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*Part 7* Route 66 in Tulsa: How Buck Atom’s Started a Small Business Boom on Route 66 in Tulsa

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!

My hometown! I grew up with Route 66 running right through my backyard, but I’ll be honest…when I was younger it didn’t seem like that big of a deal. It went through what you could call the “seedy” part of town and it was pretty rundown. But Route 66 through Tulsa is HOPPING now! 

I can’t imagine there are many cities out there that are celebrating their Route 66 history with the kind of restorating and innovation projects that Tulsa has going on so I’ve been up and down the Mother Road in Tulsa putting together a list of historic sites and new builds that you need to add to your Route 66 bucket list. 

But first up, here’s a quick rundown of the history of Route 66 in Tulsa…

During the early days of Route 66’s planning and construction, Tulsa was the city that seemed to be at the hub of the highway’s very existence. The idea for the roadway between Chicago and LA can be traced back to two entrepreneurs: John Woodruff of Springfield, MO and Cyrus Avery of Tulsa, OK. 

Taking advantage of legislation for public highways and with a plan to connect the mainstreets of major cities and rural towns, these two master planners dreamed up a route that allowed local businesses to flourish as travel became increasingly accessible and popular. 

Officially commissioned in 1926, Route 66 was a symbol of Americana (freedom, adventure, and the open road) until its decommissioning in 1985. 

Because of Cyrus Avery’s involvement in the establishment of the route and influence in the local business community, Route 66 always thrived in Tulsa. Lined with motels, diners, and attractions, Tulsa beckoned travelers on the Mother Road. It still does. 

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. 

Route 66 pretty much has one primary drag through Tulsa….right down 11th street. 

From Catoosa (home of the big Blue Whale), 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. 

An older alignment of Route 66 followed Admiral St (one mile north of 11th) through the city for a stretch, so I’ll mention places on that route as well. 

I’ve written a full post about Route 66 attractions in Oklahoma (so many details and recommendations), and I’ve got more itinerary based posts that cover Springfield MO to Tulsa, Tulsa to OKC, and OKC to Amarillo so if you’re driving the Mother Road through the whole length of the state (or even just parts of it), I’ve got you covered. 

Route 66 Attractions in Tulsa

Circle Cinema: A detour to the 1926-1932 route, but a venue worth seeing. Originally built in 1928 in historic Whittier Square, the Circle Theater was slated for demolition by the 1990s. Taking advantage of a grant through the National Park Service’s Route 66 Corridor Preservation Program, the Circle Cinema was fully restored and reopened in 2013 and is now a beloved indie movie theater in Tulsa. It’s in an up and coming historic neighborhood too so there’s plenty to explore nearby.

Buck Atom’s Cosmic Curios: The stretch of road from Utica to Peoria (half a mile) has seen so much innovation over the last couple of years and Buck Atom’s is at the heart of it. This place will make you wish you could’ve seen Route 66 in its prime. This little shop (it’s super tiny!) pays homage to the curio shops that lined Route 66. Buck Atom himself is an amazing roadside attraction and the neon sign is one of the best around. 

Rose Bowl: This iconic bowling alley operated from 1962 to 2005 and for a brief time fell into disrepair until it was given a second life as a sports facility for a non profit serving kids in the community. There’s not much to see, but it’s worth a quick stop for a better look at the unique architecture (said to be reminiscent of a German WWII bomb shelter). 

Admiral Twin: Not right on Route 66, but it’s super close and there’s nothing that says “old Route 66” more than a drive-in movie theater. There are so few drive-in theaters remaining in the US that it really makes you appreciate each one. Open weekends March through October (7 days a week in the summer). 

Golden Driller: Another brief detour from the original route, but this is a classic roadside attraction. The 75 foot tall statue (the 6th tallest in the US??) has been on watch in front of the Expo Center (home of the Tulsa State Fair) since 1966. 

Decopolis 66: To call it a bookstore is selling this place short. They do sell books, but it’s more of a novelty shop really. But the inside is like another world. It’s hard to explain, but you should definitely stop and go inside. 

Meadow Gold Sign: This classic neon sign advertising the Meadow Gold Dairy was set atop a building on 11th street from the 1934 to the 1970s when it went dark. The Tulsa Foundation for Architecture was awarded a grant from the National Park Service Route 66 Corridor to restore the sign and worked with several organizations to finally get the sign restored. It sits on top of a plaza with quite a few plaques that are worth stopping to read. 

The Blue Dome: Another detour to the 1926-1932 route, the Blue Dome was built in 1924 and was Tulsa’s first 24 hour gas station (oh, it was QT? ; ) The building is still a site to see and the area has become one of Tulsa’s trendiest neighborhoods. So many amazing dining options nearby. 

Boston Avenue United Methodist Church: Built in 1929, this church is considered one of the best examples of ecclesiastical art deco in the world. Guided tours are offered Sundays at noon, but can also be arranged during the week and self guided tours are available whenever the building is open. It’s really something to see!

