1350 MILES ALONG ROUTE 66 - PART 1
It seems to be the convention that Route 66 is travelled from east to west. I suppose this is because the road was the traditional route followed by economic migrants from the depressed mid-west in the 1920s and '30s to what they thought was the golden land of orange groves around Los Angeles. For various reasons, I opted to travel the route in reverse i.e. west to east. Nor did I have time to do the whole route from LA to Chicago and my trip will finish at Oklahoma City. At least, though, I will have covered the route travelled by the Oklahoma migrants whose troubles John Steinbeck described in The Grapes of Wrath.
DAY 1 ON ROUTE 66: LOS ANGELES TO NEEDLES, CALIFORNIA (280 miles)
So the first state through which I travelled was California, where Route 66 passes through every type landscape, from the beaches of Santa Monica, through the citrus growing inland valleys, over mountains and across the Mojave Desert, The guide book says that the old road survives intact almost all the way across the state and is marked for most of its 315 miles by signs declaring it Historic Route 66. This may be true, but it doesn’t make it easier to follow the old road through the LA metro area!
Near where Santa Monica Boulevard dead-ends at Ocean Boulevard, a brass plaque marks the official end of Route 66, the “Main Street of America,” also remembered as the “Will Rogers Highway,” one of many names the old road earned in its half century of existence.
Plaque marking the end (or start for me) of Route 66
Santa Monica Boulevard where Route 66 starts
Route 66 across Los Angeles follows Santa Monica Boulevard through Beverly Hills and West Hollywood. East from Hollywood, Route 66 merges into Sunset Boulevard to downtown L.A. 66 then follows Figueroa Street to the soaring Colorado Boulevard Bridge, an arching concrete bridge at the western edge of Pasadena which used to mark the entrance to Los Angeles from the east. Recently restored, the bridge spans Arroyo Seco along the south side of the Ventura Freeway.
East of Pasadena, the San Gabriel Valley used to be the westbound traveler’s first taste of Southern California and its orange groves. This seemed to last until the mid-1950s, when Route 66 gave way to high-speed freeways, and the orange groves were replaced by endless grids of tract houses.
From Pasadena, old Route 66 runs east along the foothills of the San Gabriel mountains although these are now all new roads. It goes past the landmark racetrack at Santa Anita and past the classic Foothill Drive-In at Azuza, the last remaining drive-in on Route 66 west of Oklahoma, whose sign was saved when the land was recently developed.
All that remains of the Foothill Drive-in Theatre in Asuza is the neon sign. Not my photo
I'm afraid, as it was dark when I arrived here so I've used a stock image.
At Rancho Cucamonga, 66 seems to become the I-15 which heads north over the mountains and the Cajon Pass. But before Victorville, old Route 66 survives as an “old roads” 36 miles trek across the Mojave Desert. It parallels the railroad tracks and the usually parched Mojave River, passing through odd little towns like Oro Grande, which is still home to a huge cement plant and lots of roadside junk shops before rejoining I-15. Sadly I had to miss out this loop because it was already dark when I hit this point.
East of Barstow all the way to the Arizona border, old Route 66 survives in a series of different stretches alongside the I-40 freeway. The first place of interest, Daggett, is a rusty old mining and railroad town six miles east of Barstow along the north side of the freeway. Again I had to miss out this stretch but the guide books say that if you want a taste of what traveling across the Mojave Desert was like in the old days, turn south off I-40 at Ludlow, 50 miles east of Barstow, and follow Route 66, on a 75-mile loop along the old road. This goes through Ludlow, where two gas stations, a coffee shop, and a motel represent civilization and Bagdad, a turn-of-the-20th-century gold mining town that’s now defunct.
From Amboy, it’s another 48 miles back to I-40 at Fenner. Another stretch of Route 66 runs east from Fenner on a roller coaster of undulating two-lane blacktop, parallel to the railroad track through the desert hamlet of Goffs. My stop was at Needles, a town which trades on its Route 66 heritage although I could find little of interest in the town so I moved on into Arizona.
