As you take Route 66 into Missouri, the scattered remains of the original road become more apparent. Institutions like St. Louis's Eat-Rite Diner have struggled to scrape by, and some of the older bridges that made up the original route are barely standing. But among the fight for survival on Missouri's portion of the Route there still lies a lot of charm and beauty. From simply enjoying a bite of delicious frozen custard as the sun sets, to exploring the alluring caverns and state parks along the way, it's hard not to gain an appreciation for how well Route 66 highlights the unique magic of America's heartland.
Connecting Missouri and Illinois, Old Chain of Rocks Bridge (not to be confused with the New Chain of Rocks Bridge) is the longest bicycle and pedestrian bridge in the world. Built in 1927 to help motor travelers cross a particularly dangerous stretch of the Mississippi River, much of the original architecture and lighting is still intact, including a major curve right in the middle of the bridge. Measuring one mile long, this stop along the Route 66 Bikeway offers unbeatable views and a great place to stretch your legs.
What this little diner may lack in space and seating, it makes up for in charm and quality comfort food. There aren't many places like Eat-Rite—with just one counter and a line of red stools—left. In fact, Eat-Rite was actually at risk of closing down until Joel and Shawna Holtman, who couldn't bear to see the iconic St. Louis spot close its doors, took it over in early 2018. And while the couple may have added a few new items to the menu, including patty melts and hot dogs, classics like the "slinger" are still available and still just as delicious as the day the diner opened.
Rich, creamy, and loaded with toppings, Ted Drewes Frozen Custard is a must for anyone passing through Missouri. Ted Drewes himself has been perfecting the art of frozen custard for over 80 years, which is thicker and creamer than traditional ice cream. In fact, Ted's iconic “concrete” treat, which was first introduced in 1959, is a shake so thick, it's actually served upside down. From Dottie (custard with mint, chocolate, and macadamia nuts) to Crater Copernicus (Devil's food cake topped with custard, hot fudge, and whipped cream) to All Shook Up (custard with Reese's and bananas) there is something for every sweet tooth.
Another great stop along the Mother Road, Route 66 State Park is 419 acres of stunning greenery and lush forests. First, check out the visitor center, which is full of old photos and interesting memorabilia (the center used to be the Bridgehead Inn, a 1935 roadhouse that sat on the original Route 66). Next, to really experience all that the park has to offer, try taking one of the four major hiking paths: Inner Loop Trail, Outer Loop Trail, South Loop Trail, or West Trail. The Outer Loop is the longest at 3.2 miles, and offers the most views of the entire park. The West Trail is the shortest at 0.5 miles, and goes through the more wooded section of the park. Other park activities include boating, fishing, picnicking, cycling, and horseback riding. And if you fancy birdwatching, more than 40 different types of birds have been identified here, so keep your eyes (and ears) alert!
This lovely little yellow brick building may be able to help answer an age-old question: When did Jesse James actually die? Geared to both Jesse James fans and the naturally curious, this quaint museum offers lifelike wax figures of Jesse and his family, as well as artifacts, antiques and a $100,000 vintage gun collection. The staff is friendly and informative, the gift shop is unique and unlike many others along Route 66, and your kids will love the wax figures.
If you left the Jesse James Wax Museum feeling like you needed even more Jesse in your life, then look no further than the Meramec Caverns. Just a quick drive across the road from the museum, the Meramec Caverns are the largest commercial caves in the state of Missouri (fun fact: Missouri is home to more than 6,000 surveyed caves). Open seven days a week, entrance to the caves is $22 for adults and $14 for kids 5-11; there are group discounts for parties of 15 or more. Led by an experienced tour guide, you'll get to see intricate mineral formations and underground pools thousands of years in the making.
Located just off Route 66 in the small town of Cuba, you'll find a bit of the town's history covering the walls. Titled the Viva Cuba Mural Project, a diverse group of artists from all over the country came to Cuba to paint 12 massive murals. These outdoor masterpieces depict scenes from both local and national history, including visits from Harry S. Truman, Amelia Earhart, and Bette Davis, as well as indigenous Cuban history—each one with a unique story. Stop by the I-44 Visitor Center (Exit 208) to pick up a brochure and learn about the narrated bus tour. Or, if you prefer to see the murals by foot, park anywhere along the Route 66 Corridor and treat yourself to some mural sightseeing, along with plenty of opportunities to shop and grab lunch.
