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Route 66 Springfield, MO to Tulsa, OK: Driving the Ghost Road, a Giant Blue Whale & Dip Cones from the Dairy King

Growing up in Tulsa, OK we often drive bits of old Route 66 going here or there, but it wasn’t until I took out to do the entire 2500 mile road trip and all the research that came with it that I realized how much good road there is around where I live. 

Nowadays so much of Route 66 is access or frontage road to the interstate (if not paved over entirely), but in southern Missouri and Oklahoma there are looooong stretches of road that connect towns miles and miles away from the interstate. 

Route 66 from Springfield, MO to Tulsa, OK is one of those stretches. Long, uninterrupted portions of road that weave past farmland, small towns, abandoned barns, and more cows and horses than you can count…it’s a great drive. 

Get ready to put the map down and just enjoy the drive as you amble through the heartland on this stretch of Route 66. 

Route 66 from Springfield, MO to Tulsa, OK

I’ll cover this section of Route 66 in these pieces:

Route 66 in Springfield, MO

Route 66 Springfield, MO to Carthage, MO

Route 66 Carthage, MO to Joplin, MO

Route 66 through Kansas

Route 66 Quapaw, OK to Tulsa, OK

Route 66 in Tulsa, OK

Route 66 in Springfield, MO

I’ve got a full post coming on Route 66 through Springfield, but for now the don’t miss spots in Springfield are:

Rail Haven Motel (where Elvis Presley stayed!)

Reds Hamburg

Route 66 Car Museum

Route 66 Springfield, MO to Carthage, MO

The stretch from Springfield to Carthage is often called the “ghost road” and it’s easy to see why. Abandoned barns, gas stations, and other relics are seen frequently as you cruise through farm pastures miles and miles from the interstates. It’s one of my favorite bits of Route 66 that I’ve driven so far. 

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. 

Avilla, MO

Avilla is one of the few non-ghost towns along this stretch. Lottie’s Soda Shoppe is pretty new, but they serve good lunch specials. There’s also an antique/junk shop that looks pretty good right on the route. 

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. 

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!

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. I had lunch at the newly opened Pie Safe (chicken salad sandwiches, etc), but the Carthage Deli is the place that’s most recommended in town. Don’t miss the historic Star Lanes just off the square. 

66 Drive-In: Carthage, MO 

Historic drive-ins are few and far between anymore, but this one is a gem if you catch it in season. 

Route 66 Carthage, MO to Joplin, MO

Tow Mater at the Bulger Motor Co: Carterville, MO

Carterville used to be home to a stretch of used car lots, but it’s mostly closed up now. But don’t miss the Tow Mater style tow trucks in front of the Bulger Motor Co. 

Route 66 Center: Webb City, MO

There’s a visitor center in a restored gas station. 

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. 

Joplin Route 66 Mural Park: Joplin, MO

I don’t know what I expected from this place, but it’s basically one large mural and a sidewalk.  It’s a nice anchor point to get out and walk a little bit of Joplin’s historic downtown though. 

Route 66 through Kansas

Kansas may be the shortest stretch of Route 66 (only 11 miles!), but it has some don’t miss spots! 

Galena, KS

The first town you’ll come to is Galena. There’s a pretty charming main street and a couple things to see, but Galena’s claim to Route 66 fame is being the home of Mater. Yep, the character “Tow Mater” from the Pixar movie Cars was inspired by a rusty tow truck that sat in front of an old filling station in town. 

The town has embraced their contribution to the movie (which has done a lot to restore public interest in Route 66), and you’ll find several cars from the movie on display in the town. 

Cars on Route

When I stopped in Galena, there were three different places to see the cars. They’re all on Main Street, which is your first right hand turn coming into town (you can’t miss it). 

Mater (the tow truck) and Red (the fire engine) sit in front of a restored Kan-O-Tex station that’s been renamed “Cars on Route.” There’s a small gift shop inside, but it was closed when I visited. 

Take a right at the station (onto Front Street which is an alternate Route 66 loop) and drive 100 feet or so and you’ll see Sheriff and Luigi. Sheriff (a 1949 Mercury Police Cruiser) is posted up kind of high (probably to keep a lookout) and Luigi (a 1959 Fiat 500) is set up for a nice little photo op. Don’t miss the tractor cows in the background! 

The last spot to see the cars is at the restored Texaco station in the middle of Main Street. Here you’ll find Doc Hudson (a 1951 Hudson Hornet). This station has been restored so well and there’s a cute little curio shop in the office, but unfortunately it was closed when I stopped. 

