If you've driven along Old Route 66, then a lot of the driving you're doing will be along present-day Interstate 40. Connecting Barstow, CA to Wilmington, NC, much of the Western portion overlaps what was once the Mother Road. These days, it's part of a much larger highway that connects the western half of the country with the eastern half, via Arizona, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Arkansas and Tennessee. Passing through major cities like Flagstaff, Albuquerque, Oklahoma City Little Rock, Memphis, and Nashville, it's a great route to take when touring some of the interesting spots across the South as well. With that, here are some of the coolest, must-see stops along I-40!
Barstow is a small town that oozes kitschy Old Route 66 vibes! Spend some time exploring the town's Route 66 'Mother Road' Museum or the Western American Rail Road Museum, or stock up on snacks and souvenirs at Barstow Station, a massive rest stop.
36600 Ghost Town Road, Yermo, CA, US
Ghost towns are dotted all across the west, and Calico is one of the cutest! It's been super well-preserved, and is now more of a tourist attraction than an authentic historic stop, but with the museums, shops, restaurants, train rides, and restored buildings, it's a fun little stop with tons to do. There's even a campground here, if you're looking for a place to stay the night!
For a taste of the authentic desert landscape you've been driving through on I-40, stop at the Mojave National Preserve. Scrubby plants, multicolored rocks and stark, stony earth provide a unique view. The Mojave is especially breathtaking at sunset and sunrise, and if you plan on hiking here, remember to be careful of the heat and lack of shade!
Old Route 66, Golden Valley, AZ, US
Don't expect to top off your tank here (the gas pumps, while beautifully restored, don't actually work) but make a pit stop at Cool Springs Gas Station because it's an authentic Route 66 icon. There's a museum and souvenir shop inside the building, and it's touching to see how much time and effort was put into restoring this once-abandoned gem of the Mother Road!
Surrounded by National Forests and designated Wilderness areas, Flagstaff is an oasis of natural beauty that can give you the comforts of a big city. Check out the Museum of Northern Arizona during the day and the Lowell Observatory come nightfall. Grab dinner at Diablo Burger if you're craving fresh food as a respite from all the fast food you normally eat on road trips. And, if you're in search of hotels in Flagstaff, the city provides tons of options. The Little America Hotel in Flagstaff features a gorgeous setting in a pine forest, and the Starlight Pines Bed and Breakfast will make you feel like royalty with the clawfoot tubs, private balconies, delicious breakfasts and comfy beds.
I 40 Exit 233, Winslow, AZ, US
Just outside Flagstaff is one of the weirdest attractions in the west: Meteor Crater. The impact crater formed from a meteor that hit Earth thousands of years ago is unbelievably massive-- and the mile-wide hole in the ground is topped with a visitor center that features a museum, videos, and a killer observation deck.
1 Park Road, AZ, US
Like Old Route 66, I-40 cuts right through Petrified Forest National Park. And while it might be the smallest National Park, it features loads of impressive hikes, scenic viewpoints, and attractions that highlight the stands of glittering petrified wood (basically, old trees that have been fossilized) for which the park is named. Explore the Rainbow Forest, the Crystal Forest, and the Agate House, or hike the Blue Mesa Trail for views of the Painted Desert.
1000 E. Highway 66, Gallup, NM, US
Stepping into Hotel El Rancho is like stepping back in time to the 1930's, when Route 66 first started to gain popularity. The lobby is all Southwestern motifs and native stone and wood, and the rooms are just as vintage. Even if you don't stay the night, grab some enchiladas and a drink at the bar and soak up the history.
Eventually, I-40 will take you to Albuquerque. Famous for its balloon festival and association with the cult TV show "Breaking Bad", this town has loads of artsy Southwestern charm. Visit the National Museum of Nuclear Science and History, grab a bite to eat at Perea's New Mexican Restaurant, and tuck in for the night at the Nativo Lodge... or just drive past Walter White's house on your way through! As for hotels in Albuquerque, there are some cool options. Hotel Parq Central is an old hospital turned sleek hotel, Hotel Cascada has a waterpark onsite, and the Casas de Suenos let you rent your own private cottage right in Old Town!
Route 66, Santa Rosa, NM, US
If you're looking for a place to cool off while driving through the desert, then you won't find a better spot than the Blue Hole of Santa Rosa. The crystal-clear and deeply blue water is super cool and refreshing. Jump off the rocks into the pool, scuba dive to the bottom, or just dip your toes in and soak up the natural beauty of the setting!