DAY 2 ON ROUTE 66: NEEDLES, CA TO FLAGSTAFF, AZ
Traveling east from Needles, Route 66 crosses the Colorado river and turns north to Oatman.
Route 66 crossing the Colorado River into Arizona
THe Santa Fe railroad, which parallels 66
The next stretch of Route 66 is said to be one of the most demanding and desolate stretches of the entire old road. Following at first along the wildlife refuge that lines the Colorado River, the old road then cuts across a stretch of desert that really is harsh. It then climbs the steep hills, winding over passes that bring you to Oatman (elev. 2,700 feet), an odd mix of ghost town and tourist draw that’s one of the top stops along Route 66.
Route 66 over the Cajon Pass to Oatman
Route 66 over the Cajon Pass to Oatman
Oatman was a gold mining town whose glory days had long faded by the time I-40 passed it by way back in 1952, Oatman looks like a Wild West stage set and its full of tourist shops, but it’s the real thing—awnings over the plank sidewalks, bearded roughnecks and a few burros wandering the streets, lots of rust and slumping old buildings. Scenes from the town follow:
The gold mines here produced some two million ounces from their start in 1904 until they panned out in the mid-1930s; at its peak, Oatman had a population of over 10,000, with 20 saloons lining the three-block Main Street. Apparently, Clark Gable and Carole Lombard spent their first night after getting married in Kingman in 1939 in the old Oatman Hotel. Saloons and rock shops line the rest of Main Street, where on weekends and holidays Wild West enthusiasts act out the shoot-outs that took place here only in the movies.
East of Oatman the road passes the recently reactivated gold workings at Goldroad before climbing up and over the angular Black Mountains. Steep switchbacks and 15-mph hairpin turns takes you through a 2,100-foot change in elevation over a very short eight miles; the route then continues for another 20 miles into Kingman
The only town for miles in any direction since its founding as a railroad center in 1880, Kingman has always been a main stopping place on Route 66. It still proviodes the only all-night services on US-93 between Las Vegas and Phoenix, and along I-40 between Flagstaff and Needles. Kingman is still a way station although increasing number of people who have relocated here in recent years, attracted by the low cost of living.
The railroad station at Kingman
Quite a few of the old Route 66 cafés and motels still flourish alongside the old road including Mr. D’s Route 66 Diner where the coffee was really excellent:
A few miles outside Kingman along 66 a large green sign marks the entrance to Grand Canyon Caverns . These were once a major tourist destination along the old road. The Canyon Caverns were discovered and developed in the late 1920s and still have the feel of an old-time roadside attraction.
My next stop Hackberry, which was little more than a general store surrounded by masses of Route 66 memorabilia collected by the guy who runs the store.
The store at Hackman was overrun by a group of German Harley Davidson riders, who were traveling the length of 66. I spoke to them because I’ve always been fascinated by the attraction of the American south west to the Germans. They told me their trip was 40 days, so I guess they weren’t rushing back to pressing engagements.
The east end of the long loop of old Route 66 brings you to Seligman, the location of Andreas Feininger’s classic Route 66 photograph:
Here's my version showing the same scene today:
I found this town a little disappointing and most things seemed to be closed. The town retains a lot of its historic character with old sidewalk awnings and even a few hitching rails. The Snow Cap Drive-In has a sign which says “Sorry, We’re Open,” and the menu advertises “Hamburgers without Ham.” Behind the restaurant, in snow, rain, or shine, sits a roofless old Chevy decorated with fake flowers and an artificial Christmas tree. There are several old Route 66 cafes and motels and the (apparently) world-famous Black Cat saloon.
My next stop was Williams, the last Route 66 town to be bypassed by I-40.
Williams is primarily a gateway to the Grand Canyon, but it takes full tourist advantage of its Route 66 heritage and the downtown streets have old-fashioned street lamps and every other store sells a variety of Route 66 souvenirs.
