Truck Camper Adventure is proud to present this article on a different kind of road and destination, historic Route 66. Even though this famous highway was decommissioned in 1985, it’s popularity continues to grow with enthusiasts the world over.
When most people hear the words Route 66 they think of motor lodges, Corvettes, neon signs, and souvenir shops. Others think of convertibles, fast food, drive-ins, and Elvis. Route 66 is all these things and more. The legend and popularity of this world-renowned highway continues to grow. My wife and I were amazed at the number of tourists we encountered on the route. An example of this popularity was a stop at the Hackberry General Store in Hackberry, Ariz. When we pulled up to this remote, Route 66 landmark we were shocked to see the place packed with car loads of tourists. We heard at least four different languages from the visitors while we were there. Like us, these tourists were out to capture their own memories of America’s beloved Mother Road.
Why Route 66 is popular with enthusiasts the world over, isn’t hard to understand. People are drawn to American culture and history, especially from the 1940s and 1950s. Fortunately, most of the original buildings, signs, and attractions from this bygone era are still around today, waiting to be rediscovered and explored. Some original Route 66 businesses are still in business today, though, sadly, most are not.
Route 66 was commissioned on November 11, 1926 as one of the original highways criss-crossing the nation. When constructed the road stretched from Chicago, Ill. to Los Angeles, Calif., a distance of 2,448 miles, though the entire route wasn’t paved until 1937. It crossed eight states—Ill., Miss., Kan., Okla., Texas, N.M., Ariz., and Calif.—and spanned three times zones. During the Depression, Route 66 became a route of escape for thousands fleeing westward during the Dust Bowl. Author John Steinbeck immortalized their plight in the celebrated novel The Grapes of Wrath, wherein he described Route 66 as “the mother road, the road of flight.”
During World War II Route 66 became the road of fight, as it facilitated the transport of troops, equipment, and supplies for the U.S. war effort. Unfortunately, the modern, high-speed Interstate system doomed Route 66 and the old two-lane highway was decommissioned in 1985. Though long, unbroken parts remain, Route 66 today is a discontinuous highway that has been chopped up and covered over in many places, especially along today’s interstates. Fortunately, Route 66 has been preserved in the main streets and business loops of many towns. About 85 percent of the venerable, old highway can still be driven on today.
While all of the Route 66 states possess their own unique charm, we liked driving through Arizona the best. Why? Because of the natural beauty and diversity of the state. Along the state’s 388 miles of highway you’ll find the Painted Desert, the Petrified Forest, Meteor Crater, the Coconino and Kaibab National Forests, and the Grand Canyon. The route also takes you through the scenic and hair-raising Sitgreaves Pass near Oatman. More importantly, of all the original states, Arizona has the longest stretch of Route 66 that’s still in use today, the 159 miles between Ash Fork and Topock near the California border (along this stretch the two-lane road carries the name “Historic Route 66”).
For the most part, Interstate-40 runs parallel and over old Route 66 in the eastern half of Arizona. If it wasn’t for the towns that were bypassed by I-40 along the way, Route 66 really wouldn’t exist anymore. It is what it is. Fortunately, there are some old dirt stretches from the original alignments that can still be explored on the east side of the state between the towns of Allentown and Sun Valley near exit 292. Exploring these unpaved sections is one of the many ways that overlanders and truck camper enthusiasts can still get their kicks on Route 66.
We explored Arizona Route 66 from east to west beginning in the small border town of Lupton at exit 359 on Interstate-40. Honestly, there isn’t much to see near the New Mexico border until you reach the Petrified Forest at exit 311. The highlight along this largely unpaved part of old Route 66 is the old Querino Canyon Bridge near Houck, Ariz. According to the National Park Service website, the bridge, which is still in use today on the Navajo Indian Reservation, was designed and built by the Arizona Highway Department in 1929. It’s an excellent example of an early highway truss design. The bridge is 77 feet long, 20 feet wide, and features a concrete-decked steel trestle with three Pratt desk trusses supported by steel piers. Concrete abutments support the bridge while steel lattice guard rails, typical of the period, line the structure. It was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1988. It’s a beautiful structure that really takes you back in time. We seriously considered crossing it in our truck and camper, but a sign warns of a 3 ton load limit. Our truck and camper combo weighs nearly twice that much, so we didn’t risk it. Too bad.
