Striking out on Route 66

Day three of our Southwest USA Road Trip, which takes us from Holbrook, Arizona up to Flagstaff and the South Rim of the Grand Canyon before rejoining the Route 66 from just west of Flagstaff to (almost) Oatman, Arizona before turning back and stopping in Lake Havasu City for the night.

Leaving our concrete wigwam bright and early at 6:30am, we make the quick half hour drive over to Meteor Crater park to see what Billy Connolly called a ‘Giant Hole in the Ground‘.  Those that know me know how meticulous I can be when planning a trip and this one really wasn’t much different.  The problem is that Google’s information was incorrect.  Arriving at what I thought was the correct time, I immediately realized something was wrong when the gate was closed.  I got out and walked around to where I saw some signs and discovered that the hole park did not open until 8.  Strike 1 for the day.

A quick 30 minutes later and we were back on the highway, heading further west along the old (and new) Route 66 to the tiny town of Winslow.  Now Winslow is a a quaint little town, with not much to see or do except for fans of The Eagles who make a pilgrimage here to “Stand on a Street Corner in Winslow, Arizona”.  My wife, being no less an Eagles fan, wanted to stop and stand on a corner too, but as luck would have it, the one day we were in town to stand on a corner, the corner was closed because the city was holding a dedication celebration to a Glen Fry statue celebrating the corner that everyone wants to stand on.  Strike 2.

Finishing out the remaining decent section of Route 66 this side of Flagstaff, we make good time towards Flagstaff and the Grand Canyon.  It was around 8:30 when we pulled into Flagstaff — 2 hours or so early.

The plan was to stop here for lunch and supplies and such before heading off to the Grand Canyon, but since our other two stops were a bust, we arrived way to early and everywhere we needed to go didn’t open for another 2 – 3 hours and we certainly weren’t sitting idle in the truck for that time, so we decided to go ahead and head north towards the Grand Canyon.

For those planning a trip to the Grand Canyon from Flagstaff, there are two ways you can go.  You can go the north route which takes you to the North Rim (and via a spur to the South Rim) or you can go the west route which takes you to the South Rim.  There are signs telling you this all over, but your GPS will get confused and try to route you either direction, depending on where you are in town, so make sure you have some idea of your route before leaving Flagstaff, else you could be making a long detour.

mountain with field in forground
Northern Arizona, somewhere between Flagstaff and the Grand Canyon

The drive from Flagstaff to the Grand Canyon was unexpectedly beautiful.  When one thinks of Arizona, one mainly thinks of barren desert.  This part of the state, at least, is quite the opposite, sporting lush forests and large fields of wild grasses.  As we got closer to the Grand Canyon, the signs of humanity returned en masse as we were greeted by fast food joints, gas stations, chain hotels and every tourist trap you can think of.

Like I said before, the plan was to eat in Flagstaff, but because we were early, we skipped eating there and unfortunately, got hungry right about this time.  You see, while there are fast food joints and the like around the Grand Canyon, you pay a certain premium for the convenience of having junk food in the middle of nowhere and what would normally cost a family of 4 $25 cost us damn near $45.  Yes, I’m talking about simple combo meals…nothing special.  So if you are on any kind of budget and don’t want to break the bank on food, eat in Flagstaff!!!

The Grand Canyon.  I really can’t say much that you probably don’t already know except that the South Rim, at least, is super touristy and really is quite crowded, even in the morning.  We arrived around 10 in the morning and had to park in one of the back lots and walk in.  This wasn’t a problem as the lot was actually closer to the canyon than the visitors center, so we skipped that and went straight for the canyon.

Nothing really prepares you for the vastness that is the Grand Canyon until you are standing on the edge, looking out over the Colorado River a mile below.  Photos and videos really don’t do it justice, and from what I’ve been told it looks different every day because of the position of the sun, etc.  Like Niagara Falls, the rail of the public viewing area is on the edge of a pretty steep drop, so I was pretty nervous the entire time we were here.  Not so much for me, but for Chloe.  But she did great and had a great time looking out and enjoying the views.

