Exploring Historic Route 66: Part IV
After two adventurous days in and around Flagstaff, Arizona, we bade farewell to the smiling Route 66 chainsaw-sculpture bear at Woody Mountain Campground and headed west toward Williams. This fourth and final stretch of the Mother Road would take us, over the next 10 days, to the end of the line at Santa Monica Pier near Los Angeles.
Williams, about 30 miles ahead, a veritable Route 66 world, was the last town on the old highway to be bypassed by Interstate 40, in 1984. But the memory of the Mother Road is very much alive, with signs everywhere and every type of establishment you can think of named for the historic route.
The town also offers a variety of attractions, most notably a wildlife park called Bearizona. Visitors drive through the 2-mile park to see North American animals — burros, bison, black bears, Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep and others — in their natural habitat. Free golf carts and wheelchairs are available, as are cars for the drive-through portion. Historic Williams offers a downtown walking tour, and every evening the Cataract Creek Gang puts on a Wild-West-style “shootout.”
Grand Canyon Railway Depot and Museum also offers Old-West-style entertainment every morning before the historic train departs for the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. It’s a great 65-mile trip, but time at the park is too limited unless you spend the night. For those who prefer to drive, Arizona Highway 64 runs north to the canyon.
West of Williams, where lovely pink clouds of Apache plume line the road, you must drive I-40 about 20 miles to Exit 146. There, a short stretch of old Route 66 loops north to quaint Ash Fork (population 470). Placards explain that in the 1850s the Army Corps of Topographical Engineers began surveying for a future railroad. The rail line opened the area to sheep and cattle ranching. A decade later the railroad and Route 66 were realigned to bypass Ash Fork, and in 1971 a fire destroyed the downtown, nearly finishing off what was left of the dwindling burg.
Ahead is Seligman, home of business owner Angel Delgadillo, 86, the man who almost single-handedly saved much of Arizona’s Route 66 between Seligman and Topock from oblivion. In 1987 Delgadillo arranged a meeting of representatives from the shriveling towns strung along the old road. That year they formed the Route 66 Association of Arizona, which persuaded the state to designate 66 a historic highway, and today hundreds of signs mark Arizona’s stretch of the Mother Road. Winding a tortuous course through the steep hills of the Mogollon Rim, it’s arguably the most scenic stretch of the entire road.
Radiator Springs in the film Cars was loosely based on Seligman, and Delgadillo, interviewed by John Lasseter for the film, credits the producer with creating much of today’s enthusiasm for Route 66.
Guy and I had spent an afternoon with Delgadillo 10 years ago, and he greeted us as if we’d been gone a day rather than a decade. Delgadillo had opened a barbershop in 1950. He retired 15 years ago, but still occasionally cuts hair. A barber chair is set up in a room at his memorabilia shop. “Route 66 has fans all over the world, and they’ve heard of me,” he says. “People come a long way so I can cut their hair, and I never let them down.”
West of Seligman Route 66 plows a straight asphalt furrow across the Arizona desert, passing few signs of civilization other than barbed-wire fencing and rows of resurrected old Burma-Shave signs.
Some RVers might re-member a few of the 600 verses on placards that once decorated the nation’s roadways. The catchy roadside ad campaign advertising Burma-Shave brushless shaving cream was developed in 1925 by Allan Odell. Among these: “If daisies are, Your favorite flower, Keep pushin’ up, Those miles per hour — Burma-Shave” and “Cattle crossing, Means go slow, That old bull, Is some cow’s beau — Burma-Shave.” Ahead, near Peach Springs, is Grand Canyon Caverns, a “Route 66 landmark and must-see,” according to a sign. We stopped to find a magnificent “dry” cave the size of three football fields.
The cave was “discovered” in 1927 by Walter Peck, a woodcutter for the Santa Fe Railway. Thinking that he’d struck it rich — as the cavern walls glittered with what appeared to be gold, silver and diamonds — Peck secured a lease on the property. However, his “treasure” turned out to be no more than iron oxide. So, instead of mining the cave, Peck opened it for tours, providing visitors with a lantern and matches, then lowering them in by rope or in a bucket.
Because they considered it sacred, the Native Americans insisted the original opening be sealed. Now, you go down the equivalent of 22 stories in an elevator to tour the cave which, unlike with earlier times, has electricity. Among the attractions are the mummified remains of a snarling bobcat and a replica of a 15-foot-tall, 2,000-pound ground sloth also found petrified. Deep claw marks on the cave wall indicate the hapless creature, whose breed became extinct more than 11,000 years ago, very much wanted to escape. Grand Canyon Caverns also includes a lodge, a campground with 50 full-hook-up sites, and a Cavern Suite, should you want to spend the night 220 feet underground.
