Route 66 is the most celebrated highway in the USA. This iconic roadway connecting Chicago with LA has been traveled by countless people, been written about, is the subject of songs, had a TV show named for it and is the unnamed star of the cult film Easy Rider. It celebrates its 90th birthday on November 11, 2016. It’s a great year to ride what John Steinbeck dubbed the “mother road” in his epic novel The Grapes of Wrath. The name stuck.
When the Interstate highway system came into being, blue highways such as Route 66 were replaced. Slowly, starting in 1956, these sterile limited-access four-lane roads that bypassed cities, towns and rural communities replaced the scenic back roads and highways of America. Yes they were faster and more direct, but the country paid a price for speed and convenience.
Luckily, portions of Route 66 still exist. They have become destinations for travelers driving across America to reconnect with the past. Interestingly, the road draws travelers from around the world. Many are inspired by Easy Rider to ride the entire 2,451-mile highway on Harleys. Some travel in tour groups complete with support vehicles. Others travel the road in cars, tour buses or RVs.
Historic Route 66 goes through eight states, including an 11-mile stretch through eastern Kansas. You can travel it in about a week from start to finish. But if you really want to savor it, plan at least two weeks for your journey.
Join us on our journey on Arizona’s Historic Route 66. We’ll highlight our favorite stops. It’s worth the drive!
Author’s note: Our journey is from east to west. Going the other way? Just reverse it.
Petrifiedl Forest National Park is well worth a stop and can be seen in a few hours. But if you want to hike and explore in greater depth, allow yourself a full day or more.
Painted Desert, adjacent to Petrified Forest National Park, is visually stunning. The colors in this area of badland hills, with their flat-topped mesas and sculptured buttes, create a rainbow palette running the spectrum from softer lavenders, pinks and grays to vibrant reds and oranges. It’s a photographer’s dream!
Start at the visitors center and then drive through the park. If you’re a fan of historic inns and former Fred Harvey properties stop at Painted Desert Inn. Opened in 1926, it became a Fred Harvey property in 1940. After being closed in 1942 for the duration of WWII, it was reopened in 1947 after a renovation designed by Harvey’s well-known designer Mary Elizabeth Jane Colter. She commissioned paintings from Hopi artist Fred Kaboti and you can still view these treasures today. The inn was closed in 1963. The building, which has the old Harvey lunchroom restored, is staffed by Park Rangers who will answer any questions you have about it.
When I was young, I heard about the Petrified Forest and pictured stone trees with branches spread standing in the desert. The first time I visited, I was a bit disappointed but soon got over it. About 225 million years ago this land was lush forest where dinosaurs roamed. Volcanic eruptions knocked the trees down and they were covered by volcanic ash. Lack of oxygen and organisms preserved the fallen trees which became fossilized over millennia. These rich-hued logs yield a lot of geological information. The park was also once home to indigenous people. You can view petroglyphs and the remains of the Puerco Pueblo which dates to around 1300AD. Take time to hike one or all four main areas of petrification (Blue Mesa, Jasper Forest, Crystal Forest and Rainbow Forest).
Take a detour through Holbrook on Historic Route 66. The stretch is dotted with evidence of the road’s heyday including great signs at old cafes, motels and trading posts.
If you’re a fan of vintage kitsch motels, stop at Wigwam Village, opened in 1950. The distinctive teepee units are a favorite photo op for travelers. If you don’t want to spend the night, visit the small museum in the motel office to view an eclectic collection amassed by the late owner that includes Route 66 memorabilia, petrified wood, Civil War items and Indian artifacts.
Does the line “Standin’ on a corner in Winslow, Arizona” sound familiar? The Eagles made this former railroad town famous in Take it Easy. There’s even a Standin’ on the Corner Park complete with a flatbed Ford. Legend has it that the Eagles stood on a corner in Flagstaff, west of Winslow, but they didn’t think it made as good a lyric.
The town’s rich past includes visits from a host of famous people including aviators Charles Lindbergh and Howard Hughes as well as a host of movie stars. La Posada, a former Fred Harvey inn, has been reopened and restored. It is a jewel in the Arizona high desert. The trackside hotel is popular place to spend the night. Even if you aren’t in need of lodging, stop and take a look at this historic property and have a meal in The Turquoise Room, the hotel’s a chef-owned eatery that honors the Fred Harvey tradition as well as locally grown and produced foods and the area’s indigenous food heritage.
About 50,000 years ago, a meteor hit the earth here traveling at 26,000 miles an hour. The resulting crater is nearly one mile across, over two miles in circumference and more than 550 feet deep. This natural phenomenon west of Winslow, which is said to be the best preserved meteor impact site on earth, is worth a stop. Not surprisingly, it’s very stark and lunar-looking. We went in the afternoon but recommend a morning visit as the afternoon sun, at least in the fall, made it hard to capture good photos. See the film, IMPACT, The Mystery of Meteor Crater, before visiting the crater as it will give a good overview of what you’ll be seeing. We arrived too late for a guided tour of the rim, offered from 9:15am to 2:15pm daily. We wish we’d been on time to take one. Plan to spend a few hours if you want to see the film, tour the Interactive Discovery Center and take the crater tour.
All photos on this page are copyrighted by Steve Collins and used with his permission.
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