The Petrified Forest. The Grand Canyon. The Painted Desert. The Berringer Crater. Natural wonders neighbouring Americana classics like the Jack Rabbit Trading Post, the Wigwam Village Motel or the Standin' on the Corner Park. All of these await travellers on Arizona Route 66.
In 1926 Route 66 entered Arizona just east of Lupton and followed the Beale Camel Trail1 west to Topock at the Colorado River. The intervening 376 miles encountered forest and desert, mountains and canyons, Native American villages, cozy motels, trading posts and mouth-watering eateries. From the interstate that rendered the old road obsolete, it is possible to fail to notice any of these.
Today more than 200 miles remain, including the longest stretch of unbroken, original Highway 66 in the US from Ash Fork to Topock. This is the feature of the annual Route 66 Fun Run which takes place over the first weekend in May. It is a two-day cruise from Seligman to Topock including festivals in many of the towns, live music, and an awards ceremony, but it's definitely not a race. Who'd want to speed past all that?
The Broken Road
Many establishments in eastern Arizona simply relocated to the new alignment when Interstate 40 came through, taking up positions alongside the superslab in order to continue to lure business. As a result, the first town of notable size that west-bound travellers will encounter is Holbrook, approximately 75 miles inside the state line.
Although the nation's first motorist camp2, which was located in Holbrook, is now just a page in history, weary vacationers can 'Sleep in a Wigwam!' at one of the three remaining Wigwam Village Motels3 where fifteen fully restored concrete wigwams (or teepees) sit in a semi-circle around a central wigwam-shaped office.
Just the other side of Holbrook lies the Petrified Forest National Park. Open year-round, the park offers the largest concentration of petrified wood in the world, plus more than 2,000 years of human history including petroglyphs and pictographs, and fossils dating back more than 200 million years. Additionally, portions of the Painted Desert4 are visible in the park.
On the way to Winslow the road passes through Joseph City, location of the famous Jack Rabbit Trading Post. Opened in 1949, it is recognisable by its prominent yellow billboard proclaiming 'HERE IT IS' in giant red letters next to a black silhouette of a jack rabbit. Not sure if you've found the right place? There's also a giant saddled rabbit sculpture in front of the store - the perfect opportunity for a photographic keepsake.
Take it Easy
Well, I'm standin' on a corner in Winslow, Arizona,
Such a fine sight to see
It's a girl, my Lord, in a flatbed Ford
Slowin' down to take a look at me
from Take it Easy by Jackson Browne
And you can stand on the corner in Winslow, in Standin' on the Corner Park, inspired by the Eagles' song complete with a statue of a man with a guitar on the corner and a mural of a girl driving the Ford past. When you're done standing on the corner you can 'take it easy' in the La Posada Hotel, an old restored Harvey House built for the Santa Fe Railroad in 1929.
Also in Winslow is the Old Trails Museum. Not directly on Highway 66, in fact only just up the block, this museum commemorates the National Trails that criss-crossed the country before the highway system was developed. Many of these old trails were integrated into the new system, losing their distinctive names in the process. The part of Route 66 that passes through Winslow was the Evergreen National Highway under the National Trails system.
That's a Mighty Big Hole
Between Winslow and Winona travellers have the opportunity to visit, for a moderate fee, the Barringer Meteor Crater. From old 66 the only thing visible is the remains of the observation tower; the crater itself lies to the south. Resulting from a meteor impact over 50,000 years ago, the crater is nearly three miles in circumference and 3/4 mile (1,219 metres) from rim to rim. Visitors aren't able to visit the crater floor, but tours of the rim take place daily. Be sure to bring comfortable shoes.
Don't Forget Winona
Actually, it's easy to forget Winona, as there isn't much that's notable left. But the road to Flagstaff still contains a few eye-catching relics, such as the trading posts at Two Guns and Two Arrows (of which only one arrow remains).
Flagstaff was so named for a tall pine tree, stripped of branches, that served as a flagpole and landmark on the Beale Camel Trail. The Museum Club is a roadhouse in Flagstaff that is nearly as old as the Mother Road itself. Opened in 1931, the club is said to be haunted by two of its former owners, but still features country and western music acts for crowds of revellers. After a night of dancing at the Museum Club, the El Pueblo Motel or Twilight Motel, both Route 66 originals, offer a good night's rest before sending travellers off again.
'The Gateway to the Grand Canyon' is Williams, Arizona. Although the Canyon is 50 miles north, nearly another hour's drive, vacationing families from the east and west drove Route 66 to get there. The Frey Marcos, another former Harvey House, is now a depot on the Grand Canyon Railroad and offers package trips via old-time steam engines (and newer diesels) to the south rim including tours and accomodation. The 1930s Route 66 Inn, also on the railway, offers packages as well. Williams also boasts the Red Garter Bed and Bakery - a former bordello-turned-bed and breakfast - and a 'motel row' of restored classic 1940s neon signs. When Interstate 40 was completed in October of 1984, Williams was the last town of the entire 2,400 miles to be bypassed.