We continued through Hackberry, once a significant gold-mining com–munity but now empty except for the weathered Hackberry General Store, rife with Route 66 memorabilia inside and out. It was abandoned in 1978 (after I-40 opened) and stood empty until John Pritchard bought it in 1998 and filled it with his immense collection. He says about 150 visitors stop by everyday to “immerse themselves in Mother Road lore or reminisce about what it was like in the old days.”
Old Route 66 crosses I-40 and continues south to Kingman, the “Heart of Historic Route 66.” Among Kingman’s attractions is the Powerhouse and Route 66 Museum, located in a former powerhouse built in 1907. The building also houses Arizona’s Route 66 Association headquarters, cafés and gift shops. This museum tells the history with dioramas, artifacts, antique cars, an old-fashioned diner-garage-barbershop-mercantile and photos of the Dust Bowl-days migration.
West of Kingman, Route 66 winds through a dramatic landscape of yellow-and-red-sandstone bluffs and crosses Sitgreaves Pass, where the 3,600-foot elevation offers stunning mountain vistas. But the drive — narrow, steep, winding — is not recommended with
an RV in tow.
We followed I-40 across the state line to Needles, California, and parked our fifth-wheel at The Palms River Resort. Needles is popular for boating and other water sports on the Colorado River, especially in the summer when three-digit temperatures are routine. The afternoon we arrived the thermometer read 117 degrees.
We then drove Route 66 back east to Oatman, Arizona, a town that should not be missed. South of Oatman, once the richest mining district in Arizona, with some 10,000 residents high in the craggy Black Mountains, a sign cautions travelers to watch for burros. The friendly creatures appear suddenly from between boulders near the road, an equine welcoming committee.
Today, Route 66 through bustling, ramshackle Oatman is lined with false-fronted arts and crafts shops, galleries and cafés. With other visitors, the burros often stroll along Oatman’s dusty streets.
We left Oatman in late evening, a particularly dramatic time of day as the setting sun turned these rugged mountains to bright gold — mountains that are bare but for scattered tufts of rough grass and the forests of cholla that statue their flanks like pegs stuck in a giant pegboard.
California, Here We Come
In California, unlike most of the other states Route 66 crossed, it’s still possible to follow the old road nearly all the way, about 320 miles. For much of the distance, Route 66 differs considerably from the interstate that replaced it and nabbed most of its traffic. For RVers following the old road this is a pleasant thing, as you often find yourself nearly alone on the good-condition, two-lane route.
When Route 66 was built, rather than climbing over mountains as interstates do today, it wound around them, as is the case west of Needles. Needles Highway (Route 66) loops back and forth across I-40, then follows the interstate’s alignment to U.S. Highway 95, which arcs north toward Goffs. A lonely desert burg established in 1883, and now a town of windmills and agave cactuses, Goffs counts just 23 residents.
Goffs Road parallels the rail line, and occasional 150-car trains towed by eight engines inch up the steep grade through the most dried-up landscape you can imagine. Volcanic-like bursts of rock jumbles add interest to otherwise bare mountainsides.
Proceed to Essex and the purple-hued Old Woman Mountains to continue west on Route 66. We turned back east on
the National Old Trails Road (Route 66) to return to Needles via the interstate, which includes an alarmingly steep, winding 20-mile descent into town. We preferred the less-precipitous older route.
For many miles west of Essex across this desolate desert landscape (1.6-million acre Mojave National Preserve lies just north), raised levees along the road are decorated with an interesting array of roadside art: travelers’ names, peace signs, cairns and others — the letters, numbers and designs formed from rusted cans, broken bottles and small stones.
We visited with Farrell Hastings of Roy’s Café in Amboy, which was a gold-mining town and former railroad stop, founded in 1858. The café was featured in the 1986 film The Hitcher, and in Brad Pitt’s 1993 film Kalifornia.
Hastings noted that table salt is mined in the area, as is pharmaceutical-grade limestone. But now the eight local residents worry about their town’s future. However, renewed interest in Route 66 might be Amboy’s salvation, he said. In 2005 Albert Okura, founder of restaurant chain Juan Pollo, purchased the entire town, including the 4,000-foot-long runway built during World War II. Okura’s plan is to make the town a showplace depicting Route 66 in 1960.
Amboy Crater, a 250-foot-high, 1,500-foot-diameter ash and cinder cone, one of five volcanoes between Amboy and Barstow, is just west of the town along the old highway. A 3-mile round-trip hiking trail leads to the top of the cone; a shorter path leads to a shaded platform overlook.
We camped near Newberry Springs (a town famous for its annual Pistachio Festival in November) at Newberry Mountain RV Park. The sweltering day turned pleasantly cool as the sun disappeared in a blaze of orange beyond the park’s reed-statued lake.
