Get your kicks on Route 66

Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona. Photo: Arizona Tourism
Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona. Photo: Arizona Tourism
Retro signage, neon-lit shops, roadside kitsch, classic cars, epic scenery and the untamed sense of adventure are the timeless temptations of a drive on Route 66. Arizona's assembled offerings are the stuff of legend, writes Mike Yardley. 

Last year, I ventured down America's Mother Road, Route 66.

The Illinois section of the storied highway is the oldest part of the route, with a wealth of roadside delights studding the traverse across the state. For a complete change of scenery, Arizona's Route 66 is another bumper chunk of the highway, tightly packed with time-honoured attractions and Americana curios.

Heading east from California, or down from Las Vegas, once you've crossed the state line into Arizona, there's a swag of flavourful Route 66 towns and skeleton towns, either side of the turn-off to the Grand Canyon's South Rim, on Interstate 40. Situated in the high grasslands of northern Arizona, one of the first is Seligman, beckoning you with a sign declaring the town as the "Birthplace of Historic Route 66".

Angel Delgadillo, the small-town barber, is credited with leading the preservation movement that brought Route 66 back from the dead, after it was officially decommissioned in 1985. The trail-blazing old road was literally expunged from the map, with all road signs removed. But Arizona was the state that saved Route 66 as an historic landmark, spanning the belly of the United States.

Williams was the last town to be bypassed by the interstate and its main street still marinates...
Williams was the last town to be bypassed by the interstate and its main street still marinates in glorious neon. Photos: Mike Yardley
In 1987, Delgadillo and like-minded business owners successfully lobbied the state to designate Route 66 a historic highway, providing a blueprint that other states replicated. Delgadillo and his barbershop are still in town and he holds court daily, signing autographs and posing for selfies in his shop, which is now the Route 66 Visitor Centre. Grab a bite at Snow Cap Drive In, built by Delgadillo's brother Juan in 1953, who was also actively involved in the preservation movement.

Today, the old highway has roared back into life as Historic Route 66, shadowing or submerged by the I-40, across Arizona.

Between the redrock mesas of New Mexico and the arid desert along the Colorado River, the high-speed freeway provides quick access to the best surviving stretches of the old road, so you can whiz through plenty in one day. For the extra-conscientious, there's actually 250 miles (400km) of drivable Route 66 in Arizona, including the longest unbroken stretch in existence. Unlike Illinois' tedious sprawl of cornfields, the natural terrain across Arizona is scenically blessed, as you cross stark badlands, cloud-swept plateaus and a desert painted in scandalous hues, safeguarding the vestiges of ancient civilisations.

Williams is a perennial favourite - and very familiar to travellers, as it is the gateway town into the Grand Canyon. It was also the last Route 66 town to be bypassed by the interstate and the main street still marinates in glorious neon. It's got the best souvenir shops, to boot.

Further up the road, call into Flagstaff, a sturdy town with classical stone buildings, intermixed with retro Route 66 diners, motels and hotels. It's an infectious railroad town to explore on foot, taking in some of the old-school venues such as the Downtowner Motel, which began life as a brothel.

Winslow, Arizona, has taken advantage of being mentioned in the Eagles' song Take It Easy to...
Winslow, Arizona, has taken advantage of being mentioned in the Eagles' song Take It Easy to create The Standin On The Corner Park, which depicts the lyrics of the famous song.
You'll also get your kicks in Winslow, immortalised in that classic Eagles anthem, Take It Easy. In the early 1970s, Jackson Browne wrote most of the song. When he got writer's block, he gave it to his neighbour, Glenn Frey, who finished it in fine style and his band made it a timeless hit that continues to resonate. Well, I'm a standin' on a corner in Winslow, Arizona / Such a fine sight to see / It's a girl, my Lord, in a flat-bed Ford / Slowin' down to take a look at me. The town has milked it mercilessly, with millions converging every year to stand on a corner in Winslow, with all of the obligatory Route 66 livery emblazoned on the road.

The Route 66 town is also home to La Posada Hotel, the last of the great Santa Fe Railroad hotels to be built. Mary Colter's masterpiece of graceful design, has been exquisitely restored. Colter was the design diva behind many historic hotels in the American Southwest, including various Grand Canyon lodges, like El Tovar. This gloriously romantic, hacienda-style building was on the verge of demolition, but was saved by locals. Dine in the fantastic Turquoise Room.