The Unbroken Road
Ash Fork offers a number of classic Route 66 businesses, but the real attraction is up the road in Seligman, home of the Mother Road's 'Guardian Angel'. Angel Delgadillo was born in a house directly on 66, and has lived his entire life on the Main Street of America. Angel operates the Route 66 Gift Shop in Seligman, and is one of the most active and vocal saviours of the old road. Co-founder of the Arizona Route 66 Association, he actively lobbied for protection of the historic road and was instrumental in the creation of the Fun Run.
Across the street from the gift shop is a Mother Road staple, the Snow Cap Drive-In, where the hungry will find cheeseburgers with cheese, dead chicken sandwiches, and reportedly the best shakes and malts in the entire US. Angel's brother Juan is responsible for this legendary establishment, legendary indeed because of Juan himself and his well-known sense of humour. Juan ran the Snow Cap until his death in 2004; now his children carry on with his good-natured antics.
The Road to Kingman
Since 1927 tourists have enjoyed the Grand Canyon Caverns just west of Seligman. For an admission fee the curious are taken by elevator 21 storeys below ground level, an amazing 3/4 mile, to explore one of the largest dry caverns in the United States.
The town of Truxton built itself around a cafe and service station that were established in the 1950s in anticipation of traffic from a proposed dam nearby on the Colorado River. Plans for the dam were scrapped, and as a result tourism from Route 66 was the town's only sustenance. Although the town's livelihood has departed, a few eateries hang on.
Valentine is notable for relics. There is a one-room schoolhouse hidden from view on the other side of the railroad tracks that, in the days of segregation, served as the 'white school'. Just up the road and easier to spot is the boarded two-storey building that schooled the Indian children.
In Hackberry the observant road junkie will love the Hackberry General Store - a virtual museum of road relics and cast-offs. Service station signs, old gas pumps, Burma Shave signs, classic diner fixtures, and the eye-catcher: a beautifully restored 1950s red Corvette.
The Centre of Everything
Well, not quite, but Kingman makes a good 'home base' for the traveller wanting to see it all. Most of northern Arizona's major attractions are an easy day trip from Kingman. Downtown Kingman hasn't changed much in the last 50 years or so, and paints a nice picture of the towns Highway 66 travellers experienced all along the route. The Kingman Powerhouse opened in 1907 to provide electric service to nearby mines, then was made obsolete when the Hoover Dam was completed in 1938. The Powerhouse now serves as headquarters for the Arizona Route 66 Association which operates a gift shop and museum on the premises.
Across the street from the Powerhouse is Mr D'z, a classic diner that is a popular stop on Route 66 tours and rallies. Film crews have been attracted to the typical little burger joint as well for various national and international television specials. Mr D'z serves some of the best burgers and shakes on the Old Road.
The Home Stretch(es)
When US 66 was commissioned the road went from Kingman on a steep, winding and dangerous path to Oatman, Arizona. Oatman was bypassed in 1953 when 66 was re-routed further south through Yucca. Interstate 40 followed the 1953 alignment, but Oatman never let go of its Mother Road heritage.
Oatman's biggest tourist attractions are its residents: wild burros that are descended from the burros used in the mines that were turned free to roam when mining operations were abandoned. Although 'wild' they are quite tame and will eat from the hand, and a few of the shops along Oatman's main street sell alfalfa pellets to tourists to feed the burros. Oatman's other residents are an attraction as well; occasionally dressing in period costume or staging wild west gunfights for entertainment.
Hollywood stars Clark Gable and Carole Lombard spent their honeymoon night in the Oatman Hotel. The Hotel is no longer open to guests, but operates a museum on the second floor, and the Gable/Lombard room has been preserved.
From Oatman (or Yucca) the road carries on to Topock and the Colorado River crossing. The original National Trails steel arch bridge still spans the river but no longer carries traffic, these days it carries pipeline from Arizona to California. The bridge the Joads cross in The Grapes of Wrath was built to bypass the National Trails bridge, then later demolished to make way for the interstate crossing. Today, the Interstate 40 span is the only way to cross this part of the Colorado River into Needles, California.
Arizona's Route 66 Heritage
Like New Mexico, many Arizona Mother Road towns began as railroad towns, real and true 'wild west' towns. Saloons outnumbered schools and churches together, and in some cases there were no schools or churches at all. From these beginnings real communities evolved then thrived in the heyday of the National Highway System, enjoying their finest hour in the wave of tourism that followed World War II.
Some of these towns have fallen victim to the Interstate system that provides instant gratification to hordes of motoring tourists. But many other towns have survived and continue to cherish and preserve their Route 66 heritage, making the Route 66 experience possible for new generations wanting to 'get their kicks' the old-fashioned way.