Galena Main Street

Downtown Galena (all 2 blocks of it) is the kind of place I like to poke around. It has a few restaurants and a couple of shops, but feels like a town that the interstate left behind. Some of the buildings are abandoned, but the architectural details and patina are pretty rich. There are quite a few old ghost signs and new ones as well. 

Have a photo op at the Galena City Jail and stop at the Route 66 Howard “Pappy” Litch Park to read the informational signs. They have great information about Route 66 and the town’s mining history. 

Galena History Museum

Speaking of mining, if you have an interest in that or the town’s history, stop by the Galena Mining and Historical Museum. It’s not a must do, but if you’re a museum person, this is one of the few you’ll find along Kansas’ portion of Route 66. 

Riverton, KS

Riverton isn’t so much a town as it is a blip. But it’s home to what I would say is the #1 don’t miss stop in Kansas. 

Old Riverton Store

It’s gone by many names…originally the Williams Store when it was built in 1925 then the Eislers Brothers Old Riverton Store and now Nelson’s Old Riverton Store (but still with the original signs), the store is on the National Register of Historic Places and doesn’t look like it’s changed much since it opened. 

This place is a gem. It’s the kind of place you hope to find when you set out on Route 66. Frozen in time, friendly owners who seem to just be waiting for you to stop in and chat, and interesting things to see absolutely everywhere. 

Sure you can grab a bottle of pop and some snacks, but the real hit here is the deli. Several locals came in to grab lunch from the counter and that tells you everything you need to know. 

Also don’t miss the back room that’s packed with Route 66 memorabilia and souvenirs. It’s a really great collection and they have a documentary about the making of Cars playing in the background. This is one of the places that the creators visited to get inspiration for the film!

Baxter Springs, KS

Baxter Springs is a much bigger town than Galena with plenty of shops and restaurants to keep you busy for a couple of hours. 

Rainbow Bridge

Before you drive into Baxter Springs, you’ll want to detour to an older route to see the Rainbow Bridge. You’ll make your first turn at the Field of Dreams baseball complex, but put the location into your GPS because it’s not very well marked. The bridge is the only remaining concrete Marsh arch bridge on Route 66 and you can actually drive across it. It’s one way and there’s a place where you can pull over to view it as well. I don’t know much about bridges, but it’s definitely a worthwhile detour (only a couple of miles). 

Downtown Baxter Springs

As soon as you come into town on your left, you’ll see the old Baxter Springs Independent Oil and Gas Service Station which has been converted into the Kansas Route 66 Visitors Center. 

“Downtown” has a good 2-3 blocks that have been revitalized. I was pretty impressed with the antique stores and flea markets. Good finds with better prices than you’ll find closer to a big city. I stopped in the Baxter Flea Market and Somewhere in Antiquities and would recommend both. 

Also, I drove through in the daytime, but would love to come back through at night because there were quite a few nice looking neon signs. 

Before I headed out of town, I stopped at the Monarch Pharmacy & Soda Fountain. This is NOT the soda fountain in the middle of downtown (that’s actually an after school program center!), but it’s a few blocks further down the road. It’s really cute inside and they made a great chocolate shake!

After you leave Baxter Springs, you’ll drive through the country a bit before crossing into Oklahoma near Quapaw.

Route 66 Stops from Quapaw, OK to Tulsa, OK

If you’re coming into Oklahoma on Route 66 from Kansas (most likely from Baxter Springs), Quapaw is the first “town” you come to. You can drive Route 66 from the Kansas border all the way into Tulsa (Catoosa really) in one continuous stretch. It’s a great portion of the road and feels really special since in so many places Route 66 is really chopped up. Start in Quapaw and you’ll pass Commerce, Miami (my-am-uh), Afton, Vinita, Foyil, Claremore, and Catoosa. The road is pretty well marked, but know your route just in case because there are a few turns required when you’re coming through some of the small towns to stay on track. 

Dairy King: Commerce, OK

This first stop on Route 66 in Oklahoma is one of my favorites. Originally a gas station in the late 1920s, the Dairy King is now a little treasure trove of Route 66 history where you can also get a tasty roadside meal. Most people stop for a photo op at the filling station across the street (it’s a fairly famous spot), but it’s actually a “faux” station and you can tell once you look at it. The Dairy King is the real deal and the owners are a GEM. While they’re whipping up your burgers or fixing your shakes, they’ll tell you story after story about their little spot on Route 66. They’re particularly proud of their homemade sugar cookies in the shape of the Route 66 shield. 

For being such a small town, Commerce has a few claims to fame including being the birthplace of baseball legend Mickey Mantle and the home of a shootout with Bonnie and Clyde that left the local constable dead. This is a must stop for sure!