During Route 66’s heyday Holbrook was a popular stop, especially with tourists on their way to nearby attractions like the Grand Canyon, Petrified Forest, and Meteor Crater. The best part of Route 66 passes underneath the interstate to the south and turns right on Hopi Dr. (I-40 Business Loop). Even though there are plenty of old Route 66 businesses still in operation today, including Joe and Aggie’s Cafe and the Holbrook Inn (formerly the Wood’s Inn), the town of Holbrook is really known for two things: its rock shops, like the Pow Wow Trading Post, and for the famous Wigwam Village Hotel #6. The latter is a true Route 66 icon that is still in business today. The original owner of the Wigwam Village Hotel, Chester E. Lewis, actually built seven “Wigwam Villages” in the 1940s and 1950s with the one in Holbrook being his sixth. The layout of the Wigwam Village is unique with 15 freestanding teepees placed in a “U” shape around a central office (which now partially serves as a museum). Each 28-foot-tall teepee is made of concrete and features an air conditioner, toilet, sink, and a shower. Today, several vintage cars and trucks adorn the Wigwam Village courtyard, which add a vintage touch and feel to this iconic Route 66 landmark.
Joseph City can be reached by taking exit 277 off the interstate. There are four notable Route 66 landmarks in this small town: the historic bridge, which spans the Little Colorado River; Howdy Hanks, which sports a teepee on one side with a sitting horse mounted on top; Ella’s Frontier Trading Post; and the Jackrabbit Trading Post located a few miles west of town. Unfortunately, neither Howdy Hank’s nor Ella’s are in business today, but the Jackrabbit is still going strong. The Jackrabbit Trading Post is a true Route 66 icon. The trading post still sells jewelry, petrified wood, and Indian souvenirs like it did when it first opened in 1949. Now, because of its iconic status, the Jackrabbit also sells souvenirs of the business itself. Replicas of the famous “Here It Is” billboard can be purchased in various forms including T-shirts, stickers, patches, and refrigerator magnets. We bought several of these including a few Indian blankets. While you visit, don’t forget to take a picture with the famous oversized Jackrabbit. Mind you, it’s not the original from 1949, but it’s more child friendly with its cartoon-like facial features.
For Route 66 aficionado’s, Winslow is known for two things: the elegant La Posada Hotel, which served as a luxury hotel first then later as the headquarters for the Sante Fe Railroad, and for a Route 66 street corner made famous by the Eagles 1972 hit, Take It Easy. The song’s verse, “Standin’ on a corner in Winslow, Arizona, such a fine sight to see,” brought instant fame to town and it was a good thing. After the demise of Route 66, Winslow was dying a slow death. The town needed something to re-energize its lackluster economy and this was just the thing. Winslow capitalized on the song’s fame by erecting the “Standin’ on the Corner Park” in 1999. The park includes not only a statue of Jackson Browne, the song’s main writer (the Eagles’ Glen Frey added the line, “its a girl, my Lord, in a flatbed Ford), but also a wall mural and a beautifully restored flat-bed Ford as a street prop. The success of the park exceeded the town’s wildest expectations. The Route 66 street corner is now a bucket-list item for Eagles and Route 66 fans the world over. While you’re there, don’t forget to get photos of the largest Route 66 road sign in existence. Measuring 30×40 feet, the mammoth sign was manufactured out-of-state and shipped to Winslow in pieces so it could be reassembled like a giant jigsaw puzzle. The massive sign adds a very cool touch to downtown Winslow and to the “Standin’ on the Corner” Park.
