How did Route 66 Tourism Develop?

Updated February 21, 2017

Origins of Route 66

In the 1930's, particularly during the dry, arid years of the "dustbowl", Route 66 was the primary thoroughfare for those who migrated west in search of agricultural work, and the volume of traffic was sufficient to support the economy of the many small towns through which it passed. By the time the 1950's hit, and the United States had recovered from the Great Depression, Route 66 had evolved into the main highway for vacationers heading towards the sunny, sandy promise of California.

It was a natural pathway for road-tripping families as it passed near such beautiful natural attractions as the Painted Desert, Meteor Crater, Meramec Caverns, Petrified Forest and the Grand Canyon. The increased tourism brought new prosperity and innovation to the many towns that lined it's path, and all manner of roadside attractions started popping up to compete for the trade of the renewed interest in the road - motels in the shape of tee-pees, reptile farms, "giant" roadside objects, and Indian curio shops!


Meramec Caverns, the “Jesse James hideout” was now advertising itself on the side of huge barns, whilst The Big Texan Steak Ranch boasted a 72oz steak dinner (free to those who can polish it off in under an hour!)

These were exciting times and also birthed the idea of "fast food" as we know it. In Springfield, Missouri, Red's Giant Hamburgers became the first drive-though restaurant, and San Bernadino, California, was home to a small restaurant called McDonalds that had their eye on the bigger picture (they're doing okay for themselves now!) Route 66 came to epitomise American culture at the time, and to this day is still viewed through a romantic lens of nostalgia and the promise of the American dream - all you needed was an automobile to explore it! These days, many of these vintage attractions have been saved and restored by Route 66 preservation groups.

"Drive-by Tourism"

A lot of what Route 66 has to offer you will simply encounter as you travel - you really won't have to look too far. Something to bear in mind of course is that a lot of the roadside attractions are just that – attractions at the side of the road! Therefore the chances of missing The Gemini Giant, Tow Tater, The Blue Whale or The Big Texan are slim so long as you’re not driving with your eyes closed! Of course it helps to have an up-to-date map and guide book (I’d recommend the EZ66 Guidebook as an essential purchase) to make sure you are actually sticking to Route 66 and therefore have advance warning of an upcoming attraction.

There are a wealth of sights and attractions gracing the old road from the historic and informative - Coleman Theatre, Acoma Pueblo - to the weird and wonderful - Cadillac Ranch, the Blue Whale, Tow Tater. Route 66 is now an icon of vintage Americana and every year thousands of people from all over the globe travel it's 2,448 miles.

There’s never a dull moment driving Route 66!

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