Cain’s Ballroom: If you want the full Tulsa experience, plan your stopover on a night when there’s a show at Cain’s Ballroom. It’s one of the most beloved small music venues in the country with a history as long as your arm. Plenty of restaurants and local attractions in the area as well. 

New Route 66 Spotlight Projects in Tulsa

Route 66 East Gateway Arch, Mingo Greenway & Route 66 Rising (East Tulsa): As you come into Tulsa on Route 66 from the east, there are a few tributes to the historic road. 

They’re not necessarily big attractions, but more markers to let you know you’ve arrived in Tulsa and you’re on the Mother Road. After decades of decline along the route, for me, the recent signage says “Welcome to Tulsa. We know we have something special here. We appreciate it. And we hope you will too.” 

You’ll pass the Route 66 East Gateway Arch right about I-44 and 11th St (it’s right in front of the Daylight Donuts factory). 

At 11th & Mingo there’s a sign that will direct you to a few places: 

Interpretive Plaza: To get to the Interpretive Plaza, take a left into a little park area. There are a few plaques to read, but it’s kind of a sketchy area. Last time I was there it was covered with trash. Definitely don’t let this spot be your first impression of Route 66 in Tulsa.

If you keep going straight down 11th Street, you’ll be on the 1932-1973 route (considered the “main route.”)

Route 66 Rising: Take a right onto Mingo and a mile north you’ll find the Route 66 Rising sculpture in the middle of a traffic circle at Admiral and Mingo. It stands where Cyrus Avery once owned a service station. Go around the traffic circle and drive west on Admiral to drive the 1926-1932 route. 

Cyrus Avery Centennial Plaza & Bridge (Arkansas River): Spanning both sides of the Arkansas River, this is Tulsa’s big Route 66 showpiece, and….I have mixed feelings about it. The bronze sculptures, the bridge, and the neon sign park are all fabulous, but they’re not super accessible. This park is built around the Cyrus Avery Memorial Bridge (an historic art deco style bridge built in 1916) which has an incredible history and is a Route 66 landmark, but like most bridges, the area is a little rough. It’s on the edge of downtown and there are two new bridges built right next to it (one an interstate and one Southwest Blvd/Route 66) which often attracts a certain kind of atmosphere if you know what I mean. 

So, the logistics…there’s a good sized parking lot at 11th/Southwest Blvd and Riverside Drive. From there there’s a nice pedestrian bridge that will take you over to the bronze sculptures and the edge of the bridge. That’s all fine. To actually see the bridge (from the side so you can see the architecture), you have to go down some stairs and hook around to a walking path that takes you down under the interstate bridge. There’s usually a few people hanging out/living up under the bridge. It’s not necessarily dangerous, but definitely something to be aware of. You can get a good view of the bridge without getting too far off the beaten path.

BUT, to get to the other side of the river to see the neon park, you have to go down under the interstate and walk across a pedestrian bridge (which looks very well designed and expensive) but which is 100% isolated from any site lines (you can’t see it from the road). If it’s daylight and you’re with a group of people, it’s probably fine. But at night (when you’re usually interested in seeing neon), it’s a no go. If you do decide to walk across the bridge to the neon park, I 100% recommend walking across the main bridge instead of the pedestrian one (there’s a bike/walk path and you’ll be in sight the whole time). 

If you drive across the bridge, there’s NOWHERE to pull over to see the neon signs on the other side so you can only do a drive by. If it’s daytime, you can pull under the interstate by the railroad tracks (gosh this sounds so sketchy haha!) and park (there’s usually dozens of cars parked there-people must work nearby) and walk over to the neon park, but I wouldn’t do this after dark or if it’s been raining (it’s a mudpit). Also…and this is a big one…I’ve yet to see the neon park actually lit up at night. Not sure what’s going on with that. 

So I’m hoping this is all so new that they haven’t gotten it all figured out yet and the logistics of this park will improve because there’s some really great stuff here. But for now, just be aware of your surroundings. 

AN EXCITING NEW ANNOUNCEMENT! It’s recently been announced that they’re planning to build a new hotel and Route 66 visitors center on the west side of the river right by the neon sign park. The concept art looks really cool and it’s supposed to be open for the centennial (1926). 

Route 66 Historical Village (West Tulsa): Further down on Southwest Blvd (11th Street turns into Southwest Blvd when you cross the river), you’ll come to the Route 66 Historical Village. There’s been an old fashioned filling station and some trains set up there for awhile, but it looks like they’re building a large scale visitors center/interpretive center. It’s still under construction, but it looks amazing. I’ll report back with the details when it opens up.

Where to Eat

El Rancho Grande: If you’re only going to eat one meal in Tulsa on Route 66, this is probably going to be it. El Rancho Grande has been serving enchiladas and margaritas to weary travelers and Tulsans alike since 1950 and their neon sign is absolutely legendary. 

