February 22, 2013
It’s a world-class destination in its own right, but Las Vegas is also a great base for exploring the American Southwest – and that’s exactly what we’ve been up to lately. For our latest mini road trip report, we head east to the town of Flagstaff, Arizona – about a four and a half hour drive – and make some surprising discoveries along the way.
The first part of our journey snakes across wilderness and desert, then along one of the best-known remaining stretches of old Route 66, past ramshackle diners and abandoned gas stations. In part two, the Mother Road re-joins the main highway, towards the small town of Williams (jumping off point for the Grand Canyon train) and onwards to Flagstaff. So let’s leave Sin City behind…
Head southeast out of Las Vegas on Interstate 93, in the direction of Boulder City. Within half an hour you’ll reach the Nevada-Arizona state line at the Colorado River which means only one thing: the Hoover Dam and the first jaw-dropping moment of the journey. This genuinely awesome feat of engineering is definitely worth a longer trip, so find out more about visiting the Hoover Dam in our side trips from Las Vegas feature. But for now we’re continuing on…
You’re now in Arizona and an hour’s drive from Kingman, the first proper stop on our route. Follow US 93 south as it cuts through the heart of the Mount Wilson Wilderness Area, and note how stark and barren the landscape becomes just 30 odd minutes from Las Vegas.
Kingman touts itself as the ‘Heart of Historic Route 66’, though in truth it’s much more of a pit stop than a must-see destination. During the mid twentieth century, Route 66 led millions to the land of opportunity in California, and the town was a thriving and important stop on the journey. But now most visitors pass through en route to somewhere else. That said, it’s really the only town of note between Las Vegas and the Grand Canyon and makes a decent stopover if part of a longer journey. For a touch of nostalgia you could even stay in the Route 66 Motel for a bargain $28 per night – one of the last remaining original motor courts along the route, complete with fully restored neon sign and basic but perfectly adequate rooms.
Kingman is the starting point for three popular excursions. Heading west, old Route 66 traces a vertiginous path along the Colorado River, one of the most desolate stretches of the entire route. Multiple switchbacks and hairpin bends eventually lead to the old Wild West town of Oatman, where wild burros roam freely and mock shootouts entertain tourists. Heading south from Kingman, the highway leads to Lake Havasu City, famous for a bizarre quirk: in the mid-1960s, the city’s founder purchased the old London Bridge from the British Government and reconstructed it here. Unbelievably, it’s now Arizona’s second biggest tourist attraction after the Grand Canyon. But our journey takes us east, along one of the longest continuous sections of Route 66 still in existence, looping north over Interstate 40 until the town of Ash Fork.
Stretching from Chicago to Los Angeles, the creation of the 2,448-mile ‘Mother Road’ in 1926 linked together small towns across eight states, providing a new route to the promised land in search of a better life. Almost 90 years later, the road has long been replaced by the Interstate Highway System, but the remaining sections continue to inspire writers, photographers and lovers of a long-lost America.
Almost immediately outside Kingman however – take the turning towards the airport – is something entirely new: a gleaming modern distillery in the desert. Opened by the Patt family in 2010, Desert Diamond Distillery is as forward-thinking as it gets. America has a fanatical craft beer movement these days, so why not open a micro-distillery producing small-batch, hand-crafted rum and vodka too? So far, it’s been a word-of-mouth success. Drop by for a tour and tasting, or just pick up a bottle of their award-winning (and our favourite) Gold Miner Agave Rum.
Continue driving along Route 66 for another 40 minutes and you’ll reach another unexpected sight. Out here in the middle of nowhere, an amazing non-profit organisation, Keepers of the Wild, is doing remarkable work looking after wild animals rescued from dire situations in the exotic pets and entertainment trades, providing a sanctuary for dozens of lions, tigers, wolves, monkeys and other animals to live out their natural lives in peace.
It’s really worth taking a tour with one of the park’s committed staff members to appreciate the dedication required to keep a place like this going. We had our eyes truly opened to the scale of the problem that causes animals to come here in the first place, but although the stories were sad, the outcome is incredibly uplifting: a pair of sleepy tigers flopping in the sun afters years spent pacing in a cage is a sight to behold. If you’re an animal lover to any degree, this should be a must-stop on your itinerary.
Other than the Grand Canyon Caverns, there’s not much else between here and the tiny town of Seligman, population 500. The lonely road continues through the rugged and remote Hualapai Indian Reservation for another fifty miles, so the sudden clutch of primary-coloured storefronts come as something of a shock. The main street looks and feels like it was preserved in aspic about sixty years ago, when through traffic was its main source of economic security. Today, this is Arizona’s holy grail of Route 66 paraphernalia; a place to stock up on bumper stickers and key-rings of the famous shield-like road sign, or snap photos of dusty parked-up cadillacs.
On the one hand you could say Seligman shamelessly trades on its long-past glory days, but on the other – what choice did it have? Led by its best-known resident, Angel Delgadillo – known as the ‘guardian angel of Route 66’ – the town has worked hard to maintain the heritage of the road. And it has successfully stopped itself from turning into another Route 66 ghost town in the process.
Nowadays, the vast majority of visitors are curious road-trippers and tour buses, and these somehow manage to keep Seligman afloat. Do your part and head straight to the eccentric Delgadillo’s Snow Cap Drive-In for a root beer or burger – a fixture on the road since 1953 – and don’t miss the collection of vintage Chevrolets out the back. Or pop into the Route 66 Gift Shop next door and pay a visit to Angel himself. He certainly has some stories to tell.
Don’t miss part two of our mini road trip as we continue on to Flagstaff.
Virgin Atlantic operates a daily, direct flight to Las Vegas from London Gatwick.