The National Parks and Route 66 – Detours and Surprises

Grand Canyon Arizona

Many aspects of driving the entirety of Route 66 from Chicago to Santa Monica surprised me. The incredible number of hamburger variations, the vast quantity of oversized giant replicas, but what really shocked me was discovering what the true drive is all about. Seeing images of Route 66 happens almost daily on social and traditional media but, as it turns out, much of it is wrong. Before leaving on my trip I had saved a photo I wanted to replicate. It was an image of a Route 66 shield emblazoned on the road as it ran through Monument Valley. The problem with that? Route 66 doesn’t go through Monument Valley. Many of those seemingly iconic images of Route 66 are wrong, very wrong, which strikes me as odd since there’s a lot of beauty to be found both on and nearby the Route. What was important to me personally though was visiting some of the country’s most important National Parks. I had never been to any of the great National Parks of the West and I was excited to see as many as I could. It didn’t take me long though the realize that while the National Parks are indeed a part of the Route 66 legacy, they’re important only in a broader context.

Route 66 Amboy California

The Truth

As it turns out, along the entire 2,300 miles of Route 66 the road crosses only one National Park – Petrified Forest National Park. (Actually, that’s not quite true, more on that in the next section.) Located in northeastern Arizona, the park is named for its large deposits of petrified wood and covers an area of about 230 square miles. It also extends into the equally massive Painted Desert, which is very much a part of the overall experience. Getting up early that morning in Albuquerque, we had a lot on our to-do list for that leg of the drive, but nothing excited me more than spending some time in this beautiful National Park.

Although I don’t visit nearly enough of them, I truly love experiencing National Parks. They truly were America’s best idea and the legacy of stewardship and conservation they ignited didn’t just transform the American relationship with the outdoors, but how the world perceives the importance of natural spaces. Like many National Parks, Petrified Forest makes it easy for visitors to experience the best of the park as efficiently as possible. Two different loops, one into the Painted Desert and the other into the Petrified Forest only take an hour or two to navigate, although spending more time is of course preferable. True to form, the park was just as incredible as I had hoped, with colorful Badland formations the likes of which I’d never before seen. The park also acknowledges its connection to Route 66, preserving an old 1932 Studebaker along with interpretive information near the intersection of an old Route 66 alignment. Stopping by the car I felt a certain sense of pride reading through the Route 66 information. Most people who glance at that same placard will only dream of completing the drive but there I was, nearly finished with my epic quest.

Petrified Forest National Park and the Painted Desert wasn’t only a highlight for me, it was also a highlight for the generations of Route 66 drivers who came before me. I could see clues to that as we left the park, with kitschy roadside stands either displaying or selling small bits of petrified wood. Roadside attractions and stops were important to those intrepid drivers from the 1940s, 50s and 60s. They were much needed diversions after long hours of driving and added to the overall experience of seeing the best that the country has to offer. Roadside stops were important to them, but so were certain deviations from Route 66.

St Louis MIssouri

Other National Parks

Technically speaking, Petrified Forest National Park is the only park that protects a part of Route 66, but the old road does run very close to another National Park – Gateway Arch National Park. Well, sort of. As with all things related to Route 66, the facts are a little convoluted. The original Route 66 went through downtown St. Louis, but within a few years was realigned to skip downtown traffic. It’s in the spirit of the drive though to include a visit to the Gateway Arch, one of my favorite American landmarks. Visitors can purchase timed tickets to take the 3-minute tram ride to the top of this mighty 630-foot tall structure. The views from the top were beautiful, and I wasn’t the only one who stood there transfixed by the scenes below. So much more than just a panoramic window, standing there stirred up something deep inside, a respect for the amazing growth and progress this country has seen over the years. Standing under the incredible Arch itself, the sun twinkling off of the stainless steel I couldn’t help but be drawn in by its inherent beauty. It’s a languid monument, with no rough edges it seems to flow almost like the Mississippi that runs alongside it. Yes, a visit to the Gateway Arch is very much in keeping with the spirit of the drive, as are other National Parks along the way.

I was so fixated on driving the exact, technically correct Route 66 that I lost sight of something. I forgot about the spirit of the drive itself. People who followed this storied road across the country were explorers, they experienced America in a way few others could manage. It was also supposed to be fun, which meant deviating from the road when they felt like it in order to see and experience amazing sights and places. This includes the National Parks and it’s with this spirit in mind that I included stops at two other National Parks, even though they were well off Route 66. I planned two nights at the incredibly well situated SpringHill Suites in Flagstaff for a number of reasons, but mostly so I could spend a day exploring Grand Canyon National Park. I still don’t know how it’s possible to have lived for 42 years without visiting this star natural attraction, but I was excited to finally remedy that oversight.

An easy and fast drive from Flagstaff, I was thankful to have pro photographer Brendan Van Son along with me since he knows the park so well. Leaving in time to capture the late afternoon light, we drove all around the South Rim, enjoying the picture perfect day and the stunning views of the Canyon itself. It’s funny, after having seen the Grand Canyon depicted countless times on TV and in movies, nothing prepared me for the reality of being there. It may sound obvious, but the park is so much larger than I imagined. I always thought that there was one main viewing site and then everything was ancillary. But there’s not; there are scores of viewing spots, each offering different perspectives of this natural wonder. It’s also so much more stunning in person than can ever be shared through photos or video. It sounds trite, but being there is the only way to truly understand the magnitude of this amazing park.

Visiting the Grand Canyon was definitely in keeping with the spirit of Route 66. Many through-drivers of decades long gone did the same thing, veering off in order to admire the park for themselves. The second park we visited though was a little further afield and wouldn’t have been visited by many Route 66 drivers. But I knew I couldn’t be within an easy drive of Joshua Tree National Park and not stop to see what all the fuss was about for myself. Route 66 through California is not the most exciting stretch of the Mother Road. Small towns and desert filled the short two days we spent crossing the state. One of those small communities, Amboy, is now mostly a ghost town but it’s also the point where we veered off in order to spend the night in Twentynine Palms and to visit Joshua Tree.

Joshua Tree California

Both the Park and Twentynine Palms are a 40-mile deviation from Amboy and Route 66, but well worth backtracking in my opinion. Once again enjoying an ideally located hotel in the Fairfield Inn & Suites by Marriott Twentynine Palms-Joshua Tree National Park, visiting the park was easy and convenient. The drive had taken much longer than expected, so it was nearly sunset by the time we arrived. Thankfully, that is also the perfect time of day to experience this unusual National Park. Named after the huge preponderance of Joshua trees found throughout the region, there’s a lot more to love than just the plants. Massive boulders spread out across the landscape forming a kind of natural playground, and I had a lot of fun scampering across them, discovering a jackrabbit or two in the process. Although visiting Joshua Tree added time and mileage to our trip and was a clear deviation from Route 66, it was a lot of fun and I’m so glad we made the time to experience the beauty of this remarkable National Park.

Route 66 is about a lot of things, but for me at its heart is discovering the amazing diversity of America. Too many of us don’t fully grasp just how large or incredible the country is, but driving from Chicago to California forever opened my eyes to the magnitude of the nation. Our incredible National Parks played an important, although not large, role in that exploration and were the catalyst I needed to go from someone observing the road as a voyeur to experiencing it just as those many drivers before me have done.


This post was created in partnership with Marriott International, but all thoughts and opinions are entirely my own.

By: Matt Long

Matt has a true passion for travel. As someone who has a bad case of the travel bug, Matt travels the world in order to share tips on where to go, what to see and how to experience the best the world has to offer.

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