Mother Road Market: Oklahoma’s first food hall pays tribute to the Mother Road and it is a MUST STOP in Tulsa. I would say this is the backbone of the revitalization efforts along Route 66 and the non-profit has provided amazing opportunities for local kitchen concepts to bring their food to the people. My favorites are Howdy Burger (modeled after an old Route 66 burger stand-they actually just opened a stand alone joint down the street) and Chicken and the Wolf. There’s plenty of seating inside, but there’s also a large covered patio (it gets enclosed during the winter) that usually has a Route 66 themed mini golf course set up (it’s been pushed aside since COVID but you can still see it on the patio). Also don’t miss Eleanor’s Bookshop in the shopping area out front. It’s a great childrens and young adult bookstore. 

Howdy Burger: I usually hit them up at Mother Road Market, but their new standalone location is pretty cool. Great neon, murals, and it’s in a great walkable part of Route 66 with a lot of local businesses. Seriously…one of my favorite burgers and fries ANYWHERE. 

Tally’s Cafe: The roadside diner was a staple of any Route 66 trip and it still is! Tally’s isn’t original to the road (it opened in 1987), but it’s a Tulsa institution and it embraces the Route 66 culture while serving up classic diner food. They have multiple locations in Tulsa now, but you want the one at 11th and Yale. 

Where to Stay (& Where NOT to Stay)

Campbell Hotel: Originally built in 1927 as the Casa Loma Hotel, the Campbell Hotel reopened in 2011 after an EXTENSIVE restoration project. If you’re on a Route 66 road trip, this is where you want to stay in Tulsa. Jane’s Delicatessen lays claim to the west end of the building and it’s a great food stop if you’re wanting something a little more than a diner. 

Desert Inn: Roadside motels are a staple of Route 66 culture, and the Desert Inn is Tulsa’s finest. And by finest, I mean finest neon sign and vintage vibes. To be clear, I would NOT stay here, but I sure wish someone would buy it and commit to a full restoration. 

Other Good Hotels: While not Route 66 specific, Tulsa has a few good historic boutique options that are pretty close to the route and might be a nice change of pace amenity-wise if you’re mostly staying in motels. The Mayo and Tulsa Club are both beautifully restored hotels downtown. The Mayo was restored several years ago and it’s pretty grand. The Tulsa Club just recently opened and it’s a fantastic art deco hotel. The Courtyard Marriott downtown is in the historic Atlas Life building and rooms on the 7th floor have been historically preserved. The Ambassador Hotel (part of Marriott’s Autograph Collection) is also a great option near downtown. 

Areas of Town to Explore

Yes, Route 66 is all about driving, but sometimes it’s nice to get out of the car and stretch your legs. These neighborhoods and areas have high concentrations of shops, restaurants, and spots of Route 66 significance. 

Tulsa Market District: Officially 11th Street between Harvard and Peoria, but most concentrated between Utica and Peoria, this area has fully thrown itself into celebrating it’s Route 66 history and new development and entrepreneurship are THRIVING. Mother Road Market, Buck Atom’s Curios, and Decopolis 66 anchor many small businesses that serve both locals and visitors alike. There are quite a few historical plaques to read near the Meadows Gold neon sign near Peoria. 

Kendall Whittier: Centered around Lewis and Admiral, this historic neighborhood has been experiencing quite the renaissance lately. Circle Cinema is the heart of the community and Ziegler Art Supplies has been a mainstay for decades and decades. There’s a coffee shop, bookstore, and several boutique stores plus some newer restaurants and older Mexican places. 

11th & Yale: Long before the resurgence in interest of Route 66 among local business owners in Tulsa, 11th street between Lewis and Harvard just kept trucking along. Tally’s Diner is the big attraction, the Desert Inn’s neon is really something to see and there’s a pretty big concentration of vintage and antique stores. 

Route 66 Neon in Tulsa

Desert Inn Motel

Meadow Gold

Buck Atom’s Curios

Tally’s Cafe

El Rancho Grande

Howdy Burger

Decopolis 66

“Dark Neon”

Rose Bowl

Oasis Motel

Other Things to Do in Tulsa

If you have the time, Tulsa has a lot to offer besides Route 66. Here are some don’t miss attractions: 

Greenwood Rising: If you only have time for one thing, make it this.

Philbrook Museum of Art: Fantastic art museum in a historic mansion in midtown Tulsa. The gardens are the showstopper here. 

Gilcrease Museum: One of the best collections of American western art, the Gilcrease is currently closed and undergoing a complete rebuild and should reopen by 2024/2025. 

Bob Dylan & Woody Guthrie Centers: On the same block downtown, both the Bob Dylan Center and Woody Guthrie Center are worth checking out. 

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). 

Plus I’ve done roundups by state: Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, California.

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.

P.S. If you want to follow along on my travel adventures in real time, you can follow me on Instagram (@caitylincoln). My post captions are full of travel tips and I have a ton of story highlights and videos with great info. And share my account with your travel loving friends! Your support really helps me keep this blog running!