Coleman Theater: Miami, OK

This historic theater built in 1929 is on the National Register of Historic Places and if you’re into old fashioned theaters (there aren’t many left anymore!) then you’ll definitely want to check this one out. The exterior is done in the Spanish Colonial Revival style while the inside is about as ornate as they come (think Versaille). Check out their schedule to see a movie or call ahead about scheduling a tour. 

Waylan’s KuKu: Miami, OK

I can’t resist a good burger stand, and this is a classic. Yummy burgers, fries, and dipped cones plus their neon sign is incredible. 

Hi Way Cafe: Vinita, OK

If you want more of a full service cafe style home cooked meal (wow, that’s a lot of adjectives), stop at Hi Way Cafe just down the road in Vinita. 

Totem Pole Park: Foyil, OK

This is another DON’T MISS for me on Route 66. It’s as “roadside attraction” as they come. It’s located a few miles off Route 66 so you’ll have to seek it out, but it’s worth the detour. Built by folk artist Ed Galloway between 1937 and 1948 as a tribute to Native Americans, the main totem pole has 200 carvings. 

When I visited, they had been in the process of repainting the main totem pole for 5 YEARS as they could raise the funds. There’s no admission to the park, but there’s a small gift shop and the money goes towards keeping the park maintained. If you enjoy your stop, definitely think about making a purchase or a donation.  

Will Rogers Memorial Museum: Claremore, OK

Will Rogers just might be the most famous Oklahoman of all time. He was certainly beloved. 

The internationally acclaimed entertainer (cowboy, actor, humorist) passed away in a plane crash in 1935 when Route 66 was in its heyday. Route 66 was unofficially nicknamed the “Will Rogers Highway” in 1952 by the US Highway 66 Association. Route 66 runs right through Will Rogers’ hometown, Claremore, and it’s where you’ll find the Will Rogers Memorial Museum. It’s a fantastic museum and definitely worth your time. 

Blue Whale: Catoosa, OK

The Blue Whale is probably the most iconic attraction on Route 66 in Oklahoma. Sitting on a little lake in Catoosa, the whale was completed in 1972 and almost instantly became a beloved family attraction where children could jump off the whale and swim and fish in the pond. You can’t swim in the area anymore (and quite frankly I can’t imagine you’d want to-it seems like snake city!), but it’s well maintained as a little roadside attraction and there’s a nice picnic area. 

Route 66 in Tulsa

Route 66 pretty much has one primary drag through Tulsa (in some big cities it’s pretty chopped up from different routes throughout the years) right down 11th street. While the road more or less went into oblivion after the highway was officially decommissioned in the 1980s (not so much the actual road, but the spirit of the businesses and communities that lined it), the last decade or so has seen a HUGE resurgence in interest in restoring the culture and history. Major efforts have been made by both the City of Tulsa and local businesses to make Route 66 through Tulsa a major attraction for visitors and locals alike. 

From Catoosa, Route 66 follows I-44 into town until it gets to Garnett. From Garnett all the way west to the Arkansas River, Route 66 follows 11th St. From Yale west to the river is where you’ll see most of the restoration and new construction with the wealth of it concentrated between Lewis and the river. 

I’ve written a full post about Route 66 in Tulsa here (so many details and recommendations), but here’s a quick list of some must see places:

Rose Bowl: An iconic pink bowling alley.

Desert Inn: Tulsa’s best roadside motel. Don’t miss the neon sign and classic car out front!

Tally’s Cafe: Tulsa’s favorite retro diner.

Golden Driller: Tulsa’s best roadside attraction.

Campbell Hotel: Renovated historic hotel with modern amenities.

Mother Road Market: Oklahoma’s first food hall plus local retail shops.

El Rancho Grande: Tex-Mex joint serving up enchiladas and margaritas since 1953. Also famous for their neon sign!

Buck Atom’s: Recently built but 100% vintage roadside attraction and curio shop. 

Meadow Gold Sign: The famous Meadow Gold neon sign was recently restored and sits on the rooftop at 11th and Peoria.

Cyrus Avery Plaza: A small park on the banks of the Arkansas river featuring both a commemorative statue and a neon sign park.

Planning a Route 66 road trip? I’ve got all of the info you need! 

I’ve broken down each segment driving westbound so you know exactly what to expect: Chicago IL to St. Louis MO, St. Louis MO to Springfield MO, Springfield MO to Tulsa OK, Tulsa OK to Oklahoma City OK, Oklahoma City OK to Amarillo TX, Amarillo TX to Albuquerque NM

Plus I’ve rounded up my absolute favorite experiences (things to do, where to eat, where to stay, etc.) by state here: Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico

And I’ve got more in-depth posts on certain cities: Chicago, St. Louis, Tulsa, Amarillo, Tucumcari, and Albuquerque.