Itineraries

  • Old Route 66 - Painted Desert[1]

Route 66 and the Colorado River

Highlights along the historic highway and down Arizona's"West Coast" :

While it may have been cowboys and cavalry that tamed Arizona, railroads, highways, and dams have played an even more important role in the explosive growth that took place in Arizona during the 20th century. The Santa Fe Railroad, Route 66, and the Hoover Dam all helped set the stage for today's Arizona. To learn more about the real taming of the west, you can make a big loop tour along Route 66 and down Arizona's west coast-the Colorado River.

From Phoenix, head north to Flagstaff, which was founded as a railroad town in the late 1800s. Old stone commercial buildings and historic hotels line the streets of downtown Flagstaff, and tucked among the many downtown shops are plenty of stores selling Route 66 souvenirs. To get an idea of the important role the old highway played here in Flagstaff, just drive east from downtown on, you guessed it, Route 66. Along this stretch of road you'll see lots of old motor courts, many of which still have their original neon signs.

  • La Posada

If you have the time for a detour and are a big Route 66 or railroading fan, it's worth driving east to the towns of Winslow and Holbrook. In Winslow, you'll find the recently restored La Posada hotel, which was the last hotel built by the Santa Fe Railroad. In Holbrook, you'll find the Wigwam Motel, which is a collection of cement teepees built in the 1940s. If you make it as far as Holbrook, you should also be sure to visit Petrified Forest National Park. Near Winslow, you can also visit Meteor Crater, and be sure to keep an eye out for the old Twin Arrows truck stop.

Heading west from Flagstaff, you soon come to Williams, which has long served as the southern gateway to the Grand Canyon but also likes to play up its Route 66 history. Williams was the last town on Route 66 to be bypassed by I-40. Today the shops in Williams are full of Route 66 souvenirs. Williams is also the southern terminus of the Grand Canyon Railroad, which operates excursion trains north to the Grand Canyon.

West of Williams, you'll come to the town of Seligman, which lies at the eastern end of the longest stretch of Route 66 still remaining. From Ash Fork to Kingman, the old highway stretches unbroken for 160 miles. In the town of Seligman, be sure to stop in at the Snow Cap Drive-In for a burger and some laughs. Right next door, you'll also find Angel's Barber Shop, which serves as a Route 66 information center and souvenir shop. In the town of Peach Springs, you can visit Grand Canyon Caverns, which have long been a Route 66 landmark.

Although another long stretch of Route 66 continues southwest of Kingman, the detour northwest to Hoover Dam is a worthwhile sidetrip. Hoover Dam, the first dam on the Colorado River below Grand Canyon, was built between 1931 and 1935. At 726 feet in height, this is the tallest concrete dam in the western hemisphere, and behind the dam lie the waters of Lake Mead, the largest man-made lake in the country. Both the dam and the lake are major tourist attractions. You can tour the dam or take a cruise on the lake.

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If you're the type who likes to gamble, you'll probably already realize that Las Vegas is just over the hill from the dam. It's barely 30 miles from here to the fabled Strip. However, if you'd rather explore more of Arizona, head back south to Kingman where, just south of town, you can pick up Route 66 once again. This last stretch of the Mother Road climbs up and over the Sacramento Mountains through the old mining town of Oatman. Staged shootouts in the streets, wild burros that wander the street begging for handouts, and an old hotel where Clark Gable and Carole Lombard are said to have honeymooned are this tiny town's prime attractions. Oh yes, and lots of shops selling Route 66 souvenirs. From Oatman, the old highway drops down to the Colorado River and merges with modern I-40 as it crosses into California.

From here it is just a short drive south along the Colorado to Lake Havasu City and one of Arizona's strangest attractions-London Bridge. That's right! London Bridge may have been falling down (sinking actually), but before it fell, enterprising Arizona developer Robert McCulloch bought it and had it shipped to the middle of the Arizona desert as the centerpiece of a planned community he was developing. Today the stone bridge spans a shallow side channel of Lake Havasu and is not nearly as incongruous in this landscape as you might expect. However, the development that has taken place around the bridge is as unexpected a sight as you'll ever encounter in the southwest. There's a half-timbered, pseudo-Tudor English village and a resort replete with ramparts, crenallations, and a tropical theme disco. Go figure!

Water sports are the main attraction here on Lake Havasu, and there are enough beaches in the area that this lake really does feel like a west coast beach town. However, real estate is a whole lot cheaper here than it is along the California coast, which has fueled a boom in retirement home developments in the area.

South of Lake Havasu's Parker Dam, you'll find one of prettiest stretches of the lower Colorado River. Here, though there is plenty of development on both the Arizona and California shores, the river flows clear and free. The two units of Buckskin Mountain State Park are the best places to commune with the river and do a little hiking or bird watching. Birders will also want to explore the riparian areas of the Bill Williams National Wildlife Area, which lies just north of Parker Dam.

South of Parker, you pass through the town of Quartzsite, which each winter serves as home for thousands of RVers (snowbirds) who flock south from their homes in the frozen north. Quartzsite south to Yuma is just about the warmest place you can spend the winter and still be in the continental United States, and with its vast expanses of open desert, it is also just about the cheapest place to park an RV for a few months. With its numerous flea markets, gem-and-mineral shows, and roadside barbecue stands, the town has the feel of some vast refugee camp, but everyone seems to love the atmosphere.

While snowbirds think the winters in this area are heaven on earth, summers are more akin to hell on earth, which may be why the Yuma Territorial Prison was built here back in the 1870s. Today the prison is a state park and is one of Yuma's main attractions. Even before the prison was built, Yuma was playing an important role in the taming of the West. It was here that the U.S. Army in 1865 built a quartermaster depot for shipping supplies to its forts around Arizona. Yuma at that time was a river port, with paddlewheelers making the trip up the Colorado from the Gulf of California. Before leaving Yuma to head back to Phoenix, don't forget to drop by Lute's Casino, an immensely popular burger joint, bar, and checkers parlor in downtown Yuma. From Yuma, it is about a three-hour drive back to Phoenix.

The Route:
From Phoenix, drive north on I-17 to Flagstaff. Spend the night in Flagstaff. Detour east on I-40 to Winslow and Holbrook if you have time. From Flagstaff, drive west on I-40 to Williams. West of Williams get off I-40 at Ash Fork and head out on the longest remaining stretch of old Route 66. Spend the night in Kingman. From Kingman, detour north on Highway 93 to Hoover Dam, and then return the way you came to pick up Route 66 again just south of town. From Topock, drive east on I-40 and then head south on Highway 95 to Lake Havasu. Spend the night here. Continue south the next day to Yuma and spend the night. From Yuma, drive east on I-8 to Gila Bend, go north on Highway 85, and then east on I-10 to return to Phoenix.