I honestly don’t have many regrets from how I planned my drive across the country on Route 66. One of those very few regrets though is that I really didn’t give Oklahoma the time it needed. The state has more drivable Route 66 miles than any other state and is very much the historic heart of the Route 66 experience, but we raced across it in just two days. Although I enjoyed what we experienced during that time, I do wish we had at least doubled the time in Oklahoma. Anyway, regrets aside Oklahoma has a lot to offer the Route 66 driver, from the very strange and quirky to incredible cities that are destinations in their own right. Here are some of those important moments that made Route 66 in Oklahoma special for me, just as they have for millions who have tackled the same path across America.
Heart of the Route
Although Oklahoma is not the geographic center of Route 66, that’s in Texas, it is very much at the center of the experience. Cyrus Avery, a Tulsa native, is normally regarded to be the Founding Father of Route 66. He was a board member of the Federal Highway System and even founded the U.S. 66 Highway Association. He’s the one of came up with the term Main Street of America and is largely credited for making the route the pop culture icon it has become. His home city, Tulsa, has honored his memory with Cyrus Avery Plaza, a pilgrimage site for many Route 66 through drivers. Avery wasn’t the only one who helped elevate the name and status of Route 66 in Oklahoma. The Dust Bowl struck the state with a thunderous fury, and the result was the exodus of more than 200,000 people along Route 66 to the west coast and what they thought would be better lives. This trek is immortalized in Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath” and the highway he called a migrant road. Add to this dozens of other mentions in print and song, and Oklahoma has truly come to epitomize what Route 66 is all about.
My Favorite Route 66 Attraction – The Blue Whale
One of the many features Route 66 drivers crave is the opportunity to visit strange and quirky roadside attractions, remnants of a different era in American life. The goal of these larger than life spots was usually to get drivers to stop and buy something, but my favorite Route 66 roadside attraction is a little different. Hugh Davis’ wife collected whale figurines, so when this zoologist thought about creating an anniversary gift she would never forget, that’s immediately what came to mind. Built in 1972, the resulting gift is a massive 80-foot Sperm Whale siting quietly in a pond. Made from pipes, concrete, rocks and sand, the Catoosa Blue Whale has been an important stop along Route 66 ever since, inviting kids in for a quick swim or for quiet family picnics next to the pond. I can’t tell you exactly why this was my favorite roadside attraction along the 2,400 miles of Route 66, but I know it will forever make me smile whenever I think about it.
Tulsa and Oklahoma City
I’ve written about this before, but Route 66 winds its way through many large cities and although some of the small quirky towns get the attention, these large cities are just as important to the story of Route 66. Oklahoma has two such cities, Tulsa and Oklahoma. Time to confess, this is one of the mistakes I mentioned in the first paragraph of this post. For some reason we were really behind schedule and had to make it to our final stop of the day before it got dark. That meant instead of spending some time exploring Tulsa, we simply drove through it. Before locals start sending me angry emails, I fully acknowledge and own up to my mistake. Yes, Tulsa requires time, probably a day or more and I misjudged it completely. There’s a lot to see and do in the city, both related to Route 66 and not which simply gives me yet another excuse to visit the state and continue my exploration. We did though stop in Oklahoma City, where we spent the night in the beautiful new Aloft Hotel in the suddenly hip neighborhood of Bricktown. Formally a warehouse district, it’s been revitalized and is enjoying a second life, as so many other neighborhoods across the country are doing. It was also my first time staying at an Aloft hotel and I loved the experience from the quirky design elements, to the incredibly comfortable rooms and delicious food options. In Oklahoma City itself there’s plenty to see and do, including the very unusual Oklahoma State Capitol. The building itself is massive and stunning, especially in the early morning light, but my favorite feature is that it’s the only state capitol with active oil rigs on the grounds.
Route 66 Museums
One thing that quickly became obvious was that there are many Route 66 museums around the country. Every state has at least one, with most hosting multiple museums or small displays dedicated to commemorating The Mother Road. Before the drive, I foolishly thought we would stop at all of them, but I soon realized that was impossible. That being said, we did manage to visit a great many along the route including the Oklahoma Route 66 Museum, which I think is the best in the country. Operated by the Oklahoma Historical Society, the museum is well organized and interesting, a bit of a rarity among the museums we visited. Taking visitors through the history of the Route across the country and not only in Oklahoma, it’s the best portrayal of the Route and its impact on society that I’ve seen. This is a place to spend some time and don’t miss their gift shop, it’s just as good as the museum itself.
However, not all museums are made the same and although I had high hopes for the National Route 66 Museum in Elk City, it very quickly disappointed me. Curation and presentation in a museum is everything, which is why I loved the Oklahoma Route 66 Museum so very much. It’s also why I severely disliked the museum in Elk City. Everything is just a little strange and nothing quite flows or works. For some reason there’s a focus on early settlers and pioneers, which has nothing to do with Route 66. The sections that are about Route 66 are strangely assembled, lack any real interpretation and are devoid of personality. I hate to say it, but this museum really isn’t worth the time or money to stop.
While major stops are fine, it’s those 5 minutes spent pulling off the side to investigate something further or to enjoy a great meal that really have the most meaning on Route 66. Oklahoma has plenty such moments, starting with a tasty lunch at a blast from the past – Waylan’s Ku-Ku. Located in Miami, Oklahoma, this was one of the original fast food drive-in chains from the 1960s. At one point there were more than 200 Ku-Ku locations around the Midwest, but this one in Miami is the sole survivor. It’s famous among Route 66 drivers and inside there’s plenty of Mother Road tributes and paraphernalia. The food was wonderfully greasy and tasty and honestly, was everything I had hoped it would be.
Leaving the state of Oklahoma and entering into Texas, there’s one final important stop to make – the (nearly) ghost town of Texola. Straddling the state border, this is one of those forgotten towns that Route 66 is all about. According to census records there are about 30 people or so who still live there, but the only sign of life I saw was at the small grill and country store. Oddly enough though, locals were inside enjoying lunch and it made for a nice pit stop as we entered the great state of Texas.
This post was created in partnership with Marriott International, but all thoughts and opinions are entirely my own.