My final stop for the day was at Flagstaff, an old railroad and lumber-mill town. The natural beauty of its forested location has meant that, compared to other Route 66 towns, Flagstaff was less affected by the demise of the old road and its been given a new lease on life by an influx of students at Northern Arizona University and by the usual array of ski bums and mountain bikers attracted by the surrounding high mountain wilderness, So today it is an enjoyable, energetic town high up on the Coconino Plateau. Downtown Flagstaff has been redeveloped ; and is really attractive; I spent some time wandering around the area with its restaurants and coffee shops—probably a dozen within a two-block radius of the train station—and converted warehouses and buildings. The student population hang out here and have done much to change the character of the town. I had driven there from the hotel and by mistake ended up in the campus of NAU. Its a huge facility and very impressive and I can understand the impact it has had on the town
DAY 3 ON ROUTE 66: FLAGSTAFF TO GALLUP
From Flagstaff I drove to Walnut Canyon which is one of the most easily accessible of the hundreds of different prehistoric settlements all over the southwestern United States. Walnut Canyon contains some 300 identified archaeological sites. The Canyon is also very beautiful, with piñon pines and junipers clinging to the canyon walls and walnut trees filling the canyon floor.
Walnut Canyon. Some of the many cave dwellings can be seen below
From the small visitors center gives a short but very steep path that winds through cliff dwellings tucked into overhangs and ledges 400 feet above the canyon floor.
East of Flagstaff, following old Route 66 can be frustrating task for those so inclined since much of the roadway is blocked or torn up or both. Unlike the long stretches found in the western half of the state the old road exists only as short segments running through towns, and most of the way you’re forced to follow the freeway, stopping at exit after exit to get on and off the old road through towns. One of these is the only town mentioned out of sequence in the Route 66 song: “Flagstaff, Arizona, don’t forget Winona”; give it a miss - there’s nothing there.
Further along I-40 is Meteor Crater. Formed by a meteorite some 50,000 years ago, and measuring 550 feet deep and nearly a mile across, the crater is a privately owned tourist attraction. I sotopped at the gas station and store but decided not to look at a hole in the ground.
More than the other Route 66 towns in the eastern half of Arizona, Holbrook feels like a real place, with lively cafés and some endearing roadside attractions around the center of town. I stopped for a coffee at a long-established 66 establishment, Mr. Maestas. The owner collects bric-a-brac and told me he wanted to open as museum eventually. Until then, the restaurant is jam-packed with his collection of old Americana, household goods, clocks (mostly produced by Coco-Cola) and Route 66 memorabilia.
The other attraction in Holbrook is said to be the concrete wigwam village, but I gave this a miss. The Navajo County Museum in the old Navajo County Courthouse, ifs good though.
One of the few remaining relics of the old Route 66 along this stretch is the Two Arrows Trading post. The store is now abandoned but the two arrows sign is still standing and can be seen from miles away as you approach the site - which was the idea, of course.
Following old Route 66 across New Mexico gives you a great taste of the Land of Enchantment, as the state calls itself on its license plates. There is less of the actual “old road” here than in other places, but the many towns and ghost towns along I-40, built more or less on top of Route 66, still stand. In Albuquerque, Route 66 runs through the center of this sprawling Sun Belt city, while in other places finding the old road and bypassed towns can take some time. Western New Mexico has the most to see and the most interesting topography, with sandstone mesas looming in the foreground and high, pine-forested peaks rising in the distance. In the east, the land is flatter and the landscape drier as the road approaches the Great Plains.
There is a 15 mile stretch of the old road just before Gallup and I went off I-40 to follow if for a change of scene. Actually, there isn’t much of a change of scene as the old 66 runs alongside I-40 which itself parallels the Santa Fe railway, with it mile-long freight trains.
