The middle of nowhere in Arizona (Erica Bray for Yahoo Travel)
In the middle of nowhere in Arizona resides the highest part of Historic Route 66, the Sitgreaves Pass. Getting there requires braving the Oatman Highway, a rough-and-tumble mountain road situated between Needles, Calif., and Kingman, Ariz.
Unless you know Route 66, you’ve probably never heard of Oatman Highway or the Sitgreaves Pass. It’s overshadowed by other spectacular (and more easily accessible) Arizona drives, such as those around Sedona, Flagstaff, and the Grand Canyon.
But if you have a road-trip bucket list, put Oatman Highway on it.
The white-knuckle drive, with its sharp twists and turns rising to an elevation of more than 3,500 feet, is among the most stunning — and adrenaline-inducing — sections of the Mother Road to travel.
The twisty, turny Oatman Highway (Jasperdo/Flickr)
On a recent Route 66 road trip filled with roadside quirks and natural beauty, this 50-mile stretch that slices up and through the Black Mountains of Mohave County offered plenty of both. It left a major impression on me, more so than Route 66 icons the likes of Cadillac Ranch and the World’s Largest Rocking Chair.
It also left some serious sweat stains on my T-shirt, thanks to having to navigate more than 100 hairpin turns during the most precarious part of the mountainous journey.
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Timing is everything
A word to the wise: It’s a good idea to save this drive for daylight and after a good rest.
I made the drive twice over two days, west to east, then east to west. For the first trip, I made the mistake of beginning the drive at sunset. Silly, stupid me.
This was a wonderful idea for capturing the spectacular crimson and gold shimmer across the mountainous panorama from up high. It was not such a wonderful idea when it came to winding down steep, unlit switchbacks at 15 mph, gripping the steering wheel for dear life.
The view is amazing, but the drive is terrifying. (Erica Bray)
There are no guardrails along the narrow, mountainous Oatman Highway — not that guardrails would do much good.
(Photo: Erica Bray)
Wild burros were the first to greet us as my car ambled up Oatman Highway from I-40, just east of the California border.
The burros are legendary in these parts. Direct descendants of working burros brought to the area by 1930s gold prospectors, they today have free rein throughout the territory. It’s an oddity that tourists, of course, love. It also means driving very, very slowly, especially as you near the old gold-mining town of Oatman.
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I imagine that these burros were probably thinking, “What the hell are these girls doing on this road so close to nightfall?” Imaginary burro judgment aside, it was a magical, if not eerie, encounter.
The writer and her new friends. (Erica Bray)
Wild West mountain town
From the west, the road winds up to Oatman. Nestled amid the Black Mountains at 2,700 feet above sea level, the town’s a popular stop for those traveling Route 66.
Just a few blocks long, it looks like a Wild West stage set. But it’s the real deal, if not artificially enhanced for modern-day tourists with colorful, tongue-in-cheek signage, souvenir shops selling Western memorabilia, and staged gunfights at high noon.
Staged gunfight at high noon (Erica Bray)
Saloons, ice cream parlors, and antique shops line its Main Street, and the allegedly haunted Oatman Hotel, where Hollywood legends Clark Gable and Carol Lombard honeymooned, is a fun stop — if only to gawk at the thousands of $1 bills stapled to the walls and ceiling.
You can’t escape the burros in Oatman, either. Locals know them all by name. They are camera-ready — and ready for a handout. Main Street shops sell “burro food” to keep the animals fed and the tourists entertained, but the burros seemed to be more interested in dropped ice cream cones and potato chips during my visit.
Burros are so common here, they enforce the local parking ordinances. (Erica Bray)
Don’t count on spending the night in Oatman unless you’re OK sleeping with the burros; the town pretty much shuts down at 5 p.m., and doesn’t have a working hotel.
Drive … if you dare! (Erica Bray)
Beyond Oatman, the climb to the Sitgreaves Pass is interesting. And by interesting, I mean scary.
The road twists and turns, hugging the mountainside. It’s a series of sharp rights, then lefts, then rights, then lefts again, as astounding mountain vistas unfold on the left-hand side. Patience is a virtue while navigating this intimidating incline.
Once at the top, there is a pull-off where drivers and motorcyclists can park to enjoy vistas from the Sitgreaves Pass. The ruggedly wild and mountainous views stretch on as far as the eye can see. The arid landscape seems to struggle for survival under the hot sun, exerting tenacity akin to the cowboys and miners who tamed this region long ago.
Erica finally gets her “wide open spaces.” (Erica Bray)
With the Dixie Chicks’ “Wide Open Spaces” playing on repeat in my head, I drank in the views and wondered what gold prospectors and old-school Route 66 travelers thought when they made it to this summit. “Hallelujah,” perhaps?
Starting the descent to Kingman, Ariz., isn’t any easier than climbing up the Sitgreaves Pass. I faced some of the sharpest switchbacks of my life on either side of the summit and probably uttered a few curse words in the process.
A fixture of the old Route 66 era appears on the way down, in the form of Cool Springs, a gas station from the mid-1920s on the eastern slope of the Black Mountains. Back in the day, it was a lifesaving oasis amid a harsh landscape, a haven to gas up, eat up, and rest up. Today it’s been beautifully restored, and is part of Route 66 roadside nostalgia: a souvenir shop.
The famous Cool Springs gas station (Erica Bray)
I learned that some travelers of old Route 66 would pay locals to drive their cars for them, or have their vehicles towed over the Sitgreaves Pass, possibly striking those deals at Cool Springs. After completing the drive, I could understand why. Oatman Highway is a feat for a 21st-century driver, much less one behind the wheel of a Model T.
Still, would I have traded my adventure for a tow? Hell, no.
(Photo: Erica Bray)