Legendary Route 66 follows the strip of highway that was the main route for 20th century pioneers heading west in search of the California dream. I too followed the route from east to west to discover my home and my favorite place in the world – California. Much of the original route has been lost or rerouted and surviving landmarks are scattered but I pieced together a California Route 66 road trip that started in sunny Santa Monica and ended in the dramatic California desert near the Nevada border. With stops in Santa Monica, Hollywood, Pasadena, Victorville, Barstow, and Joshua Tree, I followed the historic route enough to get the true “Mother Road” feel and added a few worthy detours to fit my travel style. Is Route 66 on your bucket list? I’ve include the best of the best of Route 66 in California.
California Route 66 Road Trip
The end of Route 66 was just the beginning for us. We started in the idyllic oceanfront city of Santa Monica. Athena and I hung out on the beach and played in the sand. We rode the rides on the lively pier and dined in the heart of the city. I had seen Santa Monica on tv shows and movies but I never thought I would see it with my own eyes. When I did, it was as glorious as I had envisioned. Now, five years later, Athena had a similar experience at Santa Monica Pier.
We started our day with a photo at the famous Santa Monica Pier sign and slowly made our way down the pier toward Pacific Park Amusement Park. I wanted Athena’s first experience in Santa Monica to be from the top of the Pacific Wheel. The world’s only solar-powered Ferris wheel gave us a panoramic view of the Southern California coastline from more than 130 feet above the Santa Monica Pier. We made sure to get an unlimited ride wristband so we could enjoy the rides throughout the day.
With our sand bucket and toys, we set up on the beach for the afternoon with periodic breaks for rides and food. We stayed in Santa Monica from morning until night. It’s a totally different view at Santa Monica Pier in the evening. The pier comes alive with lights, entertainment, and interesting characters.
Ashland Hill restaurant was the ideal spot to grab a bite to eat in Santa Monica. It’s close to the pier in a casual atmosphere with delectable dishes served on their on patio. While they don’t have a kid’s menu, they offer child-sized pasta with oil and butter. There’s also a variety of bite-sized appetizers that are good for the whole family.
From the coast, we headed inland to one of Southern California’s top theme parks, Universal Studios Hollywood.
We stayed at Le Parc Hotel in West Hollywood. Set on a tree-lined residential street, this relaxed, all-suite hotel is two miles from The Grove outdoor mall and 2.5 miles from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. It was in between Santa Monica and Universal Studios, allowing us easy access to both from one central location.
Universal Studios Hollywood
From Le Parc Hotel, we drove over the legendary Hollywood Hills to Universal Studios Hollywood. I’ve been to Universal Studios Hollywood a number of times before and I love the rides and shows. Fast & Furious, Revenge of the Mummy, and Transformers are my favorite rides and WaterWorld and the Studio Tour are my favorite experiences. None of them are possible for Athena at this age, though, so I wondered if it would be worth visiting Universal Studios with Athena in tow. We tested out Universal for kids and it was equally fantastic for her as it was for me. With Front of the Line tickets, we were able to fit it all in and with perfect California weather, we didn’t need to bring extra clothes. She met characters, watched shows, and rode rides from morning until night.
Super Silly Fun Land and Despicable Me Minion Mayhem were Athena’s two favorite areas, but the rollar coaster at The Wizarding World of Harry Potter won best experience of the day. The Flight of the Hippogriff roller coaster spiraled and dove around the pumpkin patch and swooped past Hagrid’s hut. It was Athena’s first “big girl” roller coaster and she screamed with delight. She wanted to keep going on that ride all day but the line was excessive so we limited it a one time experience.
After a full day at Universal Studios, we slept peacefully at Le Parc and drove east to the leafy elegance of Pasadena the next morning.
We drove the leafy streets, lined with elegant mansions of every shape and size and relaxed at the Huntington Library and Botanical Gardens. A full day of running from ride to ride at Universal was rewarded with exquisite views and art treasures away from it all.
From Pasadena, we made our way toward the desert.
Victorville & Barstow Area
I picked up Route 66 at The Summit Inn in Oak Hills and followed along through to Calico Ghost Town just outside of Barstow. This remote desert area is the place to be for some of the best remnants from the migration west. 50 year old restaurants, a funky bottle tree ranch, and a ghost town take you down the memory lane of the 20th-century pioneers heading west in search of the California dream.
