It was America’s greatest place to get your kicks—once, Route 66 spirited millions of travelers across the heartland, through the desert, and out to the shining shores of California. Crossing eight states, the “Mother Road” is one of the country’s original highways, dating back to 1926, its popularity rising in tandem with the automobile, peaking in the 1940s and 1950s. And accordingly, this 2,500-mile ribbon of road has long been an essential part of America’s cultural fabric, celebrated in song, on screen, and in John Steinbeck’s unforgettable Dustbowl tale, “The Grapes of Wrath,” now part of the national canon.
And while the original route has progressively disappeared over the decades—those two lanes lined with quirky roadside attractions and campy motels overtaken by the faster pace of the interstate highway system—one stretch through Arizona will still take you back in time.
Starting in the north-western corner of the state and working your way east (against the original tide of travelers, yes, but best to build the excitement), this is perhaps the most thoroughly preserved length of it, now designated State Route 66. Here, you’ll find as much social distance as you need, behind the wheel, amongst the saguaro cactus and the endless horizons, plus, of course, as many kicks as you can manage.
Sitting roughly halfway between Phoenix and Las Vegas, this small city on the edge of the Mojave Desert celebrates the highway, with several original signs, motels, and a towering water tank declaring Kingman “the heart of historic Route 66.” Visit the Arizona Route 66 Museum, located in Kingman’s historic powerhouse, for an immersive education in the evolution of the highway, from a wagon road for those heading westward, to a Depression-era thoroughfare for those seeking work, to its heyday in the 1940s and 1950s as America’s main street.
Hackberry General Store
Proceeding northeast, you’ll roll onto one of the longest continuous segments of the original route, almost 90 miles to Seligman, where it curves back to busy Interstate 40. Your first stop won’t come long after you wind into the arid sands outside of town, at the charmingly tumbledown Hackberry General Store. Walk past the vintage gas pumps and classic cars (including a Model A, and a ’57 Corvette) and explore the space inside, which is packed with period memorabilia, as well as a root beer bar, complete with an authentic 1950s jukebox.
The primary inspiration for the town of Radiator Springs in the animated modern classic, “Cars,” this tiny town is also the capital of Hualapai Nation and a great place to stop for lunch, in the form of a fry-bread taco, at Hualapai Lodge. Then drive past the giant roadside dinosaurs to Grand Canyon Caverns, the largest dry caverns in the United States. Once, the enterprising owner charged guests 10 cents and lowered guests into the space 200 to 300 feet below the surface with a rope. Now, the tour is low-impact (there’s even an elevator), and you can dine 21 stories down, in the Caverns Grotto.
Designated the Birthplace of Historic Route 66, Seligman fought hard in the 1980s to restore and preserve the highway and its icons, and a cruise through town will take you past some of the most colorful shops, restaurants, and motels along the way. And if Peach Springs was the setting, Seligman was the story for “Cars”—the tale of a town the interstate passed by, a tough reality here (the filmmakers actually interviewed local residents to help bring together the narrative). One must-stop attraction: Delgadillo’s Snow Cap Drive-In, a super-kitschy snack bar originally built from scrap lumber back in 1953, and still family-owned—you can order a cheeseburger (with cheese) or some “dead chicken,” and a milkshake, or a malt, and enjoy it all in the shaded garden out back.
After Seligman, the route merges into the hustle-and-bustle of Interstate 40, a cross-continental superhighway that runs from the Atlantic Coast to California. But take the exit to Williams, whose downtown has six well-preserved blocks dating back to the glory days, as well as the Grand Canyon Railway, which takes guests to the South Rim on vintage cars, a full-day adventure that includes singing cowboys on board, and more than three hours at the canyon itself. (Pulling off here is also the quickest way to drive to the Grand Canyon, via State Route 64, if you prefer to stay rolling behind the wheel.)
The largest center along the way in Arizona (still not so big, at about 75,000), this high-altitude city sits at more than 6,000 feet—they can see snow, while it’s still sizzling down in Phoenix. It’s a pleasant place, nestled amongst one of the world’s largest contiguous ponderosa pine forests, and the perfect place to refuel, and maybe tour some of the massive murals downtown.
Spend some time a-standin’ on the corner in Winslow, Arizona—yes, that corner—made famous in the Eagles’ “Take It Easy,” the first single off their debut album. Those famous four corners (Route 66 and North Kinsley Avenue) are well-marked, all part of Standin’ on the Corner Park, which includes a mural, a bronze statue of a man with a guitar and, of course, a flatbed Ford. Several nearby souvenir shops offer T-shirts to commemorate your visit. And while you’re in town, make a stop at La Posada, a restored 1929 Santa Fe Railway hotel—casual visitors are welcome to stroll through the tiled, adobe hotel and desert gardens.
Home to more giant dinosaurs, as well as one of the most famous motels along the route, the Wigwam Village, built back in 1950. You can still pull up next to one of the vintage cars out front, and bed down inside one of their 15 individual units, each circular, white room updated more recently to include air conditioning and cable television. Check in, then tour around—from the Navajo County Historical Museum (which includes Route 66 memorabilia) to the Bucket of Blood Saloon.
Don’t let your adventure end here. Near Holbrook, you can drive through the bright hues of the Painted Desert (stratified badlands that seem splashed in often-spectacular colors) to nearby Petrified Forest National Park, where you can walk amongst fossilized logs that date back more than 200 million years. And then keep going, further into the Navajo Nation, with Canyon de Chelly National Monument and its Anasazi wonders, and the icons of Monument Valley, the open road ahead, and that dotted line right down the middle—taking you anyplace you need to go.
Plan your visit at VisitArizona.com.
Toronto-based writer Tim Johnson is always traveling, in search of the next great story. Having visited 140 countries across all seven continents, he’s tracked lions on foot in Botswana, dug for dinosaur bones in Mongolia, and walked among a half-million penguins on South Georgia Island. He contributes to some of North America’s largest publications, including CNN Travel, Bloomberg, and The Globe and Mail.