3. Route 66 from Needles to Santa Monica
- Suggested Itinerary: 279 miles, 3 days; Stops in Needles, Joshua Tree, Santa Monica
- Best for: Fans of kitsch
- Where to Stay: Wigwam Motel, San Bernadino (Doubles from $124); Desert Getaway House (Sleeps 6, $203); Shore Hotel, Santa Monica (Doubles from $399)
The bygone glory days of jumping in a car and going on a family road trip are in evidence along Route 66, the 2,448-mile long highway known as “the Mother Road” in the days before the interstate system started everyone zooming past tourist attractions. The thrill of it in California is that this one route displays the wide range of topography of the Golden State. Start in Needles, immortalized in Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath as part of the trail of migrants fleeing the Dust Bowl. Cross the river one way and you’re in Arizona, the other way and you’re headed west toward the ocean. Head through Amboy, a former mining camp town that’s been abandoned except for a small café and the business advertised by the iconic Roy’s Motel neon sign. If it’s a windy day, take a half-hour detour to the Kelso Dunes, where the shifting sand dunes make a sound called “singing” (it’s more of a full-body vibration). Head onward to 29 Palms, a desert oasis that’s five minutes from the Joshua Tree National Park, so worth a drive through the otherworldly spiky trees. You’ll head through Barstow, immortalized by Hunter S. Thompson’s best road trip every memoir Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (“We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold…”). Overnight in San Bernadino at the Wigwam Inn—you’ll be sleeping in a concrete cone built in 1949—then proceed on to drive straight to Santa Monica, where Route 66 ends in a stretch of pale sandy beach.