*Part 16* Route 66 from Flagstaff to San Bernardino: Gateway to the Grand Canyon, Wild Burros & Crossing the Mohave
This post is part of a series I’ve done on Route 66. In 2022, I drove the entirety of Route 66 from Chicago to Los Angeles. 2500 miles, 8 states, countless stories, and an endless stretch of small towns, neon, diners, motels, and roadside attractions. Read through all of my Route 66 posts here. They’re also linked at the end of this post. If you’re planning your own Route 66 road trip, either the whole thing or just a part, I hope these help you out. Enjoy the drive!
We’re getting closer! Leaving Arizona and crossing into California feels like a big deal when you’re driving Route 66. It’s the endgame, the final destination, the big reward at the end of a long journey. But first…we’ve still got some of the best bits of Arizona to get through.
I’ve said before, I’ve spent a lot of time in the Midwest and Great Plains, but this was my first visit to Arizona (and the deserts of California) so this part of Route 66 all felt very exciting. Well, parts of it lived up to the hype (hello Arizona I love you) and parts felt a little tedious (that long final slog through the desert feels intense even on the interstate).
Route 66 Flagstaff to San Bernardino
So let’s get to it!
I’ve told you how much I really loved Flagstaff. I’ve written a whole post about Route 66 in the Flagstaff area here. There’s a lot of outdoorsy stuff to do in the area, plus there’s a great renovated motor court and plenty of good restaurants. So you’re definitely going to want to spend a bit of time here.
Flagstaff, AZ to Kingman, AZ
Leaving Flagstaff, Route 66 mostly follows the interstate until it comes into Williams. I’ll admit…I’d heard about a lot of Arizona Route 66 towns but Williams wasn’t really on my radar until I saw it in person.
Besides Flagstaff, it just might be my favorite town along Route 66 in Arizona.
Williams is on the map because it’s widely considered to be the “Gateway to the Grand Canyon.”
And that’s because you can ride the Grand Canyon Railway from Williams to the south rim of the Grand Canyon. You can do the 64 mile trip (in operation since 1901) as a day trip or spend the night.
Williams is set up to handle the crowds. There’s a pretty sizable hotel plus an RV park and they do a big gunfight/show on the grounds every evening.
Plus the town itself is pretty cute. Two one way streets are lined with shops, restaurants, and some of the best neon you’ll find anywhere.
My personal favorite is the Turquoise Teepee.
For a meal, I would suggest the Pine Country Restaurant, Barrel Bottle Historic Brewing Co, Station 66 Italian Bistro, or Cruisers Cafe on 66.
Leaving Williams, you’ll mostly follow the interstate until the turnoff to Seligman.
Seligman is a GREAT Route 66 town.
And the fun starts before you even get to town. There are 3-4 sets of Burma Shave signs set up on either side of town, which besides a few historic parks in other states, these are the ONLY ones I saw on the route.
If you’re not familiar, Burma Shave was a shaving cream company that advertised heavily along Route 66 with a series of signs that spelled out funny little advertising jingles.
So why are they around Seligman? I don’t know for sure, but I suspect it has to do with Angel Delgadillo. Angel owned a barber shop on Route 66 and after business dried up when the town was bypassed by the interstate, Angel and his wife Vilma were instrumental in getting old 66 recognized as an official historic highway.
So I have to think that the Burma Shave signs around Seligman are a nod to him and his barber shop.
In town, you’ll want to visit Angel and Vilma Delgadillo’s Original Route 66 Gift Shop which still has Angel’s original barbershop intact.
And you definitely don’t want to miss Delgadillo’s Snow Cap, a drive-in originally owned and operated by Angel’s brother Juan.
Yes, the burgers, fries, and shakes are good, but the whole place feels like an attraction.
Juan’s son runs the place now and he keeps up all of his dad’s jokes and antics. He personally got me with the “string coming out of the mustard bottle” gag ; )
The Snow Cap was pretty busy when we were there midday and it was interesting to see that we were pretty much the only Americans there. This is definitely on a “top 10 spots to visit on Route 66” list and attracts visitors from all over the world.
The rest of the drive into Kingman is pretty uneventful, although you will pass the Grand Canyon Caverns with their impressive display of dinos out front. I’m a little “cave-nervous” and the outside didn’t do much to ease my anxiety so I skipped this spot.
Peach Springs is a reservation town and there’s not much for visitors, but there are a few old buildings.
Stopping at the Hackberry General Store is a MUST. It’s one of the most iconic curio shops on the route and you’ll want to spend equal amounts of time inside and outside. It’s a great gift shop and photo op.
And the Ranchero Giant Headicus just looks like pure fun!
Kingman is the last sizable town along Route 66 in Arizona and you’ll find some decent small hotel chains here (I stayed at a Springhill Suites that was fine) because it’s a bit of a gateway to the Grand Canyon from Las Vegas.
It has a pretty long stretch of Route 66 that’s been left relatively intact with small vintage motels. The El Trovatore Motel is probably the place to stay if you’re looking for something “vintage” but I couldn’t personally vouch for its quality.