Of all the Route 66 stops in Arizona, Two Guns might be the most interesting. Today, the ghost town is nothing more than a motley collection of ruins. It’s said that Two Guns is cursed and haunted, a result of the large number of Apache and Navajo who had died there in a war between the two tribes. Numerous attempts to commercialize Two Guns have resulted in either death or financial failure to the owners. Today, you can explore the numerous sets of ruins from these failed enterprises. These include not only the remains of an old trading post and mountain lion zoo, but also those of a gutted out gas station and KOA campground that were shut down in the 1980s. At times these ruins, including the original Route 66 bridge, have been completely closed to the public, but today they are open and can be explored by the curious. Unfortunately, public access has also resulted in vandalism to the site. Rumor has it that actor Russell Crowe purchased the property in 2012 in the hopes of using it for a future movie. It appears that the final chapter of Two Guns’ history has yet to be written. Let’s hope that the actor has better luck with the property than those who came before him.
The adjacent stops of Winona and Flagstaff both were immortalized in Bobby Troup’s 1946 hit, Get Your Kicks on Route 66. Unfortunately, there isn’t much to see in Winona today. Just the Walnut Canyon Bridge and the Winona Trading Post and Gas Station, both of which are closed and abandoned. Fortunately, taking the Winona exit off the I-40 means that you can also drive on a fairly lengthy stretch of Route 66 that extends west to nearby Flagstaff and several miles beyond. Flagstaff has much to offer the Route 66 aficionado. Several old cafes and motor courts can be viewed along the old route with most still in business today. Of these, the 66 Motel, El Pueblo Hotel, and Twilight Motel are particularly noteworthy with their neon signs and classic motor lodge architecture. Before leaving town, don’t forget to check out the two 20-foot-tall Lumberjacks from the original Lumberjack Restaurant. These can be seen at the Skydome sports arena on the grounds of Northern Arizona University (the pair were donated to the school after the Lumberjack Restaurant was sold). I also recommend checking out the Museum Club downtown and the remains of the old Pine Springs Resort a few miles west of town.
Williams is a must-see stop on Route 66. Today, the town in known for its famous Grand Canyon Railroad, which was opened in 1989, but during the bygone era of Route 66 it was both a major stop for those vacationing at the nearby Grand Canyon and for weary travelers. Tourism drives the Williams economy today much as it did in the past. Williams takes great pride in its Route 66 history. In fact, Williams was the last town to be bypassed by I-40 on October 13, 1984, when the last 6 miles of interstate were completed. The town fought hard to prevent this from happening, but its efforts were in vain. In deference to the Mother Road, Williams erected a two-lane, one-way loop downtown to accommodate traffic. There are numerous Route 66 businesses in Williams still in operation today, including gas stations, diners, saloons, gift shops, and small museums. The most notable of these include Pete’s Gas Station and Museum, the Addicted to Route 66 gift shop, Cruisers 66 Cafe, Rod’s Steakhouse, and the Grand Canyon Brewery. If you want to try a unique Bed and Breakfast, check out the Red Garter Inn and Bakery. Rumor has it that this restored Victorian bordello from the 1890s once included a two-story outhouse. It’s also said that the B&B is haunted by a former hostess.
Of all the Route 66 stops in Arizona, Seligman was probably our favorite. With a population of only 445, we honestly didn’t expect much when we got into town, but, boy, were we wrong. The small town captivated us with its charm and eclectic style. Seligman oozes Route 66 along its 6-mile-long main street with a surprising number of motel courts, souvenir shops, restaurants, and old gas stations. The town boasts several Route 66 mainstays, like the Copper Cart, Route 66 Gift Shop, and the Supai Motel, but none are bigger than the world-renowned Delgadillo’s Snow Cap Drive-In. Founded in 1953 by Juan Delgadillo, the drive-in restaurant is known for its delicious food and great humor (I was asked if I wanted my hot fudge sundae male or female (with or without nuts)). One writer called it “one of the most wackiest, off-beat burger joints around,” and I agree. Unfortunately, Juan is no longer with us, but his family still owns and operates this very popular business. While you’re there make sure you get a picture with their wacky, 1936 Chevy show prop. Another popular stop, and one of our favorite eateries along the entire route, is the Route 66 Road Kill Cafe. If you’re hankering for a great burger and order of fries, this is the place to get it.
