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Driving Arizona’s Route 66: Ghost Towns and Desert Vistas

Arizona, with its long, straight roads and spectacular red sandstone scenery, was made for the driving holiday. So why not follow in the footsteps of movie stars, beatniks, and beach bums by taking the ultimate road trip? Route 66, star of stage, screen and song, may not officially exist any more, but you can still drive parts of it in Arizona. All you need is a car (ideally a convertible with fins, for authentic cool), a Historic Route 66 map, and a willingness to croon along to Nat King Cole.

Route 66 was originally built in the 1920s to connect Chicago with Los Angeles. Somewhere along the way the highway became an icon, evoking nostalgia for the freedom of the open road and the good old days. Unfortunately, the fast pace of modern life meant that by the 1970s most of Route 66 had fallen into disuse and disrepair, replaced by speedier four-lane highways (the I-40 in Arizona). But thanks to the efforts of the Route 66 enthusiasts who worked to preserve what they call the “Mother Road”, you can still drive the route today.

Parts of Route 66 that passed through Arizona, New Mexico and Illinois have been preserved as National Scenic Byways and re-branded as “Historic Route 66”, with road signs to point you in the right direction. There are maps and guidebooks available; largely thanks to the work of those Historic Route 66 enthusiasts, as old Route 66 no longer appears on official roadmaps.

By diverting off the main four-lane highway you’ll travel back in time to an age when Mom & Pop motels were the norm, and roadside diners served fresh apple pie with every meal. Instead of endless strip malls and burger joints, you’ll get to know quirky Arizona, where equally quirky business owners lure you in with the promise of fantastic, charming oddities. Want to lure drivers into your souvenir shop? Just stick a giant head or an enormous dinosaur outside your door.

So what can you see on your Route 66 tour as you motor west?

The Painted Desert

This is scenic Arizona at its most flamboyant. Encompassing almost 100,000 acres, the Painted Desert stretches from the Grand Canyon to the Petrified Forest and showcases the vivid red, ochre, and burnt umber tones of Arizona’s sandstone, volcanic ash, and mud landscape. Come in March or April and drive the ten mile road through the park and you may witness the vivid carpet of wildflower blooms that add shades of pink, yellow, blue and white to the desert every spring. Or if you prefer to be active, you can hike one of the many trails that meander through the Painted Desert.

The Petrified Forest

Petrified Forest National Park is adjacent to the Painted Desert, which makes it easy to visit both on the same day (from the I-40 there’s a road leading through the Painted Desert to the Petrified Forest). Millions of years ago the Petrified Forest was a luscious tropical area and home to many plants and animals that are now extinct, but preserved as fossils. Petrified wood, which lies strewn throughout the park, is the fossilized remains of trees that were submerged in mud or volcanic ash, and gradually transformed into stone over millions of years.

A Living Ghost Town

Oatman, Arizona calls itself a “living ghost town” and is reachable via Route 66 from the I-40. The drive along Route 66 is a bit rough and ready, with dirt and sand in places where the tarmac should be. It just adds to the adventure.With a population of 200 souls, Oatman survives by showing visitors what the Old West must have been like; with battered, distressed buildings, dust, wild burros, and cowboys hollering, swaggering, and facing each other down in the street.

Wild burros amble along the streets, begging from tourists, while two rival outlaw groups, the Ghostriders and Bitter Creek Outlaws, hold Wild West shows several times a day, blocking off traffic and blowing each other away for the amusement of onlookers.

Haunted Hotel

In Flagstaff, you can stay in a haunted hotel. The Hotel Monte Vista boasts the ghost of a bank robber who bled to death in the hotel – on occasion he says “Good morning” to favored guests. They have ghost staff as well, in the form of a bellboy who knocks at guestroom doors, announces “Room Service” and then disappears into the ether. Other sightings have included a ghostly dancing couple in the lounge, a phantom woman in a rocking chair, ghostly ladies of the night, and the shade of a little boy who wanders the halls.

There are several sites online who supply Historic Route 66 maps; route66maps.com is one, and Amazon.com also provides a wide range of Route 66 guidebooks and maps. Once your directions are in hand, all you have to do is get your hands on a cool convertible, some retro sunglasses, and you’ll be set.

So the next time you plan to motor west, remember to get your kicks on Arizona’s Historic Route 66.

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