Retracing historic Route 66 is an iconic road trip, variously scenic, nostalgic and quirky.
Once called America’s Main Street, U.S. 66 connected cities, towns, historic sites and scenic destinations across two-thirds of the country. Also known as the Mother Road, it journeyed from the shores of Lake Michigan in Chicago to the beaches of the Pacific Ocean at Santa Monica, Calif.
Originally designated the National Old Trails Highway in 1914, the route emerged as the automobile revolutionized travel in the United States. It became U.S. 66 with the creation of a new national highway system in 1927, pushed to completion in 1937 by the eight states in ran through.
During its decades of service, U.S. 66 carried major migrations of Americans toward the West Coast, including Dust Bowl refugees in the 1930s, workers headed for wartime industries and postwar vacationers free from previous limits on fuel, rubber and new vehicles.
The busy two-lane strip of pavement served the nation well, but it became outmoded as newer vehicles grew longer and wider.
In the early 1950s, the development of the Interstate Highway System replaced many of our older highways. U.S. 66 was eventually decommissioned.
Bypassed by the new superhighways, many small communities along the old route became ghost towns. Portions of it were absorbed into the new freeways. Many sections fell into disrepair and were closed.
States along the historic route fought the dissolution of U.S. 66, forming associations to defend the route and the communities affected. Concern grew that part of our history would disappear with the fabled old road, which inspired a noted book, movies, a hit song and a popular TV series. The Route 66 corridor even became part of the preservation efforts of the National Park Service. Remaining portions of the old highway were promoted as destinations themselves. Today, thousands of tourists drive remaining sections of the Mother Road each year on offbeat road trips and rally routes for car clubs.
U.S. 66 traversed more than 400 miles west and south through Arizona from New Mexico to cross the Colorado River into California near Needles. The longest intact section of the original U.S. 66 runs 200 miles from Seligman, Ariz., to Golden Shores near Topock Gorge and Needles. Arizona’s Route 66 Association was founded in 1987, and later that year, Arizona officials designated the old road as Historic Arizona Route 66. It has brought tourist dollars back to some of the communities bypassed by Interstate 40.
Established before Hoover Dam provided a highway crossing between Arizona and Nevada, U.S. 66 skirted Nevada. Today’s U.S. Highway 93 and U.S. Highway 95 provide access from Southern Nevada to the old route at either Kingman, Ariz., or Needles, Calif. Although most of old U.S. 66 through Southern California was incorporated into I-40 and I-15, a portion of it west of Needles toward Barstow remains maintained and marked. It provides an alternate approach to the Mojave National Preserve.
Southern Nevadans can explore the historic highway in pieces on short day trips. Those planning to drive the whole 200 miles of Historic Route 66 in Arizona should plan for a weekend or longer. Allow plenty of time to visit some of the colorful remnants of the old road, such as roadside stores, diners, museums, motels and gas stations. The countryside is lovely.
Plan short side trips to such attractions as Grand Canyon Caverns near Seligman. In Kingman, stop at the Powerhouse Visitor Center for information and a tour of the Historic Route 66 Museum.
The remaining 42 miles from Kingman through Oatman to Topock has been listed by the Bureau of Land Management as a Historic Back Country Byway. It climbs over the rugged Black Mountains through beautiful Sitgreaves Pass. This steepest part of Old Route 66 had hairpin turns so feared that many drivers hired locals to pilot their vehicles into Oatman, a gold-mining boomtown. Today, Oatman’s staged shootouts and meandering burros engage crowds. Views over three states and Colorado River scenery accompany you to the end of Arizona’s Route 66.
Margo Bartlett Pesek’s Trip of the Week column appears on Sundays.