MO, and the 90 foot Hooker Cut was the deepest road cut in Missouri at the time.
Devil’s Elbow refers to a bend in the river that was notorious for causing logjams.
Route 66 Car Museum: Springfield, MO
I’ve been to pretty much all of the classic car museums on Route 66 and this is the best. Besides a truly impressive collection of cars (the collection includes classics from almost 100 years spanning from 1907 to 2005), this museum does a great job of telling stories and giving insight into WHY every car is significant.
Gary’s Gay Parita Sinclair Station: Ash Grove, MO
This has got to be one of the best Route 66 stops in Missouri, and sadly with the passing of owners Gary and Lena Turner, it’s now currently open but the family does seem to be maintaining it. Park on the side of the road and you can see a lot from the fence. Passing Halltown (westbound), you’ll come to a fork in the road with two different 66 alignments. Take the RIGHT to drive past the Gay Parita.
A don’t miss for sure.
Red Oak II: Carthage, MO
This place is an odd little gem and I don’t think you read much about it in connection with Route 66, but it’s worth the detour. It’s a really large recreation of an old fashioned town that you can drive through in your car (you can park and walk around but it was really muddy when I visited) and the details are phenomenal. I was there on a weekday morning in the winter and I never saw another soul.
I’m planning to go back soon to explore a little more.
Jasper County Courthouse & Square: Carthage, MO
You’ll definitely want to visit the old town square in Carthage. The courthouse itself is an impressive building, and there’s a handful of REALLY good antique stores around the square. Don’t miss the historic Star Lanes just off the square.
Where I Ate, What I Liked & Where I Would Go Next Time
Let’s start with where I ate and what I thought…
Ted Drewes (St. Louis, MO): On the route since 1929, Ted Drewes is a St Louis tradition. Frozen custard is ice cream but it’s made with eggs (still plenty of cream and sugar!) so it’s thicker. It’s actually so thick that they mix it with toppings and call it a “concrete” and even when they turn it upside down it won’t fall out. If you’re only going to have one roadside snack in Missouri, it’s got to be a concrete from Ted Drewes. Go during the day if you can because it gets PACKED at night. Especially during the summer.
Crown Candy Kitchen (St. Louis, MO): If you only have time for one meal in St Louis, make it the Candy Crown Kitchen. Well over 100 years old, this classic soda fountain serves up really tasty sandwiches too. They’re only open from 10:30-5 and the parking in the area is all on the street but you can use the ParkMobile app to pay.
Spencer’s Grill (St. Louis, MO): Located in Kirkwood in 1947, this place is open from 6AM to 2PM 7 days a week. It’s a super cute place and it’s a nice part of town (if it’s spring time, plan to spend a little time driving through the neighborhoods because they are stunning), but honestly the food all tasted pretty off to me. It’s just typical diner fare (which is a favorite of mine) so maybe I just caught it on a bad day, but I would definitely pick the Crown Candy Kitchen over this place (for lunch).
Tater Patch (Rolla, MO): From the outside it looks like a classic roadhouse, but it’s very family friendly and a popular lunch spot with locals. They’re known for their spuds, but the burger I had was fantastic. Portions are HUGE.
Slice of Pie (Rolla, MO): For a lighter lunch option, head to Slice of Pie for chicken salad sammies, chicken pot pie, etc. But you really come for the pie. Or cake or brownies. They have a large dessert menu, but go early if your heart is set on something specific. They get quite a few tour buses that wipe out the selection.
Steak n Shake (Springfield, MO): My grandparents live in Springfield and I grew up going here quite often. There are a few older/historic Steak n Shake locations in Springfield, but the neon here really is sublime.
Places I Would Try Next Time
Donut Drive In (St. Louis, MO): This place is just down the street from Ted Drewes so if you’re going to hit both, it’s easiest to get the donuts to go for later.
Big Chief Roadhouse (Wildwood, MO): Opened in 1929, if you’re up for a big meal made from scratch this is your spot. It’s out of town a ways and you’ll need to take the PRE 1932 alignment. I didn’t get a chance to stop here on my last trip, but I’m going to make it a priority on the next.
Missouri Hicks BBQ (Cuba, MO): Next door to the Wagon Wheel Motel is one of Missouri’s most famous bbq joints. I haven’t eaten here yet, but I’m planning a stop soon.
Whisler’s Drive Up (Carthage, MO): Grab a burger and a seat at one of their picnic tables or take it over to Kellogg Lake Park.
Red Onion Cafe (Joplin, MO): Rated Joplin’s #1 restaurant for a reason…it’s in a great location in a historic building downtown and pretty much everything you order is great.
Wilder’s Steakhouse (Joplin, MO) The sign at Wilder’s has been preserved as part of the National Park’s Route 66 preservation program and it’s pretty spectacular. I haven’t eaten at the restaurant yet, but it’s on my list.
Places I Would Actually Stay
I’ve mentioned before, but most of those $79/night roadside motels just aren’t for me. It has to be something pretty special to peak my interest and mostly I prefer something a little nicer.
The good news is that Missouri has some great options when it comes to historic or vintage Route 66 motels that are actually decent places. AND plenty of nicer hotel options too so you’ll be able to find exactly what you’re looking for.
Let’s start with the classics.