Close to Winslow, don't miss the meteor crater site. Crashing to earth 50,000 years ago, at a speed of about 40,000kmh, the resulting crater is as deep as a 60-storey building and as wide as 20 rugby fields.

Writer Mike Yardley takes a selfie at Chief Yellowhorse Trading Post.
Writer Mike Yardley takes a selfie at Chief Yellowhorse Trading Post.
Remnants of the iron-nickel meteorite, which probably broke off an asteroid, are on display at the site. But it's the sheer size of the crater which takes your breath away. This perfectly formed amphitheatre could play host to a wraparound crowd of twomillion.

It's considered the best preserved meteor crater in the world, unravaged by the passage of time or nature's corrosive forces. Initially, it was believed to be an ancient volcanic crater, but geologists discovered it was caused by the impact of a meteorite, paving the way for more discoveries worldwide. Because of its lunar-like surface, Nasa actually used it when training Apollo astronauts for missions to the moon. Even though it's considered a pipsqueak compared to the meteor crater that would have been formed in Mexico 60million years ago, wiping out the dinosaurs, it's a gob-stopping sight.

Follow the signposts to the Petrified Forest. This is the only national park that Route 66 actually runs through, and if you like things fossilised, this is a forest for you. The forest hadn't been to a horror show; its name very much reflects the fact that massive ancient forests were buried under volcanic ash millions of years ago, before uplift and erosion exposed this strange mash-up of sparkly quartz logs. Like precious gems shining in the sun, remnants of a prehistoric forest lie at your feet. Colourful specimens, from small shards to humungous trunks are strewn across these Badlands, including a massive log that forms a natural bridge.

The Painted Desert. Photo: Arizona Tourism
The Painted Desert. Photo: Arizona Tourism
Over time, the logs soaked up groundwater and silica from the volcanic ash, crystallising into quartz. The mix of minerals has created the wondrous rainbow of colours threaded throughout the park. Another top draw are the ancient etchings of rock art. Newspaper Rock displays over 650 petroglyphs, carbon dated as over 2000 years old. An abandoned 1932 Studebaker evokes the heritage of the road. Also within the national park is the aptly named Painted Desert, spectacular badlands of multicoloured rock, with bands of red, violet, green and white sediments. Try and time a visit here at sunset, which takes it next-level. An absolute heart-stealer, adjacent to the sweeping lookouts across the desert palette, is the Painted Desert Inn.

Built in 1920, this classic lodge was originally constructed in petrified wood before being renovated in Pueblo Revival style. Ponderosa Pine logs protrude from the adobe and stone walls, earth-toned stucco and flat roofs. It was renovated by Mary Jane Colter in 1947 and designated a national historic landmark, at the same time that Historic Route 66 was recognised. In its early days, many Route 66ers would stay a night in this princess-pretty lodge, but now it's preserved as a charming museum.

Speaking of accommodation, nearby Holbrook is home to the famous "Sleep in a Teepee" Wigwam Village Motel. Very kitschy, but a genuine Route 66 icon harking back to the 1950s.

Across the state line, in New Mexico, I headed to Gallup to stay a night at El Rancho Hotel.

The historic Flagstaff Railway Station. Photo: Getty Images
The historic Flagstaff Railway Station. Photo: Getty Images
Built in 1937 by the brother of movie magnate D.W. Griffith, this rustic stone and wood multistorey hotel fast became Hollywood's on-location accommodation headquarters, particularly for the cast and crew of westerns.

A constellation of film legends have stayed while shooting in the desert, including Ronald Reagan, Kirk Douglas, John Wayne and Katherine Hepburn. Every room is named in honour of a movie legend who was a regular guest. Signed photos of the stars adorn the magnificent two-storey open lobby with its circular staircase, heavy beams, Navajo rugs and mounted trophy heads. I definitely recommend staying a night.

While you're there, dive into the trading post scene either side of the state line with New Mexico.

The area is responsible for 70% of the authentic Native American art sold internationally. Plus the nearby Window Rock is the capital of the Navajo Reservation.

I also popped in to the Chief Yellowhorse Trading Post. A proud Navajo Indian, Chief Yellowhorse ran the business from 1960 until his death 20 years ago, but the store is still managed by the Yellowhorse family ensuring that the spirit of the old road lives on.

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