Get Your Kicks on the St. Louis Stretch of Route 66
Get your kicks on St. Louis’ stretch of historic Route 66 where the fabled “Mother Road” makes some of its most interesting detours.
The 2,448-mile highway, which opened in 1926, lured generations of travelers to hit the road and head west across America from Chicago to the Pacific coast of California. Today you can see why Route 66 is such an enduring legend by visiting roadside attractions on the highway between St. Louis and Chicago known everywhere as “The Best of Route 66.”
Start your Route 66 journey into St. Louis on the Old Chain of Rocks Bridge. Located north of downtown, the bridge was Route 66’s original crossing over the Mississippi River at St. Louis. The span, which is one of the longest pedestrian and biking bridges in the world, is open to visitors every day. From the bridge, you’ll see stunning views of downtown St. Louis and the city’s whimsical castle-like water intake towers from high over the Mississippi. Special eagle-watching excursions take place on the bridge each January.
Follow the Riverfront Trail-a hiking and biking path-from the Old Chain of Rocks Bridge to the Gateway Arch, St. Louis’ ultimate monument to the great American West. Wagon train pioneers paved the way for Route 66 by establishing dusty frontier trails to the west from St. Louis in the 1800s. Today the Arch sits at the head of I-44, pointing modern travelers to the west. Stop in the Arch’s fascinating Museum of Westward Expansion to marvel at the rugged covered wagons, see the Lewis & Clark exhibits and say a silent “thanks” for the invention of shock absorbers and pavement.
Leaving downtown, grab a bite at the counter of the Eat Rite Diner on Chouteau just west of Broadway for a classic Route 66 experience. The sweetest stop on Old Route 66 is in South St. Louis at Ted Drewes Frozen Custard, 6726 Chippewa. On any given day you might find wedding parties, television crews, tour groups, classic car clubs, journalists and visitors from all 50 states waiting in line at the Mother Road’s most famous refreshment stop. Opened in 1929, Ted Drewes has served frosty “concretes” to generations of hungry travelers and long lines of loyal St. Louisans. The frozen vanilla custard shakes are blended with fruits, nuts, candies and other flavors and served so concrete-thick they’re handed to customers upside down. Sample an “All Shook Up” blended with peanut butter and bananas in honor of Elvis or have a little “Cardinal Sin” mixed with tart cherries and hot fudge. Bunny-cretes-a carrot cake concoction-show up around Easter and it’s not fall unless you have a Pumpkin-crete, which is custard blended with a slice of pumpkin pie. Don’t let the crowds scare you away. Lines, which are longest on summer nights after Cardinals baseball games or theatre performances in Forest Park, move at an amazing pace.
Across the street from Ted Drewes, another tasty Route 66 icon-Donut Drive-In-still dispenses glazed donuts to hungry drivers. Both Ted Drewes and Donut Drive-In are just minutes south of Forest Park. From I-64, take the Hampton Avenue exit to Watson Road and continue south to Chippewa.
Follow the Route 66 markers along Chippewa and Manchester roads heading west through the suburbs of St. Louis to see leftover roadside motels and diners scattered among busy modern shopping areas. To set a faster pace, travel I-44-Route 66’s modern replacement-west to Route 66 State Park along the picturesque Meramec River. The park’s remodeled visitor center offers modern road warriors a peek into the past with artifacts and displays from the route’s 76-year history.
An hour southwest of St. Louis on I-44, you’ll reach Meramec Caverns, the oldest tourist attraction on the Mother Road. The site has been welcoming Route 66 wanderers since 1933 for a fascinating underground look at the region’s history and geology. Missouri legends say frontier outlaw Jesse James hid men, loot and horses in the massive cave. Before Jesse’s arrival, French colonial miners and Civil War soldiers used the cavern’s natural minerals to manufacture gunpowder. During the attraction’s early days, owners took American roadside art to new heights by turning painted barn roofs into billboards promoting Meramec Caverns all across the country.
Other St. Louis area attractions along the I-44/Route 66 corridor include the Six Flags St. Louis theme park where visitors can zoom around in 100 rides and drive old-time cars; Shaw Nature Reserve; and Purina Farms, an animal-focused attraction for the whole family. Just off the interstate, the Museum of Transportation displays Bobby Darin’s 1964 Dream Car along with other steel machines that once tooled along the Mother Road. A unit of the notorious Coral Court Motel, which once stood as a Route 66 hideaway for lovers and crooks, has been reconstructed at the museum.
Leaving St. Louis, Route 66 continues westward through the beautiful Ozark Mountains alongside I-44 all the way to the Springfield and Branson area in southwest Missouri. On the way, brown and white Route 66 road signs point toward stops that range from historic to kitschy and everywhere in between. Stop at the new Route 66 Museum and Research Center in Lebanon, Missouri to see artifacts from the heyday of the Main Street of America. If you’re heading east from St. Louis instead, take I-55 toward Springfield, Illinois and follow the signs to Historic Route 66 exits. Don’t miss Shea’s, a roadside gas station/shrine to Route 66, or Springfield’s historic Abraham Lincoln sites.
Even though the old road was decommissioned in 1985, it still holds a special place in the hearts of St. Louisans. As Nat “King” Cole sang in Bobby Troupe’s ode to Route 66, “If you ever plan to motor west, travel my way. Take the highway that’s the best. Get your kicks on Route 66!” Just don’t go too fast or you’ll miss the best of the Mother Road right here inSt. Louis
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