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Historic Roads & Highways
Route 66 - Mojave DesertPerhaps no other highway in the U.S. is as fabled as Route 66. It has been immortalized in song, literature, and even a T.V. series as the Main Street of America. Automobiles came early to the desert, following the railroad with its valuable water resources. In the early 1900's the route was known as the National Old Trails Road. In 1926 it became U.S. Highway 66, and within a decade was paved all the way from L.A. to Chicago. Heavy travel by dustbowl emigrants led John Steinbeck to label it as the Mother Road. It was bypassed by Interstate 40 in 1973, and the Route 66 designation was officially dropped in 1985.
Photo of Route 66 sign at Colorado River near Needles, CA.
In the heart of the California desert, between the towns of Barstow and Needles, stretches a 320-mile ribbon of history, most of which traverses public lands and serves as a symbol of the pioneering spirit of emigrants coming West and an icon of American freedom and mobility. Dubbed “The Mother Road,” in John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath,” Route 66 continues to be an international bucket-list item for many travelers wanting to – as the song goes – get their “kicks on Route 66.”
Route 66 had its beginnings in the West’s old wagon roads of the 1800s. Later, the railroads followed much of this same corridor, further establishing routes that would ultimately become part of Route 66. Towns established themselves along the route and became hubs for trading posts, hotels and restaurants. Many roadside services such as gas stations and diners were established as a result of this road. In fact, it has been said that Route 66 led to the invention of the motel. As traffic increased between towns, a need for these main streets to become connected grew. On Nov. 11, 1926, U.S. Highway 66 was offcially established and still serves as one of the most famous highways in America. Also called “America’s Main Street,” the 2,400-mile highway extending from Chicago to Los Angeles quickly became the principal route of travel from the Midwest to the Pacific Coast, carrying thousands of people each year to the booming West, particularly Southern California.
Because of its connection to the westward expansion, large portions of the historic highway pass through public lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management, making it a distinctive historical and cultural public lands experience.
Winter here, with its abundance of wildflowers, is a perfect time to explore Route 66 in Southern California where public lands contain iconic pieces of American history, areas of rich cultural diversity, and exceptional geologic landscapes. The route passes through small towns such as Amboy, a nearly empty ghost town in California’s Mojave Desert. Amboy is home to Roy’s Motel and Cafe, a Route 66 landmark that has been preserved, making it an ideal backdrop for photographers and filmmakers. Nearby, the 6,000-year-old, 250-foot-high Amboy Crater National Natural Landmark, managed by the BLM, is one of the best examples in the Mojave Desert of a volcanic cinder cone.
Throughout the years, Route 66 has become the subject of many stories, songs and even a 1960s TV show that celebrated freedom, the open road and the Chevrolet Corvette. Although it was effectively replaced by the interstate highway system in the 1960s, the road’s aura of promise and possibility remains for the many visitors to the California Desert.
Steve Razo is a public affairs specialist in the BLM’s California Desert District Office.
Bristol Dry Lake