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 comes as something of a shock.
Seligman’s 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, 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.
Shortly after Seligman, Route 66 merges 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.
Williams has an 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. It’s the obvious base if you have plans to explore Northern Arizona in more depth. The historic grid-like downtown is full of 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 full of 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 100 movies were filmed in this part of Arizona during the 40s and 50s, and the hotel has hosted numerous big names including Humphrey Bogart, Clarke Gable, John Wayne and Jane Russell.
But for many, the town’s biggest draw is its location. Sheltered beneath the San Francisco peaks to the north is the Arizona Snowbowl ski and snowboarding resort, 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 your journey – so what next? If the open road has you firmly under its spell, then we recommend continuing to the Route 66 town of Holbrook, gateway to Petrified Forest National Park and the Painted Desert.
Alternatively, if you’re heading back to Vegas and don’t want to retrace your tire tracks, Flagstaff serves as the obvious junction for circling back via the Grand Canyon, Lake Powell and Southern Utah.
by Maxine Sheppard
© Maxine Sheppard