In the morning we drove the few miles back to the “world-famous” Bagdad Café for breakfast. Established in 1953 as the Sidewinder, the café’s name was changed due to its popularity in the 1987 German film Bagdad Café, said server Bill Waller. Attesting to the café’s world renown, a group of about three dozen Germans and Spaniards traveling all of Route 66 on Harleys roared up, and a tour bus packed with French visitors arrived soon after.
In Barstow, along Main Street (old Route 66), buildings are decorated with 16 colorful historic murals by a variety of artists. One building houses the Route 66 Mother Road Museum.
Between Barstow and San Bernar-dino, Route 66 more or less parallels I-15, the interstate built to replace it. Just north of Oro Grande, a town of dusty antiques shops, a garishly gorgeous “forest” of colorful bottle trees caught our attention. Owner Elmer Long, who wears his white beard chest-length, explained that he “inherited his father’s love of bottles while camping in the desert in the 1950s,” and began collecting them then.
Bottle Tree Ranch, on 238 acres, began with 400 vertical pipes, each holding 30 bottles, he says. But the “grove” has grown significantly over the years, and now includes, in addition to thousands of colorful glass bottles, poles topped with deer antlers, bird houses, a cash register, hub caps, a scooter — and just about anything else you can think of.
En route to Victorville a sign points out the road to 67-acre Double R Ranch, once home to Roy Rogers, “King of the Cowboys,” and Dale Evans, “Queen of the West.” Victorville is known for its unusual “skewed-modified” 1930 Mojave River Bridge, a Balti-more steel-truss bridge with ornate iron railings. The river itself is also unusual, not be-cause it flows below ground under the sand, but because it flows inland, rather than to the ocean, and ends in the desert.
The town is also known for its 5,000-square-foot California Route 66 Museum, says Museum Director Paul Chassey. The museum displays an old-fashioned tear-drop trailer, a 12-foot-tall Hula Girl, a customized VW bus, a row of Burma-Shave signs and other Route 66 memorabilia.
South of Victorville, Route 66 follows I-15. Then it begins a long, precipitous descent toward Kenwood, where it dead-ends at a hill of gritty dirt topped by yellow daisies, and returns to the interstate to continue the sharp descent. It leaves the interstate again at Devore and continues to San Bernardino, a bustling community lavish with colorful roses and oleanders.
We stopped for lunch at the quintessentially Mexican Mitla, in operation on Route 66 since 1937, says manager Steven Oquendo. Our waitress was Lucy Reyes, 78, who has been waiting tables here for 40 years. Her parents had a chicken ranch in Devore, and before coming to work here, she delivered eggs to the café “when San Bernardino was a lively place with lots of bars.”
Route 66 turns west and runs through a string of busy towns, including Rialto, where the Wigwam Motel is a familiar icon of the old road. Owner Kumar Patel says the motel, built in 1949, has never closed, though he recently restored the 20 teepees that serve as guest rooms.
Watch signs carefully as you continue west, as the route makes some abrupt turns and can be tricky to follow in places. The road eventually feeds onto Santa Monica Boulevard. Far from the lonely pier you may have seen in old black-and-white photos in which a solitary individual leans on a railing gazing out to sea, the Santa Monica Pier today is as bustling as a carnival, swarming with visitors. Actually it’s two adjoining piers — the longer, narrower Municipal Pier, built in 1909, originally served to carry sewer pipes beyond the breakers. The shorter, wider pleasure pier was built in 1916 for an amusement park with a carousel and roller coaster.
Parking near the pier can be a challenge, especially on weekends, so leave the trailer at the campground. We stayed at Dockweiler RV Park, a Los Angeles County-run public campground on the beach, 10 miles south of the pier.
The famous pier is home to numerous amusements, including the carousel and other rides. Among the throngs of people on the pier the day of our visit, some — like us — had just completed an end-to-end jaunt along the Mother Road. Two English couples we met there had made the trip — for the third time.
Vickie Ashcraft, president of the New Mexico Route 66 Association, says that people drive 66 to “recapture the America that used to be” and that the “Mother Road has never lost its appeal.”
I remembered what Paul Snyder, a founder of the Route 66 Museum in Kingman, had said: “Route 66 meant the same thing to a lot of people — freedom, migration, going West. But in the end it was the freedom.” He added, “The highway didn’t create the demand — it just opened the door.”
Arizona Route 66 Association
Barstow Mother Road Museum
California Historic Route 66 Association
Dockweiler RV Park (California)
Kingman Tourism and Route 66 Museum
The Palms RV Resort (California)
Victorville, California, Route 66 Museum
National Historic Route 66 Federation
Woody Mountain Campground (Flagstaff, Arizona)
Looking for even more fun out on Route 66?