924 E Tucumcari Blvd, Tucumcari, NM, US
The whole town of Tucumcari is pure retro bliss, but the crown jewel of the community might be Tee Pee Curios. The sign, decor, and building (with its concrete teepee out front) ooze an authentic 1950's aesthetic, and if you stop inside, you'll find a collection of souvenirs that range from kitschy to certified American Indian crafts. Take pictures of the vintage neon around town and support Tucumcari's comeback-- ever since Route 66 went defunct, the once-bustling town has begun to slip into obscurity.
Interstate 40, Amarillo, TX, US
Amarillo, TX is home to the iconic folk art attraction known as Cadillac Ranch. Proposed by 3 artists who called themselves the “Ant Farm” (Hudson Marquez, Chip Lord, and Doug Michels) and financed by an eccentric millionaire named Stanley Marsh 3 (He thought using Roman numerals was too pretentious), Cadillac Ranch went along relatively unnoticed for a few years. Slowly, the Caddies became quite the roadside attraction, and they're meant to be spray painted with graffiti from those who have stopped by. Bring a can of paint to leave your mark (and a trash bag to clean up after those who have left empties littered around the attraction).
Welcome to Amarillo, TX! This town in Texas's panhandle is a great place to experience the Lone Star State, since I-40 only passes through a small portion of it. Home to the kitschy Big Texan Steak Ranch and authentic Tyler's BBQ, it's got some good eats. You'll also find the vintage Wonderland Amusement Park, the Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum here! There are some great hotels in Amarillo, too. The Courtyard in Downtown Amarillo is in a historic building with a great location, and the Ashmore Inn and Suites is incredibly relaxing, with a nice pool and gazebos where you can watch the sun set!
11450 Park Road 5, Canyon, TX, US
Palo Duro Canyon State Park is a beautiful place to stretch your legs. There are several trails that traverse the bottom of the canyon and take you to the top for more lovely views. The camping in the canyon is excellent as well... and the stargazing is unbeatable!
101 E. 12th Street, Shamrock, TX, US
Another major icon from the glory days of Route 66, the Tower Station Conoco and U-Drop Inn are probably recognizable to most because they inspired some scenes from Disney's "Cars." The stunning Art Deco architecture make it one of the prettiest (former) gas stations in the country, and it's nice to see that the building is being restored and converted!
3000 Logan Road, Weatherford, OK, US
From a recreation of the Wright Brothers glider to an F-4 Phantom to spacesuits that were worn by astronauts in flight, the Stafford Air and Space Museum does a great job of covering the history of air and space flight. They have 3,500 artifacts and objects on display, including a very impressive display on the US's nuclear missiles, complete with a Titan II rocket.
Oklahoma City is the next major urban center along I-40. Home to awesomely offbeat attractions like the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum, the Museum of Osteology, and the American Banjo Museum, along with an aquarium, a zoo, a science museum, an art museum, a history museum, and tons more, it's a rich city bursting with things to see and do. Hit up Ann's Chicken Fry House or Tucker's for an onion burger and tuck in for the night at OKC's boutique hotel, The Colcord.
South side of Broadway between 3rd and 4th St, Okemah, OK, US
Woody Guthrie was a massively influential folk artist from Okemah, OK. Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Johnny Cash and tons more drew inspiration from Guthrie's huge catalogue of songs, many of which were based on his experiences during the Dust Bowl of the 1930's, which harshened the blow of the Great Depression in Oklahoma especially. Today, a small park stands in Okemah with a statue and memorial plaque dedicated to Woody Guthrie. It's a small stop, but it's a good place to take a break... and maybe make a new playlist for the next leg of your journey.
301 Parker Avenue, Fort Smith, AR, US
As you continue along I-40, you'll make your way into Arkansas. Stop at the Fort Smith National Historic Site for a look into the state's past. The fort was established in 1817, right as the country began to move West, which means that this fort saw a lot: outlaws, clashes with Native Americans, the Trail of Tears, settlers struggling to tame the West, and more. Tour the old buildings and the visitor center, which houses a museum with artifacts that tell the story of Fort Smith.
11901 Pinnacle Valley Rd., Roland, AR, US
Get out of the car and breathe in the fresh air on a hike at Pinnacle Mountain State Park. The views from the top of the mountain are utterly breathtaking, and the trail up is a fun hike. There are also some great swimming spots, and the park's visitor center is a great stop offering lovely views as well.
There's no bad time to road trip I-40, and thankfully, snowy weather isn't too much of a concern, because the route is mostly pretty far south (although if it happens to snow, be prepared for the road to not be treated properly, as they're not used to dealing with snow and ice here.) Oklahoma sees its fair share of tornados, though, and never underestimate how hot it can get in the desert between Texas and California. Always bring plenty of water and make sure your car's AC is in good working condition!