About an hour south of Cuba, you'll reach Devil's Elbow. Both the area and the bridge got the name due to their location along the Big Piney River, which was a particularly dangerous curve in the river, often referred to as a "devil of an elbow bend." The bridge offers stunning views of the water and surrounding forests, as well as ample opportunities to stop and take pictures along the bridge itself, or on the painted Route 66 sign that marks the start of the bridge (just be mindful of cars and other vehicles). On the north end of the bridge lies the legendary Elbow Inn Bar & BBQ, a dive bar built in 1926 that hasn't changed much since. And on the south end of the bridge, you'll find Shelden's Market, a general store that is also home to the original Devil's Elbow Post Office.
Stopping at the Route 66 Diner is liking taking a trip back in time. With its vintage chrome exterior, large neon signs, and checkered tile floors, you'll feel like you stepped right into the 1950s. Complete with everything you could want from a diner (including a fully-functioning jukebox), the menu includes classics like burgers and shakes, as well as a large selection of breakfast foods and hearty dinner dishes. There are also lunch specials, happy hour deals, and senior discounts. Order the Route 66 root beer and you get to keep the bottle as a souvenir. And if you're feeling extra adventurous, try the root beer ice cream shake!
If you're driving along Route 66, you'd be remiss to skip the Route 66 Museum. An easy stop right off of the highway, swing by to stretch your legs, grab some food, and learn about key landmarks along the Mother Road. The self-guided tour takes less than an hour and features a recreated 1950s gas station and diner, a collection of antique cars, and plenty of Route 66 books, magazines, and videos. Both the museum and the library inside are totally free and open year round.
Just look for the giant red roof! Redmon's Candy Factory was founded by John and Sharon Redmon in 1995. Since then, it has grown into a both a large-scale candy factory and a popular tourist destination, having received more than two millions visitors. Once inside, you can check out over 70 different kinds of salt water taffy and more than 20 different flavors of fudge. The shop also carries gourmet chocolate, classic candy bars, lollipops, popcorn, and fun merchandise. The staff is extremely helpful, friendly, and always willing to share a few samples.
Located right off Route 66, the Comfort Inn & Suites Springfield is the ideal place to stop and rest as you near the end of your Missouri road trip. Close to both the local airport, as well as many of the shops and restaurants, this hotel is both convenient and accommodating. Enjoy luxuries like an indoor heated pool, super fast WiFi, and a 24-hour fitness center. Click here to book your stay.
Slightly different than Meramec Caverns, the Fantastic Caverns are experienced from the comfort of a Jeep-drawn tram. In an effort to preserve the natural beauty of the caves and avoid potential disturbances to the ecosystems, tour guides at the Fantastic Caverns will load you into a comfortable cart and drive through the entire length of the caves, providing an intimate, yet protected, view of the caverns. This tour is great for those who can't walk long distances or need assistance; each cart has a wheelchair ramp. Driving along the one-mile route, guests will encounter giant mineral columns, delicate soda straws glistening from the ceiling, and tiny cave pearls hidden in crystal-clear water.
The Jeep tour costs $26, with groups leaving every 25 minutes and the full trip lasting about an hour. And don't worry if you brought your dog along, Fantastic Caverns will let Fido take a seat right next to you on the tour!
Gary Turner knows a lot about Route 66, and he's more than happy to share it with you. The owner of Gary's Gay Parita, Gary opened this roadside attraction as a way to showcase his love for the Mother Road and offer a convenient place for travelers to stop and rest. Formerly known as Gay Parita after the original owner's wife, this stop burned down in 1955, and was only recently resurrected by Turner himself. Now re-created to resemble a classic 1930s gas station, Gary's Gay Parita may not be able to offer real gasoline but it does offer an afternoon of great conversation and a refreshing drink.
If your trip happens to align with show times, then definitely stop at the 66 Drive-In Theatre (and even if a movie isn't playing, this is still worth checking out). The theatre opened in 1949 and is one of the few historically intact drive-ins still active today. Almost all of the 66 Drive-In’s original elements remain exactly as they were, from the 66-foot-high screen, to the children's playground, to the glass block ticket booth. Every week, the theatre shows two movies on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. Gates open at 7:30 p.m., and parking is on a first-come, first-served basis, so get there early if you want a good spot! Tickets are $8 for adults, $4 for kids 6-12, and free for children five and younger. And don't forget about the concession stand, which is full of classic movie treats: candy, soda, hot dogs, and (of course) lots and lots of popcorn.
From historical museums and authentic drive-ins, to long bridges and vast caves, this trip is sure to introduce you the unparalleled breadth and depth of Missouri's Route 66. It's clear to see that America's Favorite Highway has still got plenty of kicks.
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