Much like its vehicle-friendly counterpart, Bicycle Route 66 from Chicago to Santa Monica continues to draw touring cyclists year after year, attracting first-timers and long-time travelers alike.
The Adventure Cycling Association, the United States’ touring resource, published a complete map set inspired by Route 66 in 2015. In the six years since its conception, the route has seen hundreds of cyclists pedal its length, guided by the directions and resources listed in the maps. The route stays as close to original Route 66 as possible, with detours whenever necessary to ensure safe riding conditions.
First established in the 1920s, original Route 66 was the most efficient way to connect the urban hubs of Chicago and Los Angeles. As car ownership became more available to average Americans over the next few decades, the road began its long association with recreation, national pride, and the myth of the road. Route 66 was officially put out of commission in 1985, with newer interstates taking over. Its pioneering spirit, however, proved hard to extinguish. The original byways, businesses, and scenery along the route became a preservation goal for various organizations who cemented its place in American culture. Drivers can still experience the best preserved sections of the route, but cyclists get the best of both worlds with an up close and personal ride through history.
Nowadays, the act of exploring seems arcane; modern travel means convenience at your fingertips and foolproof direction with the tap of a button. It’s difficult to get lost, and even harder not to know what to expect.
When you are traveling by bike, every day unveils hidden challenges, spontaneous moments, and a pace impossible to recreate by any other means of transport. Cycling Route 66 can re-awaken your sense of wonder much like driving across the country did for early road trippers.
The amount of time you set aside for your Route 66 tour depends on your daily mileage; for newer cyclo- tourists, 40-50 miles is a reasonable daily goal. Make sure you know what you’re capable of before embarking; pace yourself and be careful not to overestimate your abilities. Your training regimen at home can start with a 10-mile ride and advance until you can complete forty or fifty miles within a few hours.
Plan for rest days along the way; you might want to align them with cultural or natural sites that interest you, or space them out evenly throughout your trip. Considering low temperatures in the Midwest and Southwest, the route is best ridden from Spring to Fall. Crossing the California desert in the height of summer, however, is not advised; the heat can become downright dangerous, especially if you are spending all day outdoors and out of breath.
Depending on the direction you’re headed, you’ll be doing your ceremonial tire-dipping in either the Pacific Ocean or Lake Michigan. Many cyclists choose to ride from west to east, citing tail winds, but your direction is your preference.
A ride of this length is best done on a touring bike built to carry weight. Four panniers should be enough to hold your essentials, and don’t forget to make use of your rear and front racks. Consider thicker tires for changes in terrain and make sure you can perform simple fixes on your bike; remote parts of the route will barely have convenience stores, let alone bike shops. Always be sure to check your ACA map and do internet research concerning services along the way. You don’t want to be left stranded without food or water because the gas station you were planning to stop at is further than expected- or worse, not open at all.. Always carry extra supplies, pay attention to business hours and have spare inner tubes and a portable pump handy in case of an inconvenient flat.
Out of Santa Monica, the route winds through the congested Los Angeles suburbs, opening up into the rough expanse of the California desert. Be mentally prepared for long, empty stretches with limited services as you pass Joshua Trees lining the road. In the summer months, this part of the desert sees flash thunderstorms and monsoon rains, often rendering the National Trails Highway between Barstow and Needles unsafe to cross. To solve that issue, ACA has secured cyclist access to the shoulder of Interstate 40 in the event of weather related closure.
From California, you’ll continue on to Arizona, where services remain sporadic but epic scenery makes the challenge worthwhile. As you enter Kingman, Stop in Flagstaff for the comforts of bike service, live music, and craft beer before riding into Arizona’s Petrified Forest National Park. The park’s fossilized forests are otherworldly, especially when surrounded by badlands in varying hues aptly named the Painted Desert.
In New Mexico, you’ll be treated to the rugged Southwest, its high desert communities and a maddening but beautiful sense of desolation in every direction you turn.
Just past Grants, New Mexico, you’ll hit Albuquerque, your first large city since the crowds of Los Angeles. From Tijeras, take the Turquoise Trail and enjoy a stunning ride north to Santa Fe. Spend a day exploring the town’s unique mix of Native American and Spanish heritage and abundance of hatch chile cooking. After crossing the eastern half of the state, cruise through Texas, Oklahoma and a tiny portion of Kansas, encountering quiet prairie without any major changes in elevation. Slightly east of Amarillo, Texas, you’ll come across Cadillac Ranch, a photogenic collection of painted vintage caddies precariously embedded in the Texas soil. In Oklahoma City, take a break from the prairie and wander into the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum. You’ll likely pedal through Baxter Springs Kansas’ southeastern corner in one day, ending up in Joplin, Missouri.
In Missouri, you will climb parts of the state’s Ozark Mountains, passing over the Mississippi and through historic St. Louis via its riverfront bikeway. The Route 66 State Park Spur, right outside of St. Louis, has a visitor’s center operating out of a 1935 roadhouse that hosted some of the route’s earliest visitors.
As the route flattens out and turns north towards Chicago, you’ll be treated to a gently rolling landscape peppered with small towns until the more populated Northern Illinois suburbs. Stop at Rentz’s Tap & Dining in Odell, Illinois for a home cooked dinner and outstanding local hospitality.
From there it’s a straight shot to Lake Michigan and on to your destination. 2,493 miles after saying goodbye to Santa Monica pier, you’ll have completed the quintessential American journey nearly a century after its grand introduction.
Where you stay throughout your trip depends on your budget and your touring style. Some choose to spend nights in motels and hotels, while others rely on campsites and resources like city parks and state parks. The ACA Bicycle Route 66 map set indicates designated campsites along the route, many of which are cyclist- specific.
If you’ll be camping, make sure to pack accordingly; you might want a tent and sleeping bag rated to fit nighttime temperature lows in the high desert and in the Northern Midwest. If you’re traveling in spring or fall, it’s especially important to bring a set of base layers to sleep or ride in. Bring a fully waterproof outfit and remain aware of the weather forecast as you ride. Weather can change drastically in elevated areas of Northern New Mexico and Arizona, as well as in the California desert. Don’t hesitate to wait out the weather if you have to; this is why you included rest days in your itinerary.
The ACA route is designed to follow major interstates and original parts of route 66 via less traveled highways and service roads. Shoulders range from spacious to non-existent, so always be highly vigilant when you ride. Use lights at dawn and dusk, and even on cloudy or foggy days. Wear reflective gear, bright colors, and a quality helmet. Packing essentials include a bike repair kit, a battery pack, multiple water containers, and an air horn to ward off potential unwanted companions like dogs (dogs used to quiet country roads love to chase anything without an engine).
Though Route 66 is not the thoroughfare it once was, it is very much alive thanks to preservation efforts and unwavering curiosity. Experiencing the legend of the American road by bike is a huge undertaking that will introduce you to an offbeat side of the country. The small things will begin to matter most; the kindness of a stranger, the rush of a desert downhill, or the sliver of sunrise on the horizon will become your best memories. Among ACA’s various cross country routes, Bike Route 66 is really about the in-between, representing “flyover country” at its finest.
For cyclists taking on a cross country adventure, traversing the path of original Route 66 takes on new meaning. Eight states, 2,500 miles, and the best of the American landscape carry the same adrenaline rush that propelled American drivers in the second half of the twentieth century.