November 30, 2013

Follow Route 66 for novel kicks

Needles is considered the gateway city to California on Route 66. Old Trails Arch Bridge across the Colorado River connects California with Arizona at Topock. (Pirate Cove Resort)

Written by Kathy Strong
Special to The Desert Sun

The famous 1946 song that invites you to “Get Your Kicks on Route 66” praised the trip along the historic “Mother Road” that led drivers to more than just road-side discovery. Route 66 chronicles a time when heading west stood for finding new opportunities while enjoying the diverse scenery that unfolded along the way.

The 2,400-mile Route 66, also coined America’s Highway, runs from the Midwest to Los Angeles, but desert residents can get a fascinating look at an important portion of the highway (with just a few detours) beginning in Needles and ending in Ontario and Upland. Not unlike travelers 60 years ago, the easy road trip is filled with new discoveries each day, from geological wonders to funky roadside cafes and landmarks with a bounty of California history dedicated to the traveling freedom revolutionized by the car.

Gateway city

A three-hour trip through the upper desert leads to Needles on the Colorado River. Needles, referred to as the gateway to California on Route 66, is one of the oldest cities in California and was named after the spiky rock outcroppings directly across the river in Arizona. A railroad town since 1883, the city continues to play an important role in the railroad trade.

Pirate Cove Resort & Marina is a surprising 1,000-acre oasis that straddles the river and the Mother Road and makes a great jumping off point for exploring the historic roadway. An RV park is popular here, but new two-story condos with kitchens make for an ideal weekday stay if you want to avoid a livelier weekend crowd. The resort hosts a popular restaurant and bar, hiking/nature trails, a zip line over the water and river recreation. Plan to take the resort’s two-and-a-half hour river cruise to the Topock Gorge, a mini-Grand Canyon, petroglyphs and the Old Trails Arch Bridge that was featured in the famous Great Depression-era movie, “The Grapes of Wrath.” Along the way, you may be lucky enough to spot Bighorns, wild donkeys and Bald Eagles.

Craters and chicken

Although once a major stop for weary travelers along Route 66, 1858-founded Amboy met its inevitable decline with the construction of Interstate 40. The town has a handful of surviving buildings today. Among those the much photographed, retro-designed Roy’s Motel and Cafe — once a service station, then café and motel owned by the town’s original owner and family until its eventual foreclosure. In 2005, the property and town was purchased by Albert Okura of Juan Pollo restaurant fame who has promised to preserve the town and re-open Roy’s.

Just west of Amboy are two extinct volcanoes, the Pisgah Crater and the Amboy Crater, a 6,000-year-old cinder cone. Standing on the Amboy Crater observation deck, take in the 27 square feet of lava flow, a geological wonder in the middle of the desert, and try to imagine the spectacular fiery eruptions that occurred some 80,000 years ago.

Milkshakes at the Bagdad

Continuing west on Route 66 toward Barstow, you’ll pass by the 1940’s mining town of Ludlow. Once a welcoming stop for passing motorists with a motor court, café and gas station, the original Ludlow is a ghost town today, thanks to the advent of Interstate 40 in the late 1960s. A newer Ludlow just north of the off-ramp of Interstate 40 reemerged in the 1970s to serve the traveler once again with gas stations, a small motel and restaurant.

In Newberry Springs, at the foot of the mountains on the south side of Route 66, you will find another landmark of the roadway — the Bagdad Café. Mention the name to French tourists, who come by the busload, and they will tell you about its cinematic cult allure. Formally known as the Sidewinder Café, the tiny café gained international fame when the movie “The Bagdad Café” was filmed there. Its flamboyant owner, Andrea Pruett, holds court and is a celebrity in her own right. Stop for the souvenirs, a chat with Andrea and a tempting handmade milk shake.

Next week, read part two of the Route 66 journey that promises museums dedicated to the roadway, historic murals, a bottle ranch and one of the country’s most unique motels along the famous motorway.