This is the leg of Route 66 that everyone dreams about. It’s perhaps the most iconic stretch of the Mother Road and the one most popular with day-trippers from either Las Vegas or California. In fact, there’s so much to say about Route 66 in Arizona that I’m not quite sure where to start. The result will be a post that may seem a little rambling and out of order, but believe me, it’s the one post in my Route 66 series you don’t want to skip.
It seemed strange to me at first, but Route 66 only crosses two National Parks on the 2,400-mile drive. The first is in St. Louis – Gateway Arch – and the second is in Arizona, Petrified Forest National Park. 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 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. 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.
There was one natural wonder that was on my to-do list well before I started driving Route 66 – the Grand Canyon. 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.
Flagstaff is also close to another off-the-route spot I wanted to see more of, Sedona. This tony community has long been known for its love of nature and the arts, and I just wanted to see it for myself. Getting up early, we made the easy drive down to Sedona and almost instantly I fell in love. It’s a strange mix of forests and desert landscapes and right away I understood the appeal of the city. I honestly need to return when I have more time, but what I did experience was well worth the trip. We started at Slide Rock State Park, located in a National Forest and famous for a natural water slide formed by the slippery creek bed. It was still a little too early in the day for many swimmers, which was perfect for me as I explored the park and tried to capture the moment. Before leaving town we visited another well-known spot, the Chapel of the Holy Cross. This may be the most unique church I’ve ever seen as it’s built into the buttes themselves. It was conceived of in the 1930s and although it wasn’t finally built until the 1950s, that art deco aesthetic and even Frank Lloyd Wright influence is strongly felt. Even if you aren’t religious, it’s an important stop to make, for the views if no other reason.
Classic Route 66
Arizona features so many towns and sights integral to the story of Route 66 that I feel the need to simply list them. Yes, we stopped at them all and yes, they are all worth your time. They’re so important actually that I would suggest adding in plenty of time for Arizona just so you don’t have to race through each stop.
Crossing over from New Mexico into Arizona is marked by a series of small trading posts in towns like Lupton, a tiny outpost near adjacent Native American reservations. This is truly a different world of painted cliffs and red rocks that seem to go on forever. We stopped briefly at the trading post with the biggest Route 66 signs to find an odd assemblage of stuff, as well as a variety of trinkets available for sale. The stop was worth it for the painted state line inside the trading post itself.
There is no motel more famous along Route 66 than this, the original Wigwam Motel. Often copied in TV and on film (watch “Cars”), this is as classic and kitschy as it gets when it’s time to spend the night somewhere. When they were originally built in the 1930s, the Wigwams were part of a chain that stretched across the country. Today there are just a few left, and this one in Holbrook, Arizona is by far the most famous. On-site are 15 wigwams, each 21-feet wide and 28-feet high with private bathrooms, TV, air conditioning and more. Vintage cars sit out front and there’s an aura of classic Americana everywhere. Although I didn’t spend the night, I made sure to stop and spend some time admiring this iconic destination.
Jack Rabbit Trading Post
Yet another roadside attraction that owes recent popularity to its feature in the movie “Cars,” it’s impossible to miss this small store as you approach Joseph City. For miles the sign “Here it is” leads the way to the strange, definitely quirky and slightly creepy Jack Rabbit Trading Post. The store isn’t what’s creepy, it’s the logo of the menacing rabbit but that, along with everything else here is what makes it so memorable. After visiting I fear that this important store may be seeing its last days, so be sure to visit while you still can.
Any classic rock fan will immediately recognize the importance of Winslow, Arizona, immortalized by The Eagles in their hit song “Take it Easy.” While the mention of the town is brief, Winslow has more than adopted the song and the band as their own, creating statues in the city, you guessed it, right on the corner. Winslow is about much more than one song though; it played an important role on Route 66 and was a favorite stop for many of the drivers on their way to California. Just as The Eagles are found everywhere throughout town, so are nods to Route 66 making this a not to miss stop.
Driving through Arizona and California, we noticed a travel phenomenon we hadn’t seen anywhere else along Route 66. Day trips for visiting tourists are set up to take people to certain stops along Route 66. Never really driving along the true road, they instead use the Interstate to reach certain towns that have become iconic. While I don’t approve of skipping the drive itself, I know how important these tours are to struggling communities, including one of the top tourist spots, Seligman. The couple of blocks that make up the downtown are chock-a-block with cafes and small businesses, all paying homage to Route 66, which does indeed run through town. For us, it was a nice pit stop along an otherwise nondescript road and a great place to buy some souvenirs, in all honesty.
This town is a very popular stop for Route 66 through-drivers thanks to its proximity to other sights and for the services available in town. For us, it was the ideal lunch break and a visit to one of the restaurants on my master Route 66 plan – Mr. D’z Route 66 Diner. Yes, the kitsch may be a little over the top here and at times it does feel like a Johnny Rockets franchise, but it all works and the food was honestly delicious. I had the burger, but they’re famous for their quarter-pound hotdogs served along with a mug of their tasty root beer, one of the best I’ve ever had. Across the street is another important stop, the Route 66 Museum. By this point on the drive I was getting a little tired of Route 66 museums, but this one is worth a short visit. They do a really nice job of illustrating the history of Route 66 and the path it took through the region. They also have one of the best gift shops on the Route.
This is a strange little town. A true Old West mining town, this small hamlet has been featured in a number of movies and today they firmly embrace their Wild West history. It very much is an old gold mining town, down to the saloons, wood plank walkways and wild donkeys roaming the streets. During its heyday, more than 10,000 people lived here, all looking to make their fortunes. Today about 100 intrepid souls call this remote outpost home, relying entirely on tourism to make ends meet. If you didn’t eat in Kingman, this is a good lunch option and there are a number of shops and boutiques if that’s your thing. How much time you spend in Oatman is a matter of personal choice. I’m not a big fan of Wild West reenactments, but if that’s your thing then you’ve found a great spot to enjoy a different era of American history.
Arizona for many people is the highlight of Route 66 because it delivers on all of our collective preconceived notions of what the drive is like. Expansive red rock landscapes, incredibly kitschy towns and an indefatigable spirit that is impossible to ignore all define this section of the Mother Road. Arizona does indeed have it all and was yet another highlight on a drive full of them.
This post was created in partnership with Marriott International, but all thoughts and opinions are entirely my own.
1 thought on “Route 66 in Arizona: Detours, Kitsch and Natural Wonders”
Love the Eagles! I never knew there was a nod to “Take it Easy” with Glen Frey “Standing on the Corner in Winslow, Arizona”. Thanks for a great article……Route 66 certainly is “what a fine site to see!”
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