Alongside the great road itself there are several very popular detours that you can take whilst travelling Route 66. When deciding which, if any of the most common side-trips that you opt for, the most important question you can ask yourself is “if I don’t do this now, when will I?” Simply put – when will you next be able to afford the time and money to visit places such as the Grand Canyon, Las Vegas, etc…
Side-trips are not a part of the Route 66 experience, they are merely an option should you wish to take advantage of your location and squeeze in some extra sight-seeing. For those travelling from overseas, Route 66 manages to place you relatively near some great locations that you might not otherwise get a chance to visit. Let's not also forget that the original Route 66 vacationers back in it's heyday also made many of these side-trips for the exact same reasons.
Presented below, in no particular order, are my five top Route 66 side-trips...
Okay, so technically this is not a side trip, as for the first twelve years of Route 66’s existence the road actually passed through Santa Fe. However, as many people don't follow this pre-1938 alignment I thought it was worthy of inclusion. These days many guide books (particularly the EZ66 Guide) point this out as the pre-1938 alignment or the "Santa Fe Loop".
I found Santa Fe to be a lively and vibrant destination with beautiful architecture and colourful market areas. Popular Santa Fe tourist spots are the oldest house in the United States and the “miraculous” staircase at the Loretto Chapel.
Take your time and explore the Georgia O'Keefe Museum, catch some live music in Santa Fe Plaza, or even buy some Native American jewelry.
Since it’s birth Route 66 has guided many families on vacation towards the Grand Canyon. And why not? It’s situated only an hour from both Williams and Kingman making it easily accessible from Route 66. It’s an easy day-trip but if you’re feeling more adventurous why not stay the night within the grounds of the Park itself and catch a sunrise, or even take a short hike down into the canyon?
On my visit I stayed at one of the many lodges within the national park and set my alarm an hour before sunrise. My wife and I packed a few snacks and drinks and took a short walk into the canyon to watch the sunrise. There was something about the view that seemed unreal, like a painting, as if we could reach out and touch it. We walked as far as we could in an hour before stopping to admire the views before starting our ascent. I'd thoroughly recommend it.
A visit to Monument Valley warrants a significant detour off Route 66 - a 400 mile detour in fact! If your time on Route 66 is quite limited then this isn't the side-trip for you. A two week trip that tries to include Monument Valley would be too stretched in my opinion. However, if you're lucky enough to have time on your side then this is an opportunity you may not want to pass up. A detour from Flagstaff is possible and allows you to return to the exact same spot to pick up Route 66 where you left off.
Perhaps the most famous example of the classic American West landscape, Monument Valley has been the backdrop for numerous Hollywood films. Part of the Navajo reservation, the views at Monument Valley are nothing short of breathtaking. If you're lucky enough to book far enough in advance you can secure a room or cabin at The View Hotel. The name says it all really - it's a prime spot to enjoy the sweeping vistas and magnificent scenery. The place can be fully booked in peak season so keep this mind.
Depending on how much time you have at your disposal, a side trip to Vegas may come at the cost of missing some of the California stretch of Route 66 for those travelling west-bound. However, if time permits, you could re-trace your steps back from Vegas to Route 66 and pick up where you left off. The path to Vegas isn’t a short drive and so be prepared for some very desolate roads through the desert. Personally, I very much enjoyed the drive as the desert landscape has always appealed to me.
Las Vegas isn’t to everyone’s tastes but personally, I loved every minute of the Vegas experience – the cocktails, slots, shows and spectacle were completely absorbing. It's garish, over-the-top, and shamelessly decadent, but if you can take it at face value it's also incredibly fun.
A visit to Vegas is no longer about gambling, and although I did spend a brief time trying out the slots (it would have been rude not to!), the highlights were to be found away from the casino floor. The fountains outside the Bellagio are a joy to watch with a cocktail in hand, and the many bars and restaurants also feature live entertainment of some sort. During the days you can simply walk the strip soaking up the atmosphere - the many exhibitions, street performers, and even zoos will keep most people entertained.
Again, this isn’t a true side trip but more of an extension to Route 66. If you’re travelling west-bound then your Route 66 trip ends in Los Angeles. However, if you have the luxury of a few more days of travelling then you could take the scenic Highway 1 up the west coast to San Francisco.
This journey can be comfortably made in three days and will take in some great stops such as Santa Cruz, Monterey and San Luis Obispo before you reach your destination of San Francisco. The coastal views are fantastic on a clear day but the west coast fog is very unpredictable and may conceal the views entirely.