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Route 66 Landmarks

Route 66 passes close by some of the country’s most stunning natural wonders, from the stark deserts to vast, colorful canyons, otherworldly landscapes transformed by volcanic activity millennia ago and deep underground caverns formed over time by the movement of water.

Groups traveling along Route 66 should make a point to stop at these five extraordinary natural areas.

Grand Canyon National Park

Flagstaff, Arizona

No other location along Route 66 has impressed road trippers more than the colorful and majestic Grand Canyon National Park. The awe-inspiring canyon, which is 277 miles long, up to 18 miles wide and 6,093 feet deep, embodies the American spirit of exploration and adventure like nothing else in the United States.

The colorful walls of the canyon record nearly untold millennia of the Earth’s geological history that were slowly revealed as the Colorado River cut its way through the landscape. Several trails branch out from the visitor’s centers along the rim, allowing groups to take in some of the canyon’s most gorgeous vistas.

Group travelers following Route 66 through the area can stay in Flagstaff, Arizona, just 80 miles from the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, which is popular for the visitors center and historic lodge. The highway runs right through downtown Flagstaff, where groups can learn more about the area at a historic train depot that now serves as the city’s visitors center. A self-guided audio tour takes listeners along the Route 66 corridor and some of its most iconic locations.

Flagstaff is also a convenient location for group travelers to visit Wupatki National Monument, with its 800-year-old pueblos; Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument; Walnut Canyon National Monument, with its cliff dwellings; and Arizona Meteor Crater, all within a two-hour drive of the city.

Mojave National Preserve

Barstow, California

Mojave National Preserve covers 1.6 million acres north of old Route 66, between interstates 40 and 15, featuring a harsh desert landscape of volcanic cinder cones, sand dunes and Joshua trees. Visitors can learn more about the preserve by visiting the Kelso Depot Visitor Center, which opened as a train station in 1924. The former baggage room, ticket office and two dormitory rooms in the building are furnished as they would have been during the station’s heyday, and visitors can watch a 20-minute film in the theater.

Several sights in the preserve, including the Kelso Dunes, which are among the largest sand dunes in the country, are must-sees for visiting groups. It’s about a three-mile round trip hike up to the top of the dunes, which were formed by wind and sand over thousands of years. Groups can also explore a lava tube that was created about 27,000 years ago. The Rings Loop Trail is a 1.5-mile hike that takes visitors past ancient petroglyphs. Hikers can learn how Hole-in-the Wall got its name as they ascend Banshee Canyon with the help of metal rings mounted in the rock.

A visit to Mojave National Preserve wouldn’t be complete without a walk through the Joshua trees. The largest concentration of these trees lies along Cima Road. About one-third of the park’s Joshua trees were burned during an August 2020 fire, but many still remain in this location. The Boulders Viewpoint Parking Area gives visitors a fantastic view of the Granite Mountains.

Petroglyph National Monument

Albuquerque, New Mexico

About seven miles northwest of downtown Albuquerque and Route 66, Petroglyph National Monument is a 7,239-acre park known for more than 25,000 rock images carved by Native Americans and Spanish settlers.

The carvings feature images of animals, people, crosses and other more mysterious objects. They are carved and chiseled into volcanic rock left over from eruptions in the Albuquerque Volcanic Field. Group can learn more about the area and its geology at the visitors center before heading to several spots within the park to see the petroglyphs up close.

Boca Negra Canyon provides quick and easy access to three self-guided trails where groups can view 100 petroglyphs. It only takes about one hour to walk all three trails. Cliff Base and Macaw trails offer moderate intensity, while Mesa Point is more strenuous. Rinconada Canyon offers insight into the geologic, cultural and natural resources of the region. From the parking lot, visitors can follow a sandy path that crosses dunes and takes them past prehistoric and historic petroglyphs, rock wall alignments and shelters.

Piedras Marcadas Canyon offers a petroglyph trail, where visitors can see up to 400 carvings, and an unpaved North Rim Trail, which is great for taking in the surrounding scenery.

The Volcanoes Trail takes visitors on a three-and-a-half-mile hike to see the JA Volcano and Vulcan Volcano.

Meramec Caverns

Stanton, Missouri

The largest commercial cave complex in Missouri, Meramec Caverns lies beneath the rolling hills of the Meramec Valley. Discovered in 1720 by an expedition party led by French Explorer Philipp Renault, the cave was first used as a saltpeter, or potassium nitrate, mine. Saltpeter was used to make gunpowder at the time, and mining was very successful for 144 years until the Civil War put an end to it.

It wasn’t until the 1890s that residents of nearby Stanton began to use the cave again, this time as a place to host parties and escape the summer heat. When it was first discovered, the cave was 50 feet wide and 20 feet high. But beyond the main entrance was a room that was large enough to host big crowds, as well as a 50-by-50-foot dance floor. It was nicknamed the Ballroom. In 1933, Lester Benton Dill bought the cave and began offering guided cave tours to the public. During that time, he discovered new sections of the caverns that were even more beautiful, including the Stage Curtain, a 70-foot-tall wall of what looks like hanging drapes.

In 1941, another set of rooms containing artifacts linked to infamous outlaw Jesse James were discovered. Today, groups can take a guided walking tour through the cave along well-lighted walkways. The tour takes about an hour and 25 minutes and includes a light show in the Theatre Room, which holds the Stage Curtain formation. The show features colored lights and images highlighting the beauty of America, accompanied by the song “God Bless America.”

Palo Duro Canyon State Park

Canyon, Texas

The second-largest canyon in the United States, Palo Duro Canyon, is about a 30-minute drive from Amarillo in the Texas Panhandle, not far off Route 66. What makes the canyon so special is that most people don’t even know it exists until they drive into it because of its location on the plains of Texas. Although the area is covered in prairie, it is still at 3,600 feet of elevation.

“It is so unexpected,” said Hope Stokes, director of marketing for Visit Amarillo. “When people see it, they can’t believe it is here and so close to the city.”

The canyon is the largest drivable canyon in the U.S., allowing visitors to drive from the rim down 800 feet to the canyon floor. Ninety percent of the canyon is privately owned, and the rest is a state park. The park and many of the canyon’s private properties offer fun things for groups to do, including camping, hiking, horseback riding and off-road Humvee tours.

Famous Southwest artist Georgia O’Keeffe was inspired by the landscape in the canyon during her time as a student at West Texas A&M University in Canyon, Texas, with many of her paintings featuring Spanish skirts and sediment layers in the canyon.

Originally, there was a creek that ran through the canyon, as well as forests of large trees — the “hard wood” for which the canyon was named. The canyon also served as a safe place for the Comanche Indians, who would escape there in the winter to shelter from the cold.