Seligman sits near the beginning of the longest stretch of Route 66 still in use today. Dubbed “Historic Route 66,” this 159 mile stretch begins west of Ash Fork, 27 miles east of Seligman, and ends west at the California border. Not much has really changed on this part of the Mother Road. Some new buildings have been built in Peach Springs, but that’s about it. We particularly enjoyed seeing the Burma Shave roadside signs as we drove along the route. These sequential, rhyming advertising signs were a boon to the Burma Shave company before the high-speed interstates made them obsolete in the early 1960s. A few treasures along this historic stretch of road are worth pointing out. One of these is the Grand Canyon Caverns. Located 300 feet below the surface, these caverns are the largest dry caverns in the United States and are well worth the time to explore. The other Route 66 treasure worth checking out is the Hackberry General Store in Hackberry. Originally operated by Route 66 artist Bob Waldmire, the Hackberry General Store a must-see stop on Route 66. With its rustic store front, nostalgic gas pumps, and tin-can billboard, the store remains one of the best photo opportunities along the historic stretch of Route 66.
The welcome signs to Kingman call the city “The Heart of Historic Route 66” and it is. The city’s Route 66 roots run deep and you can find plenty of evidence of that still today. In the city, you’ll find everything from motor lodges, diners, and gift shops to old gas stations, auto repair shops, and stores. The city has even erected a Route 66 roadside park. Kingman’s Route 66 jewel, however, is the Powerhouse Route 66 Museum. Opened in 2001, the museum is an attraction that every Route 66 traveler in Arizona should visit. It boasts several life-size dioramas and murals that cover the early history of the area as well as the origins of Route 66. The Burma Shave display, next to the museum’s 1950 Studebaker, is a popular display with visitors. Before you leave the museum, make sure that you check out the Locomotive Park next door where you can view the 1928 Sante Fe Steam Engine #3759. This massive locomotive weighs nearly 500,000 pounds, has 80 inch diameter driving wheels, and could reach speeds of 100 mph back in the day. I also recommend visiting the Mohave Museum of History and Arts. This first-rate museum includes exhibits of the local indigenous tribes, settlers, mining, and ranching in Northwestern Arizona.
The 42-mile stretch between Kingman and Oatman was and still is the most spectacular and intimidating part of old Route 66. Now called the “Historic Route 66 Back Country Byway” by the Bureau of Land Management, this scenic route will take you through the notorious and renowned Sitgreaves Pass, with its steep grades, narrow road, and sharp hairpin turns. Trucks and trailers over 40 feet are prohibited from traveling over the pass and they mean it. The hazardous passage unnerved many Route 66 drivers back in the day and even took the lives of some who dared to tackle it intoxicated or in bad weather (numerous crosses can still be found in certain parts of the route). The cry for a safer passage to the California border was finally heard and in 1952 the much quicker and less hazardous Yucca bypass was completed. Somehow, the bypass didn’t kill off Oatman. In fact, the defunct mining town is now a top tourist draw with its wild west feel and feral burros wandering the street (visitors are actually encouraged to feed them). Today, saloons, hotels, and T-shirt shops line the main street, where shootouts are reenacted daily. Unfortunately, due to the hilly terrain in and around Oatman parking is very limited and there are no campgrounds there, so if you’re interested in visiting in a larger RV you’ll have to do so during the day (small rigs, like truck campers, however, can score on tiny pull outs and pull overs that can be found in and around town).
If you’ve been thinking about exploring old Route 66 you really need to do it. You’ll fall for the charm and nostalgia of the old road and the attractions that can be found along it. What’s great about this trip is that you don’t have to have a truck camper or RV to do it (though I think this makes the trip cheaper and more comfortable), you can travel old Route 66 in whatever car or truck you own. How long did our trip across Route 66 in Arizona take? We took three days, with overnight stops in Holbrook and Seligman. In retrospect, we wish we would’ve taken an extra day or two to enjoy some of the locations more. An overnight stay at Two Guns and Oatman would’ve really been over the top. Some Route 66 enthusiasts believe that Historic Route 66 from Ash Fork to Oatman is the best that Route 66 has to offer today and I’d have to agree. The beauty along this stretch of highway and the number of Route 66 businesses and attractions that are still in operation today combine to make this a must-see, must-do drive. So if you’re contemplating a cruise across Route 66 in Arizona, I highly recommend it. It’s a fun and educational trip back in time that you won’t soon forget.