Desert Treasures: Get your (wilderness) kicks on Route 66

Scenic view from Route 66

Marc Tarlock, Flickr

Editor's Note: Annette's blog is part of a four-part series in which our staff explore some of the desert treasures we're working to preserve and protect from potential energy and other development. 

Speeding along interstates in the California desert may save you some time, but I’ve found that veering onto the off-ramp to explore the iconic Route 66 let’s you downshift from the fast lane and get in touch with America’s past. 

Known as the Mother Road, U.S. Highway 66 connects Chicago to Los Angeles. Its 2,400 miles were paved thanks to our nation’s first Federal Highway Administration program of the 1920s. Over the decades, streams of autos packed with hungry and sleepy travelers crisscrossed the contiguous U.S., finding their way to the California desert.

For many travelers, Route 66 is an unforgettable and immersive way to experience spectacular vistas and landscapes, explore ghost towns and historic sites and routes. Today, for me, it is a time traveler’s journey to Old California with vast vistas unchanged for millennia, and loads of uncommon sites. Smithsonian Magazine lists Route 66 as an endangered cultural treasure, and it is one of the world’s top 100 endangered sites according to the World Monuments Fund. But many just consider it to be a desert treasure. 

Map of Route 66 from Mother Road Museum in Barstow, California. Photo: Headington Media, Flickr

Worthy of protections—Route 66's wild legacy

Preserving this legacy and the historical and scenic value of the lands along Route 66 is critical, especially with energy developers eyeing the California desert for its vast wind and solar resources. In fact, many undeveloped portions of Route 66 travel through California desert wildlands proposed as a Mojave Trails National Monument in Senator Dianne Feinstein’s legislation: the California Desert Protection Act.

Senator Feinstein’s bill could offer permanent protection for regions like the California desert—that could preserve unique experiences for travelers for years to come. 

While Route 66, also known as the National Trails Highway, has literally been bypassed by superhighways such as Interstate-40 (a popular L.A. to Las Vegas route), slowing down to explore the existing sections gives travelers the opportunity to take in the immense beauty of the desert and understand just why it deserves to be protected.

California's Cady Mountains and wildflower bloom. Photo: John Dittli

Traveling east of Barstow, CA, you’ll find stunning views of wildlands that could be up for protection if Senator Feinstein’s bill were to pass. One of these places—the Cady Mountains—is a mountain range nestled within the Mojave Desert. The range reaches elevations of up to 3,980 feet, and features the picturesque Sleeping Beauty Wilderness Study Area.

Exploring unique landmarks

To explore Route 66, a good jumping-off point is the historic Casa del Desierto in Barstow. Formerly the Harvey House Hotel and Restaurant, this California landmark dates back to 1911 and once provided rest and relaxation for adventurous Santa Fe Railway travelers. Fast forward more than a century, and Harvey House is now home to offices and the Barstow Route 66 “Mother Road” Museum which exhibits old memorabilia, signs and vintage cars. This lovely Spanish arched building is also said to be occupied by active spirits, so if you dare, take a ghost tour and look for Rachel, Emily or Buchanan.

Elmer's Bottle Tree Ranch in Oro Grande, California. Photo: M Ke, Flickr

If ethereal, jewel-like sculpture gardens are more your speed, then travel west from Barstow to Oro Grande and marvel at the unique Elmer’s Bottle Tree Ranch. This sparkling work of love and recycling will transport you to a dream world of beauty and simple joy. (You’ll never see this in the suburbs, folks.)

And for those seeking a classic Route 66 time warp, Amboy is billed by its owners as “the ghost town that ain’t dead yet.” First settled in the 1850s, Amboy was an important mining and rail stop, but after the opening of Route 66 in 1938, the town became one of California’s hottest tourist stops. While most current visitors gawk at its midcentury aesthetic and commercial appeal, Amboy also reminds us of the intersection of nature and industry that once defined (and perhaps still defines) the old American West.

Iconic Roy's Motel and Cafe in Amboy, California. Photo: Slideshow Bruce, Flickr

To reach Amboy, travel east of Barstow and get off the I-40 at Ludlow. Continue to drive east on Ludlow Road (yes this is Route 66) for about 28 miles. 

The next time you’re in California, opt for the longer drive down Route 66 and take a moment to experience these sights. Let the desert take hold of your soul. This is a place where homesteaders carved out hard scrabble lives. Stagecoaches and railroads trail-blazed the frontier, and today, old bottles can re-sprout into a glowing garden in the middle of desert sands.

Route 66’s scenic stretch is an oasis of unspoiled wildlands, unique American culture and important history that should be preserved for future generations to explore. 

Also in the desert blog series: