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What's so special about Route 66?

Route 66 From End to End

Route 66 began in Chicago, Ill., and ended in Los Angeles, California. Its original length was about 2,400 miles (3,862 kilometers). However, it's impossible to know the exact mileage due to all the different permutations of the road over the years [source: National Historic Route 66 Federation]. The highway snaked through eight states -- Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and finally California.

Since the highway was decommissioned, Route 66 no longer exists on modern maps. In some places, in fact, the physical road is unpaved and virtually impassable. However, you can still follow some of the original road in your car. In many states, Route 66 parallels the interstate highway. In some areas, you'll see signs calling it "Historic Route 66."

Today, the National Scenic Byways Program denotes Historic Route 66 as going through four states -- Illinois, Oklahoma, New Mexico and Arizona. At around 1,410 miles (2,269 kilometers) in length, it takes about five or six days to drive Historic Route 66 from one end to the other.

Maybe you're wondering why anyone cares about an old, out-of-date road. Why are there so many organizations and museums dedicated to keeping the spirit of Route 66 alive? There are many reasons. Route 66 represents a true piece of Americana. Because this road wound through so many tiny towns, hundreds of odd little trading posts, motels and attractions popped up along the way. Although Route 66 faded into obsolescence, many of these pit stops remain -- frozen in time like ghost towns.

Route 66 holds a special place in American history. It illustrated the evolution of the American road from unpaved dirt to superhighway. It provided an economic and social link between the West and the Midwest, offering an artery for millions of people to relocate and change their lives. Route 66 assisted in transforming the West from wild frontier to modern community.

Route 66 also showcases some of the most beautiful scenery in America. The longest drivable section of Route 66 is in Arizona, where you can marvel at the beauty of the Grand Canyon or Sedona's red rocks. In New Mexico, you can visit archaeological sites featuring relics from early settlers and Native Americans.

You can drive most of the original Route 66 today, from Illinois all the way to California, but you must plan your route carefully. Don't count on regularly placed "Route 66" signs to show you the way. Route 66 enthusiasts recommend purchasing special maps if you're going to make the journey today. These custom maps show the areas where you can still safely drive your car or motorcycle. They also point out lots of cool sights along the way. On the next page, we'll talk about all the weird, wild and wonderful stuff you might encounter as you drive Route 66.