En Route to the Palm Springs Resorts
If you're making the drive from Los Angeles via I-10, you'll spend your first hour or so extricating yourself from the L.A. sprawl. But soon enough, you'll leave the Inland Empire auto plazas behind, and edge ever closer to the snowcapped (if you're lucky) San Bernardino and San Jacinto mountain ranges (coming from San Diego via I-15 North to I-215 North, to I-60 East, to I-10; the Palm Springs resorts are east of the junction with I-10).
Get Your Kicks on Historic Route 66
Until the final triumph of the multilane interstate system in the early 1960s, 2,300-mile-long Route 66 was the only automobile route between the Chicago shores of Lake Michigan and L.A.'s golden Pacific beaches. "America's Main Street" rambled through eight states, and today, in each one, organizations exist, such as Route 66 Tourism, just to preserve its remnants. California has a lengthy stretch of the original highway, many miles of which still proudly wear the designation "California State Hwy. 66." Many stretches are home to clusters of new developments, shopping centers, and fast-food chains. Pretty mundane -- until you round a curve and unexpectedly see a vintage wood-frame house, from a ranch that predates the Great Depression. Other picturesque relics of that era -- single-story motels, two-pump gas stations -- exist beside their modern neighbors, inviting nostalgia for a time when the vacation began the moment you backed out of the driveway.
The Route -- Our drive begins in Pasadena and ends in downtown San Bernardino, 56 miles west of Palm Springs. In San Bernardino, I-215 intersects Rte. 66; take it 4 miles south to rejoin I-10 and continue east.
Note: This detour works equally well if your destination is Lake Arrowhead or Big Bear Lake; take I-215 north 3 miles to Hwy. 30 and continue into the mountains. The drive can take from 2 to 3 hours, depending on how many relics and photo opportunities you investigate.
Visitor Information -- For more information, contact the National Historic Route 66 Federation, Box 1848, Dept. WS, Lake Arrowhead, CA 92352-1848 (tel. 909/336-6131; www.national66.org). Or check out the quarterly Route 66 Magazine (four issues, $25; P.O. Box 1129, Port Richey, FL 34673; tel. 727/847-9621; www.route66magazine.com).
Let's Hit the Road!
Rte. 66 terminated at the picturesque Pacific, but the heart of Los Angeles has very few remnants of the old road. In light of this fact, Pasadena is the best point to enter the time warp that exists along this highway.
One of my favorite establishments in Pasadena is the Fair Oaks Pharmacy, on the Southwest corner of Fair Oaks Avenue at 1526 Mission St., 1 1/2 miles south of Colorado Boulevard (tel. 626/799-1414; www.fairoakspharmacy.net), a fixture since 1915. Try an authentic ice-cream soda, a sparkling phosphate, a "Route 66" sundae, or an old-fashioned malt (complete with the frosty mixing can), all served by fresh-faced soda jerks from behind the marble counter. They also serve soup, sandwiches, and snacks. The Fair Oaks is still a pharmacy and offers a variety of gifts, including an abundance of Rte. 66-themed items. It's open Monday through Saturday from 9am to 9pm and Sunday from 10am to 7pm. The pharmacy is closed on Sunday.
For some driving music, reverse and go north on Fair Oaks to Colorado and turn right. Canterbury Records, 805 E. Colorado Blvd., a block west of Lake Avenue (tel. 626/792-7184), has L.A.'s finest selection of big bands and pop vocalists on CDs. The store is open Monday through Saturday from 9am to 9pm and Sunday from 10am to 7pm.
As you continue east on Colorado Boulevard, keep your eyes peeled for motels such as the Saga Motor Hotel, Vagabond, Astro (fabulous Jetsons-style architecture), and Hi-Way Host. Lodgings have proven the hardiest post-66 survivors, and you'll be seeing many motor courts frozen in time on the way.
Turn left on Rosemead Boulevard, passing under the freeway (boo, hiss) to Foothill Boulevard. Turning right, you'll soon be among the tree-lined streets of Arcadia, home to the Santa Anita Racetrack and the Los Angeles Arboretum, the picturesque former estate of "Lucky" Baldwin, whose Queen Anne cottage has been the setting for many movies and TV shows. Passing into Monrovia, look for the life-size plastic cow on the southeast corner of Mayflower. It marks the drive-through called Mike's Dairy -- a splendid example of this auto-age phenomenon. Mike's has all the typical features, including the refrigerated island display case still bearing a vintage DRIFTWOOD DAIRY PRODUCTS price sign.
