Before you reach the sun-washed Pacific Coast, following Route 66 through California means first trekking across a parched, wind-swept desert.

Traveling west on Route 66, the creosote and cactus give way to lush pastures, swaying palms, and fruit trees of the Inland Empire.This is the same dry and barren landscape that greeted more than 200,000 Dust Bowl survivors in the 1930s. (When John Steinbeck’s Joad family first set eyes on California in The Grapes of Wrath, they were afraid they had traded one barren homeland for another.) As they attempted to enter California, many faced up to 125 armed policemen who turned away “undesirables.” About 40 percent of those immigrants who did make it across the state border picked cotton and grapes in the San Joaquin Valley, earning about $1 a day.

This eerie, somewhat desolate introduction to the state lies far from the famous sun-soaked beaches of Los Angeles and Santa Monica—the terminus of Route 66—yet the scattered tumbleweeds and bizarre Joshua Trees hold their own solitary beauty. Traveling west on Route 66, the creosote and cactus give way to lush pastures, swaying palms, and fruit trees of the Inland Empire. Upon arrival in Los Angeles, world-class museums, high-end shopping, and celebrity-filled nightlife offer cosmopolitan diversions before reaching Santa Monica and the breathtaking beauty of the Pacific Ocean. En route, set aside a couple of days for final side trips to Joshua Tree, a boulder-strewn national park surrounded by a vibrant and eclectic arts community.

Route 66 through the Mojave Desert.

Route 66 through the Mojave Desert. Photo © klotz/123rf

Planning Your Time on Route 66 Through California

With approximately 315 miles of Route 66 still intact in California, there is a lot of ground to cover. Needles marks the California state line and it’s a remote and desolate 140 miles to the next service town of Barstow, an overnight option. Los Angeles is about a five-hour drive west of Needles, but if you stay true to Route 66, add at least a few hours to your travel time to account for inland traffic. Those with no time to spare can push on to Los Angeles (traffic willing), but a better option is to skip Barstow and stretch your journey another day with a side trip south to Joshua Tree instead.

Once you arrive in Los Angeles, consider staying one night in downtown LA (the original terminus of Route 66) and one night in Santa Monica (the post-1930s terminus). After a long drive, this will make life easier when it comes to navigating one of the most gridlocked cities in the country.

Best Route 66 Restaurants in California

  • Emma Jean’s Holland Burger, Victorville: Stop here for the classic Route 66 diner experience.
  • Clifton’s, Los Angeles: Celebrate making it to the end of Route 66 at this fabulous, historic restaurant.
  • Mo Better Burgers, Los Angeles: This is fabulous food and service from folks who care.
  • Sushi by H, Los Angeles: Celebrate your arrival in LA with fresh, organic, and reasonably priced sushi.
Clifton's in Los Angeles, CA. Photo © Candacy Taylor.

Clifton’s in Los Angeles, CA. Photo © Candacy Taylor.

Driving Tips

Crossing the California border, make sure you have a full tank of gas; otherwise, gas up in Needles because you’ll soon be driving through the Mojave Desert, and fuel is scarce. A worthwhile excursion is to spend a day or two in Joshua Tree, which involves a beautiful three-hour drive through one of the most desolate areas in the country. Make sure your car is gassed up and in good working order, because there is no cell phone service for most of the drive. Spend the night in Twentynine Palms or head west on Route 62 to the town of Joshua Tree.

Travel map of Greater Los Angeles

Greater Los Angeles

Excerpted from the First Edition of Moon Route 66 Road Trip.