For 60 years, U.S. Route 66 linked the nation's midsection with the Pacific Coast following a nearly 2,500-mile route through eight states from Chicago to Santa Monica, Calif. Variously dubbed the Mother Road, the Will Rogers Highway and the Main Street of America, this vital segment of the national highway system became the stuff of legends. Books, movies, a TV series and at least one hit song told stories of the folks who traveled the route and of the trip itself.
All that changed with the completion of the Interstate Highway System in the 1980s. Route 66 and many older transcontinental highways, if not abandoned or obliterated, became alternate routes. Many small towns and businesses that served the traveling public along these routes dwindled or disappeared when bypassed by the new freeways.
The longest intact remnant of Route 66 runs 144 miles through western Arizona from near Ash Fork to Topock on the Colorado River near Needles, Calif. Billed as a nostalgic cruise into yesteryear, it draws thousands of visitors away from the faster but less interesting and less scenic Interstate 40.
The resurrection of this portion of the Mother Road as a destination in itself resulted from efforts by the Route 66 Association of Arizona. Alarmed at the demise of the famous highway and the damage to towns along its route, concerned groups in several states urged preservation of Old Route 66. In 1987, the Arizona Route 66 Association pressed for special designation of the segment still intact as Historic Route 66. The group continues its promotion with positive results. In many of the little communities along the old road, new businesses now join the few remaining originals to trade on the fame of the old highway.
To start the cruise along Historic Route 66 in Arizona at its northern end, Southern Nevadans follow U.S. Highway 93 south to Kingman and Interstate 40 east from Kingman to Exit 139 near Ash Fork, about 200 miles from Las Vegas. The exit at Crookton Road turns you westward toward Seligman, an active railroading center.
Seligman, the town where the Arizona Route 66 movement began, boasts several enterprises from the heyday of the Mother Road well worth stopping to explore.
From Seligman, the historic route roughly parallels the Santa Fe Railroad tracks through scenic ranch land, small canyons and wooded uplands.
Watch for the turnoff to the privately owned Grand Canyon Caverns 34 miles west of Seligman. Open daily except Christmas for tours, the caves deserve a stop. A 21-story elevator takes visitors into a subterranean world for a 45-minute tour.
The old two-lane highway continues to Peach Springs, headquarters of the Hualapai Reservation. Tribal enterprises include one-day raft tours on the Colorado River through a section of the Grand Canyon, as well as various facilities at the remote West Rim with its famous skywalk.
Stop in Peach Springs at the tribal resort, assembly point for river rafters. The resort has 60 guest rooms, a gift shop and a cafe with fare that includes delectable Indian fry bread.
The 40 miles from Peach Springs to Kingman pass through scenic backcountry and a few little towns containing nostalgic reminders of the old days.
In Kingman, the repurposed Powerhouse is home to a Route 66 museum and the base for the Arizona Route 66 Association. Ask about special events along the route, such as the annual fun run cruise scheduled for May 4 to 6.
Inquire for specific directions to the remainder of Historic Route 66, which can be a little tricky. If you get it right, you'll head for the most dramatic part of the drive. The route passes beneath I-40 and heads for the mountains, climbing switchbacks into rugged Sitgreaves Pass. When this precipitous route carried heavy passenger and commercial traffic, it must have been a trucker's nightmare.
Old Route 66 winds past Goldroads, where gold is once again being mined, and down into Oatman, one of Arizona's liveliest ghost towns. Look for parking at either end of this little boomtown, which is thronged on weekends and holidays with crowds browsing in shops, watching gunfights and feeding burros.
From Oatman, Route 66 heads south parallel to the Colorado to cross near Topock. Use I-40 West to U.S. Highway 95, then motor north 100 miles to return to Las Vegas.
Margo Bartlett Pesek's Trip of the Week column appears on Sundays.