As I left Texas and entered New Mexico and then Arizona, I found myself wondering, “is this the desert?”
All my life I pictured the desert of America to be the same as the desert of Egypt. Sand and only sand.
However, I’ve since learned that the desert along Route 66 is the “high desert.” This means that in addition to having lots of dry brushes and tumbleweeds, it is also very cold! Heck, it even snowed on me in Santa Fe!
Highlights of this leg of the trip included:
Petrified Forest National Park, Navajo, AZ: For 28 miles, I drove through and stopped at scenic overlooks to gaze out at a changing landscape filled with some of the most stunning red rock formations I have ever seen. Part of the park is called the Painted Desert and it’s like someone carved out a chunk of the desert, created a sea of hills and mounds and spray painted the whole thing red.
Other areas of the park, however, could not be more different. One area looks like the surface of the moon with gray land, a few rocks and mounds everywhere. Yet another part is filled with the actual petrified wood, which is still there after a volcanic eruption covered the entire desert in lava thousands of years ago. Also different is Newspaper Rock, where visitors can gaze down on ancient petroglyphs carved by some of the earliest inhabitants of the land.
Finally, for Route 66 aficionados, there is an old car and original telephone poles going off into the landscape to commemorate the road’s original path right through the heart of the park. I honestly can’t count how many times I was taken aback by the beauty of the whole place. One day I hope to return and actually just wander through it instead of driving.
The Continental Divide, New Mexico: An Indian trading post has been set up on the spot where rain water either drains into the Atlantic or Pacific Ocean. There is literally nothing else there, just a shop on a geographical point.
Wigwam Motel, Holbrook, AZ: “When was the last time you slept in a wigwam,” says the sign outside this classic Route 66 motel. Literally a collection of cement wigwams, I was surprised to find that the inside was actually quite spacious and comfortable. Wigwam motels are actually located across the USA, but this particular one is historic as it was the first to be a chain. Needless to say, I can now boast that the last time I slept in a wigwam was October 26, 2009.
Santa Fe, New Mexico: Santa Fe has perhaps one of the most downtown historical districts that I have ever been in. Filled with traditional adobe buildings, classic churches and stunning Mexican-influenced architecture, I had a blast wandering around town as the sun set and shined its golden light against the yellow walls of the city. Plus, the drive there from the interstate is an hour of desert and mountains as far as the eyes can see. Truly magical.
The Oldest House in the USA, Santa Fe, NM: I don’t know what I expected, but it was just a small adobe building with a teeny sign letting you know of its importance. Built in 1646, it has undergone countless restorations and renovations and was, sadly, closed for the day by the time I got there.
The Oldest Church in the USA, Santa Fe, NM: The San Miguel Mission, an old Spanish colonial mission church, was built between 1610 and 1625. Despite having been rebuilt many times, much of the original adobe walls are still intact.
Fire Rock Navajo Casino, Gallup, NM: Curious to see if my blackjack luck from St. Louis would continue, I stopped off at this Indian casino only to find that they don’t have table games on Monday or Tuesday. Does that make sense to anyone?
Rio Puerco Bridge, Laguna Pueblo, NM: An original Route 66 truss steel arch bridge, the Rio Puerco Bridge still stands alongside the interstate and is walkable for pure nostalgia purposes. Being a big fan of both nostalgia and bridges, I got a kick out of it.
Route 66 Crossroads, Albuquerque, NM: In the middle of Albuquerque’s historical downtown, amongst a mix of modern and classic buildings, lays a marker where the original Route 66 crosses paths with the realigned Route 66. Quick history, the highway opened in 1926 but was majorly changed and rerouted in 1937. And now you know.
World’s Largest Petrified Tree Rest Stop, Holbrook, AZ: This gimmicky rest stop boasts the world’s largest petrified tree, but in reality it’s broken into dozens of small pieces. So technically yes, they do have what they claim, but it’s nowhere near as impressive as one might hope.
Oatman Topock Highway, Arizona: Perhaps the most scenic stretch of Route 66 in the country, this winding road between Cool Springs and Oatman is unforgettable. The landscape seems to stretch into infinity and is filled with mountains, trees, bushes and more than 100 sharp curves. Definitely not for those who get carsick.
Jack Rabbit Trading Post, Joseph City, AZ: Once a popular stop for Route 66 travelers, this gas station and tourist shop is now closed. However, the 10 foot tall rabbit outside still remains, inviting people to sit on it for a quick photo opp.
Hackberry General Store, Hackberry, AZ: After lying in ruins for years, new owners have taken the shell of an old tourist stop and general store and turned it into a little piece of nostalgia. Filled with signs, outhouses, cars, gas pumps, recreated 1950s restaurants and more, the place is a great stop on the long scenic road in Arizona.
Cool Springs Service Station, Cool Springs, AZ: A Route 66 gas station for years, this gas station is most famous for having been blown up in a scene of the Jean Claude VanDamme movie, Universal Soldier. Now completely restored and under new ownership, the place is filled with souvenirs, photos, memorabilia and, of course, copies of the movie to buy.
Oatman, Arizona: One of the strangest places on Route 66, the entire city seems to be a recreation of a Wild West town. Oatman is literally in the middle of the mountains and the middle of nowhere, but dozens of buses a day come through to tour the place. Unfortunately, by the time I got there the sun was setting and the place was virtually deserted. I would 100% love to go back one day.