Wagon Wheel Motel (Cuba, MO)
If you’re looking for a cute little Route 66 motel in Missouri, the Wagon Wheel has to be on the short list. I’ll be honest…I love the idea of vintage Route 66 motels but in reality there are very few I would actually stay in. But this is one of them. It’s on a nice property and feels more like you’re in the country than in town even though it’s right on the route. Plus there’s a cute little gift shop so stop by even if you’re not planning to stay the night.
Munger Moss Motel (Lebanon, MO)
The restored Munger Moss Motel is one of the gems on the Mother Road and WOWZERS THAT SIGN. Built in 1946, the Munger Moss Motel isn’t quite as charming as the Wagon Wheel Motel in nearby Cuba (in my opinion), but it does sit on a little stretch of road that’s pretty highly concentrated with old preserved Route 66 spots (check out the Starlite Lanes bowling alley and Wrinks Market which is now a boutique).
Route 66 Rail Haven (Springfield, MO)
I’m thinking of specializing in the travel niche of “Elvis Presley was here.” So this place would be on the list. It’s part of the Best Western chain now, but still retains its original “charm.” The rooms are more updated than your average historic Route 66 motel and the Elvis Suite looks pretty snazzy.
Rockwood Motor Court (Springfield, MO)
This place has just been recently renovated and reopened. It’s small, but seems pretty nice and in a way gives me similar vibes to the Blue Swallow in Tucumcari but minus the neon. And it’s in a quieter part of town than the Rail Haven.
Boots Motel (Carthage, MO)
The architecture of this historic motel is pretty unique and it’s in the process of being restored. Can’t wait to see it when it’s done!
Okay, if you’re not into the vintage motels and you’re looking for something a little higher end, your best options are going to be in St. Louis and Springfield. Joplin also has great mid range chain options (Courtyard Marriott, etc.).
In St. Louis, you’re probably going to want to stay downtown. There is a heavy concentration of hotels in downtown St Louis that are within walking distance to the Gateway Arch as well as everything else.
On my Route 66 trip I stayed at the Magnolia Hotel since I was looking for something budget friendly downtown (read my full review here), but next time I’d consider the Hotel St Louis or even the Four Seasons which is pretty reasonably priced for a luxury hotel. And true luxury hotels are going to be in short supply once you get outside of the major cities along Route 66.
But everybody (Hyatt, Hilton, Marriott, etc.) has big time hotel options in downtown St. Louis and a lot have arch view rooms.
In St. Louis, if you want a Route 66 era hotel that doesn’t skip on the luxury, check out the Chase Park Plaza Hotel. The art deco style hotel was built in 1929 and it’s located in the historic Forest Park neighborhood which was home of the 1904 World’s Fair and now home to some of the city’s best attractions (the zoo, art museum, history museum, boathouse, etc.).
In Springfield, look into the Hotel Vandivort downtown. It’s a historic boutique hotel that’s very well designed.
Other Things to See & Do in Missouri BESIDES Route 66
This section is really important to me, because the whole point of driving Route 66 recreationally was to See America so besides all of the vintage, kitchy, and historic attractions on Route 66, I like to spend a little time focusing on what you might be able to see and experience in each state that’s unique to that part of the country. Now I’m not going to have you running all over the state, but here are a few suggestions that aren’t too terribly far off the route:
Yes, there’s a lot of Route 66 related things to see and do in St. Louis, but besides the Route, St. Louis is a vibrant city with a lot of history and culture. Here are some ideas: catch a Cardinals game at Busch Stadium, tour Anheuser-Busch or another local brewery, visit the National Blues Museum, eat italian food on “The Hill,” try St. Louis style BBQ, visit the City Museum, see the most adorable penguins at the St. Louis Zoo, etc.
Okay wait, hear me out. Yes, there are a lot of incredibly hokey tourist traps in Branson, BUT the Ozark Mountains are actually so beautiful and nowadays there is a SCENE happening in Branson. Think high end, down home mountain getaway. Places to check out: Big Cedar Lodge, Dogwood Canyon, Top of the Rock, Silver Dollar City, Payne’s Valley Golf Course (Tiger Wood’s place), and so many more.
The Ozark Mill at Finley Farm
If you’re not up for the full Branson sidetrip, I insist you must at least detour to Finley Farm in Ozark. It’s about 15 miles south of Springfield and it’s the most idyllic version of the Ozarks you’ll ever see. It’s basically a restaurant, but it’s really a whole experience.
Bass Pro Shops & Aquarium
Bass Pro but Springfield on the map and boy is it something to see these days. If you’re not from this part of the country, I imagine a stroll through Bass Pro might feel like you’re in another country. It’s American hunting and fishing culture at its finest, but it’s so well done. But really the don’t miss attraction is the Wonders of Wildlife aquarium. It regularly wins awards as the best aquarium in the country, and it’s truly impressive. Whether you have kids or not, plan to spend at least 3 hours here.
Laura Ingalls Wilder Home
I would be remiss not to tell you about this place. Rocky Ridge Farm, where Laura Ingalls Wilder lived from 1896 until her death in 1957, is where Wilder wrote her books and the place is now a museum. I haven’t made it here yet (it’s so high on my bucket list), but it’s supposed to be the best Laura Ingalls Wilder site to visit. It’s located in Mansfield which is a little less than an hour east of Springfield and it’s only open from March to November.
More Route 66 Missouri Resources
In all of my planning, I found some pretty good resources on the internet so I thought I’d share them with you here:
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.