The only place where a Route 66 traveler can closely experience a true western forest is along the 40-mile highway segment from just west of Williams to just east of Flagstaff. A low-elevation juniper forest (not much of a true forest really) begins west of Williams that, as the elevation rises, gives way to a predominantly ponderosa pine tree forest which becomes well-established at the western edge of the town of Williams itself. (The ponderosa pine tree is a drought-tolerant species and is the most common pine tree in the western USA. This forest area can be wet and snowy in the winter but it usually experiences very dry summers.) Likewise immediately east of Flagstaff the ponderosa pine tree forest transitions to a lower-elevation juniper forest before the juniper gives way to open range land as Route 66 falls in elevation. The drive between Williams and Flagstaff and through the small settlements of Parks and Bellemont is one of the nicest along Route 66 in Arizona. It is made particularly scenic because it is bracketed by Bill Williams Mountain on the south and the San Francisco Peaks on the north. Along the way Route 66 crests at about 7300 feet in elevation at the Arizona Divide, which is the highest spot on the old road (and modern Interstate 40).
Bill Williams Avenue looking west when it still was two-way Route 66.
The Beacon Café occupied part of a two-story building with stunning rock façade. It had a rooftop tower to support its sign.
Bill Williams was a preacher, hunter, trapper and mountain man who came to Arizona in the mid-nineteenth century. He had many friends in the area and when he was killed by Indians his friends saw that a double-peaked mountain was named for him. The settlement that developed with the coming of the railroad in 1882 just northeast of that mountain took on the name Williams. (This frontiersman's name was also left on the Bill Williams River in western Arizona, a river that today runs into Lake Havasu of the Colorado River upstream of Parker Dam.)
A century ago, back when most railroads made money on both passenger service and freight service, the western railroads wanted to give passengers from the East any reason at all to take long leisure trips on their trains. Many railroads promoted ties with National Parks or other scenic wonders of the West. The most famous and creative effort was probably undertaken by E. H. Harriman of the Union Pacific Railroad who developed Sun Valley, Idaho, as a destination resort for affluent Easterners. Another tourism opportunity that the Union Pacific Railroad exploited was their proximity to the National Parks of southwestern Utah and the north rim of the Grand Canyon. The Union Pacific used Cedar City, Utah, as the depot and transfer point for motor tours of Zion National Park, Bryce National Park, Cedar Breaks National Monument, and the north rim of the Grand Canyon.
The Great Northern Railroad promoted Glacier National Park since their tracks passed along the southern boundary of the Park over Marias Pass (US Highway 2 today). The Northern Pacific Railway promoted itself as the "Yellowstone Park Line" since their main line passed through Livingston, Montana. From Livingston the Northern Pacific built a spur line south to Gardiner, Montana, which is located at the northern boundary of Yellowstone National Park.
Not to be outdone, the Santa Fe Railroad promoted its proximity to the south rim of the Grand Canyon National Park. A small railroad had been built from Williams north about 50 miles to haul ore from a copper mine. It never reached the Grand Canyon but when this railroad went bankrupt in 1911 the Santa Fe, recognizing its potential, purchased it. The Santa Fe extended the railroad another 15 miles north to the rim of the Grand Canyon itself. To provide for their guests in the National Park the Santa Fe / Fred Harvey Company built the El Tovar Hotel in 1915 and later the Bright Angel Lodge in 1934, both of which are still in operation today. Williams became an important junction for railroad travelers coming to see the Grand Canyon. The Fred Harvey Fray Marcos Hotel was built in 1915 at the junction of the Santa Fe Railroad east-west main line and the Grand Canyon spur line. The Santa Fe Railroad heavily promoted the scenery of the "Land of Enchantment" Southwest, their destinations through Indian territory, and their ability to take travelers right to the Grand Canyon rim itself. In the 1940s and 1950s the Santa Fe Railroad even painted a slogan on some of their boxcars and refrigerators cars that read "The Grand Canyon Line" in big, easy-to-read letters.
With a diversified economy based upon the railroad, lumbering, ranching, and Grand Canyon tourism, Williams became a vibrant commercial center with robust brick and stone structures lining the two main commercial streets. Appropriately-named Railroad Avenue ran next to the Santa Fe Railroad and Bill Williams Avenue was one block south. After Bill Williams Avenue was designated as US Highway 66 it received full paving in the town area although terrible dirt roads, from problematic to impassible after rain or snow storms, lay just outside Williams in both directions.
Several primitive auto camps sprung up on either side of Williams to serve the early tourists. Two of those about which there are some real photo postcards today were Mountain Springs Ranch (also known as Mountain Springs Camp on an early AAA map) and Pine Springs Camp, both in rural settings west of Williams. Both camps were on the early US Highway 66 alignment which was south of today's Interstate 40 and along part of what is today Forest Road 108. It is likely that Pine Springs Camp was in the vicinity of where Pine Springs Road today meets Forest Road 108. There is nothing left of either camp to my knowledge.
