Arizona’s Old West Highway 60: A historic route with plenty of nuances

Nicole Underwood

By Nicole Underwood / NewsBreak Pinal County, AZ

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The Old West Highway 60truck-simulator.fandom.com

(PINAL COUNTY, AZ) - Arizonans now more than ever have the urge to explore, after nearly two years of quarantine times paired with travel restrictions. Getting out of the bubble and traveling on a tried-and-true stretch of road rich with history has great appeal. And with more growth happening in the state, there’s even more aspects to discover. So, let’s get you on the right path: the historic route of Highway 60.

Paved roads provide stories of travel and growth. This particular highway is synonymous with Arizona, with a predominantly 2-lane road that traverses through various terrain, pine-topped mountains, lowlands of the desert, canyons, urban landscapes and stages of farmland. Located near many memorable locations worth exploring, such as Apache Trail, Lost Dutchman State Park, and historic, quaint towns, Highway 60 is your gateway to getting a true sample of the southwest from the driver’s seat.

The Old West Highway runs for 369 miles and covers not just Pinal County, but also makes its way through the counties of La Paz, Maricopa, Gila, Navajo, and Apache. This historic highway is a great alternative to the Interstate 10 (commonly known as I-10) when you’re heading east from Los Angeles. For those unfamiliar with the highway, it covers a great deal of ground. In parts of Arizona between Wickenburg and Phoenix, the route becomes the popular Grand Avenue block in downtown Phoenix, then transitions to the Superstition Freeway from Tempe to Apache Junction, and eventually concludes in Lordsburg, New Mexico.

According to the Arizona Department of Transportation, the Old West Highway 60 is famously known as “an original transcontinental highway,” not to be confused with an interstate freeway; this road stands alone. The nearly 400-mile stretch provides over 5,500 feet of change in elevation and was the dominant transportation option offering southern-state motorists a way to travel as far as the stage of Virginia. Here in Arizona, we are lucky to have some of the final few hundred miles of the original road within our borders, with the option to enjoy the passageway just as drivers did nearly 100 years ago.

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Updated Pinto Creek Bridgeazdot.gov

But what’s new in this long stretch of road? Depends on what you think of as new. The road certainly has evolved over time; back in the 1950s, nearly 144 miles were rebuilt near Miami and Globe to create a wider area to travel. According to aaroads.com, “the original ‘winding ladder’ (constructed in 1921) was bypassed between 1949 and 1952,” with the construction of the Queen Creek Bridge and Queen Creek Tunnel.

Today, you can notice a few washed out road areas, where the road has been updated with cuts and realignments for faster travel. However, some sections still contain the original dry rock walls that are holding to this day, even without maintenance for nearly eight decades.

As recently as fall 2021, updates were made to the Pinto Creek Bridge for a replacement project that replaced the bridge and areas of road for a smoother ride. This two-year project was part of the Act of 1966, according to ADOT, to replace the historic bridge and create a new chapter for motorists who utilize this bridge for regular transportation.

This classic stretch embraces over 600 years of history first chartered by those native to the area, such as indigenous Hohokam tribes, and crosses over Yavapai-Prescott tribal lands, Tohono O'odham Nation, and San Carlos Apache. Other modern-day western history is associated with this old road, from the notable names of John Wayne, Geronimo, and Billy the Kid affiliated with its name.

At its core, the highway symbolizes ambitions of small-town cowboys and risk-taking gamblers with big dreams. Today, many of these popular western destinations are tourist attractions for ghost towns, leisure golf vacations, and historic museums.

It’s a road to take in and see for yourself. Whether you want to explore a stretch of grasslands near Rio Grande Valley, take a stop in a quaint mining town or country community like Wickenburg along the way, pause for local art in a Grand Avenue gallery, take in the plains of San Agustin, explore the mighty range of the White Mountains or the depths of the Salt River Canyon, the Old West Highway is a forever point of pride for our state. It’s worth the drive.

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