As promised by the name, Hill Top Motel has great views, but looked a little sketchy.
There’s some fun neon signs around town and we ended up having dinner at the Rickety Cricket Brewery. I couldn’t resist the name and after driving around town it definitely looked like the best option.
They have a lot of beer options, but their pizza and salads were sooooo good!
Mr. D’z Route 66 Diner is the obvious place to go in town, but honestly after doing this whole trip I was kind of OD’d on Route 66 themed diners. But it looks cute!
The major attraction in Kingman is the Arizona Route 66 Museum. It definitely anchors the town and the whole area is so well done.
I had researched ahead of time and they were supposed to be open until 4PM, but when we walked up to the ticket counter at 3:15, the lady told us that they were closing for a private event at 3:30. Crunch time! But she let us in for free.
Honestly, 15 minutes was about enough time. The building that the museum is housed in is pretty impressive, and they do have some interesting things to look at, it’s just not very big and they charge $10/adult which seemed pretty high for what it was.
If this place was free, I would probably be raving about it. It’s in an old powerhouse that was used to generate electricity from 1909 to 1938 and they’ve done a wonderful job converting it into a museum and gift shop.
One of the coolest parts is the big drive thru Route 66 shield they’ve set up in the parking lot. I’d seen pictures of it before I went, but it was kind of cool to see how it works in person. It’s an efficient operation!
Kingman, AZ to Needles, CA
It’s time for the Oatman Highway! The Sidewinder. Sitgreaves Pass. You know a road is good when it has so many names.
After doing a lot of research, this stretch of Route 66 is probably the one I was most excited to drive and it definitely lived up to the hype.
I grew up riding ATVs in the mountains in Colorado so I wasn’t super nervous about tackling the “Sidewinder,” but I was still excited to see how it stacked up to other mountain passes.
Leaving Kingman, you’ll jump on the interstate for just a minute to connect to the road to Oatman.
I’ll give you a warning here…you should stay up to date with local weather and road conditions because if they get much rain, the road through here washes out pretty quickly and they close it. The good news is they usually get it reopened pretty quickly. But even if it’s not closed, I don’t think I would attempt it in bad weather.
Okay, so from where we turned off the interstate it’s about 23 miles to Oatman, but most of that is relatively flat.
We saw cows! We saw a BABY BURRO! We saw incredible scenery!
Once you start the climb up the “Sidewinder” or Sitgreaves Pass, it is a very curvy, steep road and there aren’t guardrails in a lot of places.
I thought it was exciting, but not terrifying. Your mileage may vary.
We did this first thing in the morning (left Kingman at 7AM). Pros of doing it that way: We had very little traffic coming to meet us (maybe two cars the entire trip) so it was a lot more relaxing and easier to enjoy. Cons: Oatman was closed up tight as a drum when we drove through. If you want to experience Oatman, you’ll need to be there midday.
Here’s the scoop on Oatman: It’s an abandoned “historic” mining town which puts on a show for the tourists every day.
I’m sure some buildings are historic, but it honestly looks a bit like every “Wild West” town you’ve ever seen recreated.
If you’re coming from overseas or somewhere on the coast, you’re probably not going to want to miss it. If you’re from anywhere in the middle of the country, it might feel a little familiar.
Here’s what makes Oatman special: THE BURROS!!
They’re technically wild so you might see them at any point (the only ones we saw roaming were actually on the Kingman side of the pass), but they’re smart so they stay pretty close to the food.
When we drove through Oatman about 8AM the only ones we saw were behind a gate in somebody’s yard. But I expect the wild burros know that the food doesn’t start flowing until the people show up so I bet they start roaming around more once the town opens up.
Different shops have food that you can buy to feed them which is what you should do if you want to interact with them. Don’t feed them human food!
Once you leave Oatman, most of the bad road is behind you but the mountain views and desert really open up.
From Oatman to Needles a lot of what you’ll pass is BLM land which means it’s open to camping off the grid. We saw quite a few RVs parked in different places which would be an option if you’re traveling via RV, but want to see Oatman.
You can’t pull an RV through the Sidewinder (I think 40” is the legal limit but honestly that seems pretty long) but you could park your RV out past Oatman (coming from the interstate) and circle back to drive it in your car.
From Oatman, we dropped down and crossed the Colorado River into California at Topock.
We cruised into Needles on the interstate. Needles is the first town you’ll come to on Route 66 in Arizona.
Here’s a tip for driving this stretch of road…fill up your gas tank in Kingman because once you cross into California it is EXPENSIVE going through the desert. Even in Needles it’s usually several dollars more than across the border in Arizona (Bullhead City, etc.).
We stopped at a gas station in the middle of the desert to go to the bathroom and gas was over $9/gallon and even drinks and snacks were double or triple what they would be anywhere else. Don’t panic…this is NOT California pricing, it’s desert pricing (there is literally nothing out here), but it’s smart to not need to stop for gas until you reach Barstow.
