February 22, 2013
We’ve left Las Vegas behind for a while, to explore the American Southwest. In part one of our latest mini road trip, we drove down to Kingman, Arizona and along one of the longest remaining stretches of historic Route 66, to the tiny settlement of Seligman.
Now we’re pushing further east into the heart of Arizona, towards old railroad towns and the red desert beyond…
Shortly after leaving Seligman, Route 66 joins back up with Interstate 40. Head east towards Flagstaff and after forty minutes take exit 161 for the mountainside town of Williams, hunched at the base of Bill Williams Mountain and surrounded by forests of Ponderosa pine. Another well-preserved section of Route 66 runs through the centre of town here – in fact, Williams was the final Route 66 community to be by-passed by the new interstate in 1984 – but the town is perhaps best known as the home of the Grand Canyon Railway, with daily trips to the canyon’s South Rim. Stay tuned for our guide to taking the Grand Canyon train in a future post.
Although the outskirts of town are full of the chain motels and fast-food restaurants you see all over America, Williams does have a really atmospheric little downtown core that plays up both its railroad and Route 66 past. Lined with neon-lit diners, red brick hotels, galleries, coffee shops and the odd classic automobile, there’s still something of a frontier town vibe about the place – but it also feels thriving and current. There’s a decent outdoor sports scene here too – mountain biking, hiking, fishing, even skiing – which helps to attract visitors year-round.
After the relative remoteness of the journey so far, the college town of Flagstaff feels positively cosmopolitan – and is the obvious choice of base if you’re set on a deeper exploration of Northern Arizona. The historic grid-like downtown is full of genuinely interesting shops, hotels, restaurants, bars, and some fantastic murals and street art, all of which fosters a lively community feel.
Check out the old brick buildings along North Leroux, Birch and Aspen Streets for galleries showcasing Native American arts, crafts, jewellery and pottery. Then relax in the bar of the landmark Monte Vista Hotel and soak up the spirit of all the Hollywood stars who’ve stayed here over the past seventy years. Well over a hundred movies were filmed in this part of Arizona during the 40s and 50s, and the hotel has played host to numerous big names including Humphrey Bogart, Clarke Gable, John Wayne and Jane Russell.
But it’s the abundance of outdoor gear stores which give an indication of Flagstaff’s other priorities. For many, the town’s biggest draw is its location. Sheltered beneath the San Francisco peaks just to the north is the Arizona Snowbowl ski and snowboarding resort, in a mountain playground which doubles as a hiker’s paradise in summer. Flagstaff is also close to no less than three National Monuments: the ancient Sinagua cliff dwellings of Walnut Canyon; the multiple cinder cones of Sunset Crater Volcano, and the rambling three-storey Wupatki Pueblo.
It’s the end of our journey – so what next? If the open road has got you firmly under its spell, then we recommend driving on as far as the Route 66 town of Holbrook, gateway to Petrified Forest National Park and the Painted Desert. Stay overnight at the cosy and comfortable Globetrotter Lodge (opposite the famous Wigwam Motel) and head out early enough to watch the sun rise over these unique geological formations.
Within the national park, ancient petrified timber is scattered across the landscape in every direction. Be aware that removing even the smallest piece from inside the park’s borders is prohibited, though all manner of polished specimens are available in surrounding gift shops, collected from outside the boundaries. Entering from the south, a 27-mile scenic road winds north through the park, over the interstate and on into the Painted Desert.
With more than 20 overlooks, self-guided trails and picnic areas it’s easy enough to spend several hours hiking and absorbing the beauty of it all. On the other hand, you could simply treat it as a spectacular drive. These fossilised formations and desert badlands are some of the most unusual landscapes in the Southwest. And due to their remoteness, they’re among the least visited too – so you’ll probably have the highway to yourself.
Heading back to Las Vegas? If you don’t want to retrace your tire tracks, Flagstaff serves as the obvious junction for circling back to Las Vegas via the Grand Canyon, Lake Powell and Southern Utah – a region we’ll be examining in a future post.
Remember to check out part one of this post for the journey from Las Vegas to Seligman, via historic Route 66.
For more information visit the Arizona Office of Tourism website.
Virgin Atlantic operates a daily direct flight to Las Vegas from London Gatwick.
Header shot © Nicholas_T