Summit Inn is a typical 50s diner that has been around since 1952 and has had the same owners for over 50 years. It’s truly a “kitchy” spot with a long connection to the area. I opted for the Chilli Size Burger and fries with a chocolate shake. The portions are American-sized and it’s pretty much all you’d need for the rest of the day. I really felt like I was on a cross-country road trip in the 50s with this place. It was a step back in time.
California Route 66 Museum is an Interactive museum with over 4500 Sq. Ft. of floor space and photo opportunities for the visitors to share memories in such settings as a 50’s diner and a VW Love Bus complete with hippy wigs and sunglasses for that perfect shot. I spent half the time in the museum playing and taking photos in the VW Love Bus and then imagining driving all of Route 66 in a truck like the one above. Route 66 truly does have a fun, crazy history.
Elmer’s Bottle Tree Ranch is only a short drive from Route 66 Museum. It’s two acres of desert chocked full of hundreds of art sculptures, made from welded pipe and bottles by Elmer Long, who began in the 1980s. Although it’s private property, the gates are usually open and we talked with Elmer himself for well over an hour. He explained that his father started the ranch and he picked it up from there. He’s married with children and grandchildren and he loves discovering hidden gems in the desert.
Before continuing on to Calico Ghost Town, we stopped in Barstow for an evening at Quality Inn. This straightforward hotel on Route 66 is half a mile from Barstow Mall and 2 miles from The Route 66 Mother Road Museum, but the service is anything but ordinary. We were welcomed with warm smiles and friendly hosts. Freshly baked cookies and bottles of water were at the front desk and the onsite Los Domingos Restaurant includes free cooked-to-order breakfast for hotel guests. Their fine Mexican dining was one of our favorite meals of the trip and the deep fried ice cream was the icing on the Route 66 cake.
Just outside of Barstow is Calico Ghost Town. Calico is an old West mining town that has been around since 1881 during the largest silver strike in California. With its 500 mines, Calico produced over $20 million in silver ore over a 12-year span. When silver lost its value in the mid-1890’s, Calico lost its population. The miner’s packed up, loaded their mules and moved away abandoning the town that once gave them a good living. It became a “ghost town.” Today Calico is part of the San Bernardino County Regional Parks system. Along with its history and attractions, Calico Ghost Town has shops, restaurants, and offers camping and outdoor recreation. Athena and I rode the train and listened to the history of Calico from the conductor. Mine tours and off-road adventures are available on-site along with camping and biking/hiking trails. You could spend an entire day at Calico, but it’s wort stopping even if you only have an hour.
Next up was another otherworldly experience, with wacky trees and gigantic rock formations. Our route took us on some very lonely stretches of highway to Joshua Tree.
Joshua Tree National Park
The Hidden Valley trail is a one-mile loop trail that starts at the picnic area and winds among massive boulders. It’s easily accessible and a relaxed trail with beautiful views. Signs along the nature walk help visitors identify the park’s plants and animals. The trail is mostly level, crossing through hard-packed sand, but does venture through some of the valley’s interesting rock formations. For added adventure, we climbed to the top of many of the rock formations and took in the panoramic views. It was a short hike that didn’t take up much of the day but it was a great introduction to Joshua Tree National Park.
The Ryan Mountain trail is a little more intense at three miles round trip. It’s a moderately strenuous hike to the 5,458-foot summit and has lookout points with views of Queen, Lost Horse, and Pleasant Valleys. The summit of Ryan Mountain is the best place to get a top-down view of the heart of Joshua Tree National Park. This hike can be demanding at times and lots of water is recommended.
After a week of road trip adventures on California Route 66, it was time to return home. As Route 66 doesn’t appear on modern maps anymore, we spent as much time getting lost and finding unique destinations not on our itinerary as visiting scheduled stops. We met locals like Elmer at the Bottle Tree Ranch and learned about the history of Route 66 from someone who knew it in it’s prime. We visited museums that also brought us back to a different time where it was “Santa Monica or bust” and we took in the modern route with roller coasters and Hollywood characters. We learned that regardless of what you’re looking for, you can find it on California Route 66.