Since we had some extra time due to our earlier strike-outs, we hung around the Grand Canyon an extra while longer taking in the views and exploring the area.  The gift shop is well stocked, if not outrageously expensive — even for a gift shop, and the way the place is laid out it makes it almost impossible to get back to your car without stopping in.  Of course, it’s how they make their money, so I can’t complain about that or the $30 parking / admission fee you have to pay when you enter — unless you have the pass.  But I digress.

Leaving the Grand Canyon in the early afternoon, we make quick time south towards Interstate 40 and Route 66.  In fact, the route from the Grand Canyon lets us out just about 20 minutes away from Route 66, so if you are travelling the 66, its worth the 2 hour detour north to see the Canyon.  That said, we were ready to hit be back on the 66 as some of the most scenic and historic portions were just ahead.

Our next stop along Route 66 was Steligman, Arizona.  A small town that is largely abandoned because I-40 was built a few miles south and everybody up and left.  What’s left in Steligman are numerous kitsch gift shops and old gas stations and motor hotels from the hayday of the mother road and lots of photo ops to go along with them.

After some shopping and photos, we headed back down the old Route 66 towards Kingman – the last “major” town in Arizona before California.

Distance marker sign in Seligman, AZ

The drive from Steligman to Kingman is probably some of the best driving I’v ever done.  The road is mostly straight, interrupted by the occasional bend.  The real beauty is to either side of the road as mountains rise up in the distance and the otherwise flat desert makes way for the fingers of the nearby mountains.

Along the way is the Hackberry General Store, probably the most kitsch stop we’ve seen along the mother road.  This place has everything route 66 you could possibly want — from lapel pins to actual road signs and expired license plates.  It’s hard to tell where the sales floor ends and the kitsch decorations begin.  You really have to see it to believe it.

The drive from Hackman down to Kingman was beautiful to say the least.  Desert mountains highlighted by the late-afternoon sun while the road twists and turns before straightening out before arriving in Kingman.

There really isn’t much to talk about in Kingman — it’s mainly just a train depot and “last chance” type city.  It’s also the last chance for anyone who don’t  like heights, narrow roads, switchbacks or any large vehicles to take the interstate into Needles rather than the old 66.  Past Kingman on Route 66 lays the town of Oatman — a wild west town built on an old gold mine.  The first part of this stretch is long and straight through the Mojave desert and then you get to Cool Springs and the road turns into a road resembling the mess left over after a 3 year old eats spaghetti — narrow and winding.

Cool Springs Station -- the last chance to turn around before the craziness that is the old Route 66 unfolds.
Route 66 on the way to Oatman. this is the better part of the pass. After this, no more "guard rails" and less pavement and much narrower and steeper grade. Oh, and the drop from here is over 500 feet down.

About an hour up the mountain, the sun started becoming an issue and the road was becoming more and more treacherous.  We were in a large truck and other large trucks were coming down the mountain too.  But seeing them was damn near impossible because of the sun and not knowing how far away we were, we found a small spot to turn around and headed back down the mountain and to the Interstate.  Strike 3 for the day 🙁

We later discovered that we had 3 more bends and about 200 feet left to climb before we hit Oatman — not bad at all, but with the Sun, incoming trucks, screaming kids, my fear of heights, and the impending sunset, I’m glad we went back to the Interstate.  It also cut our arrival in our destination — Lake Havasu City — by about an hour so we had a tad bit more time to settle in — a nice reprieve after being in the car for the vast majority of the day.

It’s hard to believe that we traveled as far as we did and saw as much as we did in one day.  I’m still having a hard time coming to grips with that.  But this really was one of the best parts of the trip, I think, and given the chance to do it again, even the Oatman stretch, I would in a heartbeat.

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A view from the road #1 A view of one of many mountains along Route 66 in Arizona