Next, look for Magnolia Avenue and the Aztec Hotel on the northwest corner. Opened in 1925, the Aztec was a local showplace, awing guests with its overscale, dark, Native American-themed lobby, Maya murals, and exotic Brass Elephant bar. Little has changed about the interior, and a glance behind the front desk reveals the original cord-and-plug telephone switchboard still in use.
Leaving the Aztec, you'll pass splendid Craftsman bungalows and other historic homes. Turn right on Shamrock Avenue and ogle the old gas station with its classic (if ornamental) gas pumps on the northwest corner of Almond Avenue; continue onward 2 more blocks, and then make a left turn on Huntington Drive. Now you're in Duarte, where Huntington Drive is lit by graceful and ornate double street lamps on the center median. This stretch also has many fabulous old motor courts; see if you can spot the Ranch Inn, Evergreen, Oak Park, Duarte Inn, and Capri. Check out the Justice Brothers Racing Museum, 2734 E. Huntington Dr., Duarte, CA 91010, in an officelike building at the east edge of town just before the river (tel. 800/835-8784 or 626/359-9174; www.justicebrothers.com; free admission; open Mon-Fri 8am-4:30pm).
As you cross over the wide but nearly dry San Gabriel River, glance right from the bridge to see cars streaming along the interstate that supplanted Rte. 66. In Irwindale -- which smells just like the industrial area it is, with plants ranging from a Miller brewery to Health Valley Foods -- the street resumes the Foothill Boulevard name. At Irwindale Avenue, the 30-mile "neon cruise" begins. You'll pass into Azusa, with its elegant 1932 Azusa City Hall and Auditorium, with vintage lampposts and a Moorish fountain enhancing a charming courtyard.
Our route swerves right onto Alosta Avenue at the site of the former Foothill Drive-In Theater, Southern California's last single-screen drive-in. As you cruise by, think of the days when our cars were an extension of our living rooms, and the outdoor theaters were filled every summer evening by dusk. Alas, the drive-in sign awaits demolition, but the new owners may donate it to the city of Los Angeles, relocate it, and refurbish the marquee.
Continuing on Alosta, you'll enter Glendora, named in 1887 by founder George Whitcomb for his wife, Ledora. Look for the Palm Tropics, one of the best-maintained old motels along the route. Farther along on the left-hand side is the Golden Spur, which began 70 years ago as a ride-up hamburger stand for the equestrian crowd. Unfortunately, the restaurant was remodeled in stucco, leaving only the original sign with its neon cowboy boot as a reminder of its colorful past. At the corner of Cataract Avenue, a covered wagon announces the Pinnacle Peak restaurant, guarded by a giant steer atop the roof. In a mile or two, you'll pass through San Dimas, a ranchlike community where you must heed the HORSE CROSSING street signs.
Foothill Boulevard enters La Verne as you pass underneath the ramps to the I-30 freeway. La Paloma Mexican cafe, a fixture on the route for years, is on your left as you leave town. Continue on to Claremont, known for its highly respected group of Claremont Colleges. You'll pass several of them along this eucalyptus-lined boulevard. In days gone by, drivers would cruise along this route for mile upon mile, through orchards and open fields, the scenery punctuated only by ambling livestock or a rustic wood fence.
At Benson Avenue in Upland, a classic 1950s-style McDonald's stands on the southeast corner, its golden arches flanking a low, white walk-up counter with outdoor stools. The fast-food chain has its roots in this region: Richard and Maurice McDonald opened their first burger joint in San Bernardino in 1939. The brothers expanded their business, opening locations throughout Southern California, until entrepreneur Ray Kroc purchased the chain in 1955 and franchised McDonald's nationwide. Farther along, look north at the intersection of Euclid Avenue for the regal monument to pioneer women.
Pretty soon you'll be cruising through Rancho Cucamonga, whose fertile soil still yields a reliable harvest. You might see produce stands springing up by the side of the road; stop and pick up a fresh snack. If you're blessed with clear weather, gaze north at the gentle slope of the San Gabriel Mountains and you'll understand how Foothill Boulevard got its name. The construction codes in this community are among the most stringent in California, designed to respect the region's heritage and restrict runaway development. All new buildings are Spanish-Mediterranean in style and amply landscaped. At the corner of San Bernardino Road, the architectural bones of a wonderful old service station now stand forsaken. Across the street is the Sycamore Inn, in a grove of trees, looking like an old-style stagecoach stop. This reddish-brown wooden house, dating from 1848, has been a private home and gracious inn; today it serves the community of Cucamonga as a restaurant and civic hall.
