Museums on the Road

In many ways, a road trip seems the antithesis of a museum visit — the primal idea of the road trip is to get out there and see and do things in the first-person, while a museum is a place we go to view what others have discovered and assembled into collections. But with so many quirky collections out there, certain museums make great stops along the way, offering visitors a bit of insight into unique aspects of the road, the region or the local history.

The Route 66 itinerary takes us past at least 36 “museums” of all sorts, and there are at least six or seven dedicated to the Mother Road itself. There’s just no way you can visit them all, but how to pick and choose among the offerings?


A number of factors should be considered when selecting museums to include in an itinerary. First, determine your “must-see” stops. These are real “destinations,” places you don’t want to miss, even if it means planning your schedule around opening times or being prepared to stay an extra day.

Once you know what you “have to” include, it is time to look at other possible stops along your route. If you are following Route 66, or another established road trip itinerary, there are lots of resources listing museums along the way (for a start, see Museums Along the Mother Road or’s Museum Listing). But if your routing is more unique, you might have to do a little investigating. Perhaps you have guidebooks, travel websites or local tourist office handouts. Another excellent tool, is the AAA’s trip-tik travel planner, which works like any online mapping tool, but offers the option of showing “attractions” along the route. Using a combination of these resources, you can identify even the most obscure museums all along your itinerary.

Pick possible stops based on museum types or themes. Are you interested in history, art, farming, transportation, Route 66, native American culture, the old west, Abe Lincoln or something really quirky? No doubt there is a museum that specializes on it. Match up museums on your route with your interests.

Determine how much time you will need to enjoy the stopover. Some “museums” are quite small, little more than a single room, while others can be rather extensive, taking a couple of hours or more to explore.

Consider your budget. Even with entry fees of “only” $5 or so, visiting every museum along the way can start to add up. And don’t forget the likelihood that your visit will end in some kind of “gift shop,” where you won’t be able to resist a souvenir or some postcards.

Plan for a “rainy day.” Make a list of museums you might visit in areas that you are planning to stop at for outdoor activities. This way you have an interesting “alternative” if your original activity gets “rained out.”


On our road trip we decided to limit museum visits to one Route 66 museum and a few other quirky stops.

We chose the “National Route 66 Museum” in Elk City, OK, because it sounded like the most comprehensive of the museums dedicated to Route 66 (though many travelers give higher marks to the nearby Route 66 museum in Clinton, OK), and we were only going to stop at one: The National Route 66 Museum (website) uses a road motif to allow visitors to travel through all eight states along “The Mother Road,” beginning in Chicago and ending in California. Murals and different vignettes depict the eras of the road and the interesting places that made Route 66 so famous. Along the way, visitors can listen to recorded histories and personal accounts of the road from overhead audio kiosks. The museum’s collection of photographs, vintage autos, and recorded personal accounts vividly re-creates the ambiance of the route’s hey-day. It is rather small for a “national” museum, but it also has informative exhibits on small town life in the west, transportation and farming.

Next we chose to stop at an odd-sounding place, “The Devil’s Rope Museum,” which is dedicated to barbed wire (but also includes a small Route 66 exhibit that has nothing to do with barbed wire — it seems this museum is home to the Texas Route 66 Association, too): The Devil’s Rope Museum (website) in McClean Texas features the history of barbed wire, its artifacts, the significance of the invention, and the impact on the development of the Old West. The first thing we learned was that “Devil’s rope” means barbed wire. Just the idea that something so mundane as a type of fencing would have a museum dedicated to it was interesting, and the museum didn’t disappoint. With a comprehensive collection of wire, branding tools, and other related materials, it told the story of cowboys, cattle drives, and working ranches in this part of the American west.

Continuing our travel beyond Route 66, we stopped off at a tiny museum/gallery in Cortez, Colorado, with programs that focus on the native American community in the area: The Cortez Cultural Center (website) displays the work of local Native American artists, and also includes historical displays on the Mountain Ute, Navajo and Pueblos in a small building on the town’s main street. Outside there is a replica of a Navajo Hogan (the traditional home) and a dance plaza where cultural programs are held. In summer, the program includes Native American dances, flute music, the story of a WWII Code Talker, and other performances.

Near the U.S.-Mexico border in El Paso Texas we were intrigued by the idea of a museum dedicated to the work of the U.S. border patrol: The National Border Patrol Museum (website), El Paso, TX, offers visitors a glimpse of the Border Patrol’s history from the beginning in the Old West, through Prohibition, World War II, and on into today’s high-tech environment. The museum exhibits uniforms, equipment, photographs, guns, vehicles, airplanes, boats and documents depicting operations throughout the United States.

On the final leg of our journey, we chose to spend a whole day at one of Washington DC’s showpiece museums: The Newseum (website) is an interactive museum of news and journalism housed over seven floors. It has 15 theaters and 14 galleries, including the Berlin Wall Gallery (which displays the largest sections of the Berlin Wall outside of Germany), the Today’s Front Pages Gallery (presenting daily front pages from more than 80 international newspapers) and exhibits on news history, the September 11 attacks, the First Amendment, and world press freedom.

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