A stretch of Old Route 66 in New Mexico
Gallup was founded in 1881 when the Santa Fe Railroad first rumbled through, and calling itself “The Gateway to Indian Country” because it’s the largest town near the huge Navajo and other Native American reservations of the Four Corners region, Gallup has some of the Southwest’s largest trading posts and one of the best strips of neon signs on old Route 66.
Some examples of the old motel neon signs
DAY 4 ON ROUTE 66: GALLUP TO SANTA FE
Setting off from Gallup, I soon came across this amazing old (but apparently still functioning) garage. Unlike many of the old garages along 66, at least this one is still working although for how much longer I couldn't be sure:
Along with the usual Route 66 range of funky old motels and rusty neon signs, my first stop after Gallup was the former mining boomtown of Grants. I took a quick look at its New Mexico Mining Museum.
Most of the exhibits trace the short history of local uranium mining, which began in 1950 when a local Navajo rancher discovered an odd yellow rock that turned out to be high-grade uranium ore. Mines here once produced half the ore mined in the United States, but production has now stopped. The museum has a convincing re-creation of a uranium mine, complete with an underground lunch room emblazoned with all manner of warning signs
A dozen miles east of Grants and 50 miles west of Albuquerque, one of the Southwest’s most intriguing sites, Acoma Pueblo, stands on the top of a 357-foot-high sandstone mesa. Long known as “Sky City,” Acoma is one of the very oldest communities in North America, continuously inhabited since ad 1150. The views out across the plains are unforgettable, especially the Enchanted Mesa on the horizon to the northeast.
Few people live on the mesa today, though the many adobe houses are used by Pueblo craftspeople, who live down below but come up to the mesa-top to sell their pottery to tourists. Its a diversion from Route 66 and I was undecided about making it but I’m very glad I did. The tour begins with a short bus ride to the mesa-top and end with a visit to San Esteban del Rey Mission, the largest Spanish colonial church in the state. Built in 1629, the church features a roof constructed of huge timbers that were carried from the top of Mt. Taylor on the backs of neophyte Indians—a distance of more than 30 miles.
An Acoma guide, who was excellent, spent 90 minutes taling us round the pueblo and talking with us to some of the people living there.
Another stretch of old Route 66 survives near here along the interstate, passing crumbling tourist courts and service stations across the Laguna and Acoma Indian Reservation.
My next stop was Albuquerque, New Mexico’s largest city which spreads north and south along the banks of the Rio Grande and east to the foothills of 10,000-foot Sandia Crest. For Route 66 enthusiasts, Albuquerque boasts a great stretch of the old Route along Central Avenue through the heart of the city—18 miles of diners, motels, and sparkling neon signs. The odd Aztec Motel, a very funky Pueblo-style 1930s motel kept alive as a live-in sculpture gallery and artists’ community, is an offbeat taste of the city’s Route 66 heritage.
One of the best parts of town is Old Town, the historic heart of Albuquerque. Located a block north of Central Avenue, at the west end of Route 66’s cruise through downtown, Old Town offers a taste of New Mexico’s Spanish colonial past, with a lovely old church, the 300-year-old San Felipe de Neri; as well as shops and restaurants set around a park.
I then made the northwards detour to the state capital, Santa Fe. The original Route 66 alignment ran north from Albuquerque along the I-25 corridor, then curved back south from Santa Fe, along what’s now US-84, to rejoin I-40 west of Santa Rosa. This was subsequently straightened out along I-40 for “political reasons”: apparently, there was a move to deprive Santa Fe of the Route 66 business. I must find out why.
The best sense of this old route across old New Mexico comes just north of Albuquerque, at Bernalillo. Route 66 here follows the much older El Camino Real, which linked the Spanish colonies 400 years ago. Silva’s Saloon, whose walls are coated in layers of newspaper clippings, old snapshots, and other mementos, is the place to see.
I been to Santa Fe a few times so I didn’t spend much time in the town - just enough, though, to have breakfast at the excellent - and very popular on a Sunday - Plaza Restaurant (“Since 1931”) in the colonial square and spend a hour in the Georgia O’Keefe museum.
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