The roads in either direction from Williams were re-aligned several times between 1926 and the coming of the Interstate in 1984, bypassing the early auto camps by the early 1940s. The only stable road alignment in the area and the safest place to locate traveler services seemed to be right in Williams itself. Many motels sprung up after World War II to meet the traveling public's demand for modern lodging. Bill Williams Avenue was lined with motels, gasoline stations, and cafes. By this time the economy of Williams had strongly shifted toward tourism, serving both through-travelers on Route 66 and Grand Canyon visitors. Traffic increased so much that by 1955 Railroad Avenue took on the assignment of handling westbound Route 66 traffic while Bill Williams Avenue was dedicated to handling eastbound traffic, a condition that still exists today. In 1995 the City of Williams added the name "Route 66" to Bill Williams Avenue.
Williams is perhaps most famous for being the last town on old Route 66 bypassed by an interstate freeway in 1984. Up to the time Interstate 40 was completed around Williams, any traveler or trucker taking the Interstate freeway system between Chicago and Los Angeles was guided off the freeway and onto the surface streets of Williams for about three miles before rejoining the Interstate freeway on the other side of town.
The forested lands between Williams and Flagstaff are part of the Kaibab National Forest (western area) and the Coconino National Forest (eastern area). There are numerous paved, gravel, and dirt roads that carried Route 66 through the region at different times. Most of the auto camps, gas stations and traveler service buildings that once operated along two-lane Route 66 in the area between Williams and Flagstaff are gone now with the exception of the still-operating Parks store and the abandoned Pine Breeze Inn east of old Bellemont. Modern Bellemont, a profusion of recently-constructed homes, a motel and gas station, is clustered mostly north of Interstate 40 and should not be confused with what was once old Bellemont at all. Old Route 66 in the Bellemont area is actually along the south side of Interstate 40 where the closed Pine Breeze Inn is. A Whiting Brothers gas station once existed west of the Pine Breeze Inn. But even this old alignment of Route 66 has seen substantial development with a motorcycle dealer, RV retail enterprise, and a storage facility constructed in the last twenty years.
Jack Rittenhouse, in his 1946 A Guide Book to Highway 66, referred to Parks as a "one establishment town" offering gasoline and cabins. He probably was referring to Parks Camp, as seen in the RPPC on the left. That particular RPPC was postmarked in 1936. He cited Bellemont correctly as the highest town along all of US Highway 66 (7130 feet in elevation) and as having two gasoline stations and a store.
The common story as to the naming of Flagstaff goes that the town was founded when a group of scouts camped in the area over July 4, 1876. A pine tree was stripped of its branches and used as a staff to fly the American flag during the Independence Day celebration.
In 1882 when the Atlantic & Pacific Railroad came through on its push to California, ranching and lumbering were the principal businesses in early Flagstaff. When Route 66 was commissioned in 1926 this settlement was still two years away from actually being incorporated as a city.
The 1939 AAA Directory of Motor Courts and Cottages listed the El Pueblo Motor Court as having "8 cottages with baths". It was expanded and is now operating as the El Pueblo Motel.
The downtown area of Flagstaff has always been the heart of the city, albeit many of the retail businesses have left for new locations on the outskirts of town. Several hotels are among the many restored and refurbished old brick buildings downtown. Several motels, too, are close to downtown as is the attractive railroad station. The Hotel Weatherford, built and opened by John Weatherford in 1910 (and listed on the National Register of Historic Places) and the Hotel Monte Vista that opened in 1926 are probably the most historically interesting downtown hotels because both are still in operation after all these years. Both are one block north of Route 66 and one block from each other.
The first auto court called Du Beau opened in 1929 on Route 66 at Beaver Street and Phoenix Avenue and after 80 years it still operates today but now as the Du Beau Hostel. (Until 1934 Route 66 crossed the railroad tracks on Beaver Street and turned at Phoenix Avenue so the Du Beau was right on the highway then.) Route 66 on the east side of town was named Santa Fe Avenue since the highway ran along the north side of the railroad tracks. Most later motels of Flagstaff were built along the north side of Santa Fe Avenue. Even today two dozen operating motels, many of them from the late forties, fifties, or sixties, line the north side of Santa Fe Avenue.
Camp Townsend was at the intersection of US Highway 66 and US Highway 89 east-northeast of Flagstaff.
Camp Townsend was just east-northeast of Flagstaff at the busy junction of US Highway 89 and the pre-1947 alignment of US Highway 66. US Highway 89 was a popular road for tourists traveling north to the Grand Canyon since Fort Valley Road (US Highway 180 today) was not paved until the 1960s. A problem was that some motorists traveling early US Highway 66, say west-bound, would reach this junction and turn north to visit the Grand Canyon and then re-join US Highway 66 in Williams, Arizona, thus never visiting Flagstaff. East-bound travelers could take the same route in reverse. Since a road already existed between Flagstaff and Walnut Canyon National Monument, Flagstaff business interests funded an extension of that road east to join US Highway 66 at Winona in 1947. This new Route 66 shortened the drive into Flagstaff and ensured that travelers at a minimum reached East Flagstaff before they could go to the Grand Canyon. The old original Route 66 road is called Townsend-Winona Road.