Needles, CA to Barstow, CA
Coming into Needles seemed like it was going to feel like a bigger deal than it actually was. Wow, we’re in California! Oh hey, it’s still the desert.
I actually really enjoyed driving through the Mohave though. I’ve never seen terrain quite like that.
So Needles is probably most famous for being the home of Charles Schulz. The creator of the Peanuts comic strip called Needles home for a few years in the late 1920s.
But you also may want to check out the El Garces Harvey House. I think it’s been restored somewhat recently but it’s not yet open to the public.
From Needles to Barstow, Route 66 mostly is just I-40 except for a couple of exceptions.
There’s a little deviation/spur you can take through Arrowhead Junction and Goff. Honestly, it’s a pretty big detour and the only thing you’ll see is the Goff Schoolhouse which isn’t usually open.
Unless you’re a stickler for sticking to the route, I would probably just skip that spur.
The bigger (more interesting) spur is the one south of I-40 that runs through Essex and Amboy. The problem is that most of it’s been closed for the last few years after some bridges washed out.
When I drove this section in October 2022, the only option was taking the exit of I-40 down to Amboy and then retracing your path back to I-40 so that’s what we did.
Since I love Route 66 nostalgia, I really wanted to see Roy’s and I felt like the detour was worth it.
I have heard that even though the road is technically closed (local traffic is allowed to a certain point), a lot of travelers still drive it and don’t feel like 4WD is necessary and that they’ll even stop to ask a policeman if it’s ok/get special permission.
I’m not really that hardcore about it and I needed to get on down the road so I just settled for seeing Amboy. But I say this to let you know that if you’re the type that wants to drive as much of the old route as possible, then stay up to date on local road conditions because I have heard that they’re working on some of the bridges.
Coming into Ludlow, there are a few spots of interest that you may want to hop on and off the interstate to see before you get to Barstow.
The Ludlow 66 Cafe sits in an iconic a-frame structure.
Fans of the cult classic movie Bagdad Cafe will probably want to stop by the cafe in Newberry Springs.
And there’s not much left of the old Ma Millet’s Cafe in Daggett.
Barstow, CA to San Bernardino, CA
After the long trek through the desert, Barstow is the first place you’ll come to that feels a bit like a city. But I’m not sure if that’s a good thing or not. There’s some historical stuff to see in Barstow, Victorville, and San Bernardino, but in general it’s just kind of a seedy area. I had lunch in Barstow and left there about 2PM so I decided to make up some time since I was headed all the way to West LA that night.
I visited some places in Barstow and Victorville before coming into San Bernardino, but mostly stayed on the interstate to speed things up a bit. So I skipped the stretch that goes through Silver Lakes, but since I didn’t really love the area I didn’t feel like I was missing much.
I did enjoy stopping by the Harvey House Railroad Depot, though. It’s a little detour from Route 66, but totally worth it. There’s a Route 66 Museum and Western America Railroad Museum onsite, but they’re only open Friday, Saturday and Sunday from 11AM to 4PM
You can go inside the original Harvey House though, nicknamed Casa del Desierto. It’s been restored to its original 1913 condition and it’s pretty spectacular. It’s a working Amtrak station so you’re free to go in and look around. They also have public restrooms.
I had read about the California Route 66 Museum in Victorville and was kind of interested in going because they have some of the leftover “exhibits” from Hulaville (a vintage roadside–attraction? Exhibit?), but ended up passing through on a day they were closed.
Well, it was probably for the best because honestly I don’t think I would’ve stopped and gone in even if they were open. The area of Victorville where the museum is was pretty rough and it just didn’t seem like a good place to spend time.
From Victorville, Route 66 follows I-15 into San Bernardino.
San Bernardino, CA
Most people feel like San Bernardino is the last big stop before you’re officially “in LA.” So I’ll cover Route 66 in Los Angeles (from San Bernardino to Santa Monica) in this last post.
Planning a Route 66 road trip? I’ve got all of the info you need!
I’ve written about my cross country road trip pretty extensively section by section. Read them all here: Part 1 (Chicago), Part 2 (Chicago to St. Louis), Part 3 (St. Louis), Part 4 (St. Louis to Springfield MO), Part 5 (Springfield, MO), Part 6 (Springfield, MO to Tulsa), Part 7 (Tulsa), Part 8 (Tulsa to OKC), Part 9 (OKC), Part 10 (OKC to Amarillo), Part 11 (Amarillo), Part 12 (Amarillo to Albuquerque), Part 13 (Albuquerque), Part 14 (Albuquerque to Flagstaff), Part 15 (Flagstaff), Part 16 (Flagstaff to San Bernardino), Part 17 (Los Angeles).
Plus I’ve done roundups by state: Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, California.
I’ve got the scoop on where to stay including the best Route 66 motels recommendations.
And finally, my final trip recap where I spill the beans on how many days you need, the best itinerary, my favorite don’t miss spots, and other tips.