Rancho Cucamonga has preserved two historic wineries. First you'll see the Thomas Vineyards, at the northeast corner of Vineyard Avenue, established in 1839. Legend holds that the first owner mysteriously disappeared, leaving hidden treasure still undiscovered on the property. The winery's preserved structures now house a restaurant, coffeehouse, country crafts store, and garden-supply boutique in the former brandy-still tower.
A Retro Pit Stop -- If all this driving has made you hungry, consider the Magic Lamp Inn, 8189 Foothill Blvd. (tel. 909/981-8659). It's open for lunch Tuesday through Friday from 11:30am to 2:30pm, and for dinner Tuesday through Sunday from 5pm to closing time, which varies (call first). It's closed Mondays. Built in 1957, the Magic Lamp serves excellent Continental cuisine (nothing nouvelle about Rte. 66!) in a setting that's part manor house and part Aladdin theme park. Dark, stately dining rooms lurk behind a funky banquette cocktail lounge punctuated by a psychedelic fountain/fire pit and a panoramic view. The genie-bottle theme is everywhere, from the restaurant's dinnerware to the plush carpeting, which would be right at home in a Las Vegas casino. Lovers of kitsch and hearty retro fare shouldn't pass up this one.
Continuing on to Hellman Avenue, look for the New Kansan Motel (on the northeast corner). With that name, it must have seemed welcoming to Dust Bowl refugees. Near the northwest corner of Archibald Avenue, you'll find remnants of a 1920s-era gas station. Empty now, those service bays have seen many a Ford, Studebaker, and Packard in need of a helping hand. Nearby, on the left, is Route 66 Memories, 10150 Foothill Blvd. (tel. 909/476-3843), open 9am to 5pm, in a three-story classic house with a collection of metallic dinosaurs in the front yard, and a gift shop for antiques and rustic furniture. Next you'll pass the Virginia Dare Winery, at the northwest corner of Haven Avenue, whose structures now house part of a business park/mall but retain the flourish of the original (1830s) winery logo.
Soon you'll pass the I-15 junction and drive through Fontana, whose name in Italian means "fountain city." Slow down to have a look at the motor-court hotels lining both sides of the road. They're of various vintages, all built to cater to the once-vigorous stream of travelers passing through. Today they're dingy, but the melody of their names conjures up those glory days: Oasis, Rose Motel, Moana, El Rey, Rex, Fiesta, Dragon, Sand & Sage, and Sunset.
As you enter San Bernardino, be on the lookout for Meriden Avenue, site of the Wigwam Motel. Built in the 1950s (along with an identical twin motor court in Holbrook, Arizona), the whimsy of these stucco tepees lured in many a road-weary traveler for the night. Its catchy slogan, "Sleep in a wigwam, get more for your wampum," has been supplanted today by the more to-the-point "Do it in a tepee."
Soon Foothill Boulevard will become Fifth Street, where the San Bernardino sign must have been a welcome sight for hot and weary westbound travelers emerging from the Mojave Desert. Rte. 66 wriggled through the steep Cajon Pass into a land fragrant with orange groves, where agricultural prosperity earned this region a lasting sobriquet: "The Inland Empire."
The year 1928 saw the grand opening of an elegant movie palace, the California Theatre, 562 W. Fourth St., only a block from Rte. 66. From Fifth Street east, turn right at E Street, and then make a right on Fourth Street. Lovingly restored and still popular for nostalgic live entertainment and the rich tones of its original Wurlitzer pipe organ, the California was a frequent site of Hollywood "sneak previews." Humorist Will Rogers made his last public appearance here, in 1935. (Following his death, the highway was officially renamed the Will Rogers Memorial Hwy.) Notice the intricate relief of the theater's stone facade, and peek into the lobby to see the red-velvet draperies, rich carpeting, and gold-banistered double staircase leading up to the balcony.
The theater is the last stop on your time warp driving tour. Continue west on Fourth Street to the superslab highway only 2 1/2 blocks away -- that's I-215, your entry back to the present.