Finding Arizona’s Lost Highways
Text and Photos by Nick Smallwood
The crisp, crunching sound of pebbles grinding into the dirt bounced off the soles of my shoes as I made my way over the desert terrain. Around me, mesquite bushes and cat-claw gnawed at the sides of my arms, leaving red scratches which burned as the cool breeze rushed over my skin. It was nature’s fence, a sort of blockade which separated me from my target.
With a brief struggle and a few more minor lacerations, I broke through the devilish shrubbery and made my way to the other side. At the base of the hill stood the car…an old 1930’s rust-bucket. It was a shadow of its former self which now rested abandoned in a sandy grave. Around it, rusted cans and broken glass bottles were strewn about.
As I approached the metallic monument, I stopped and stood in silence. It was incredible that something like this could be sitting out here after all these years. In my head, I imagined the people who owned the car and the memories that were made in it. What was once a lively machine was now the hollow skeleton of its former self, idling towards decay.
Moments like these are what I enjoy most about getting out and exploring Arizona’s lost highways. It’s the feeling of anticipation which slowly swells inside of you, bursting when you see the shimmer of an old bottle or the roof of a deteriorating Chevrolet.
Each time you go out, there’s the possibility of finding something new. Whether it be old Coke bottles, retro license plates or perhaps even cars, hiking Arizona’s historic highways brings with it a sense of nostalgia and excitement.
For those of you wishing to experience this same sense of nostalgia, the first thing you must learn is how to find these old roads. So, for the remainder of this article, that’s exactly what I’ll be teaching you how to do. With hope and a little bit of practice, you’ll become an expert “road finder” in no time.
Using Google Earth to Find Old Roads
While there are many ways to go about locating old roads, one of the best, in my experience, is by using Google Earth. For those of you who don’t already have Google Earth installed, you can click on this link https://www.google.com/earth/download/ge/agree.html to begin the download. It’s free!
One of the benefits I’ve noticed in using Google Earth to find historic roads is the ability to scout for locations using high-quality satellite imagery. Unlike the Lewis and Clark figures of the past, today’s adventurers, assuming they have access to the internet, can view satellite images of any location in the world with the click of the mouse. Not only does this give you more places to choose from, but it allows you to scout from the comfort of your living room.
Once you have Google Earth fired up, the first step to locating an old road is by finding a modern highway that is outside a major town or city. An interstate such as I-10 is often my starting place. Generally speaking, it’s easier to spot old roads in the middle of the desert where there are little to no buildings to obstruct your view of the ground.
Usually, old roads will also be located within close proximity to newer ones (probably within a mile or two). In most cases, they tend to be around the same width as their modern-day counterparts. As you can see in the image below, the road marked between the red arrows is almost the same width as the newer one.
Two things that often confuse beginning hunters when seeking out old roads are washes and all-terrain vehicle (ATV) trails. In general, washes and ATV trails tend to zig-zag back and forth. Their movements tend to be sporadic whereas roads are usually straight with curves that bend steadily. ATV trails and washes are also a bit lighter in color than older roads. Take a look at this image bellow.
When you have located a possible target, the next step is to mark the coordinates on your GPS or phone and head out to the location.
In the Field
When in the field, the task of finding and sticking to the road can sometimes feel daunting. While it’s easier to see from above, once you get to the location, the road can often seem to disappear right out from under you. Here are a few techniques that will make it easier to stay on the right track…no pun intended.
1. Stop and take it all in
When you get to the GPS location you marked prior to coming out, give yourself a moment to pause and take in the scenery around you. Look both in front and behind you to see if you can see the road. If you have problems, take a closer look at the vegetation. Usually the middle of the road will be less dense in growth than the outside.
2. Is it raised?
Oftentimes, old roads were built higher than the desert around them. This would allow for proper drainage if there was ever a heavy rainstorm. If you find yourself having problems locating the road, my first suggestion is to look for the high spots. Are there any areas where the ground looks to be elevated? If so, it’s a good place to check.
3. Are there rock bridges?
Another way to tell that you are on the right track is by coming across old rock bridges. Most times, these will be located close to a wash where the road would pass over. Just like modern-day bridges, these rock bridges would allow cars to pass over a wash or sandy spot without getting stuck.
4. Think like an engineer:
Sometimes to find the road, you must try to think like those who built it. When you’re hiking, ask yourself where you might build the road. While this technique might not always work out, it doesn’t hurt to put yourself in a different frame of mind.
All of these things have one thing in common…the ability to be aware of your surroundings. The more you observe what is around you, the easier it will be to stay on the right track. In a sense, finding the road can sometimes be a bit like playing eye-spy.
The Things You’ll Find
Perhaps one of the most exciting things about hiking one of Arizona’s old highways is prospect of finding relics from the early 1900’s. Over the few years I’ve been hiking these roads, I have come across bottles, license plates, old signs, and even cars! It’s simply amazing what things are sitting out in the desert, waiting to be discovered.
Here are some photos of the things I’ve found while hiking Arizona’s lost highways.
While you might be tempted to keep the things you find, I would recommend leaving the relics where you found them and only taking pictures on your adventures. There are a wide range of laws and regulations governing the collection of historical relics on public land.
What To Bring
Last but not least, before you go out, you’ll want to make sure you have the right gear. As a general rule, you should always take into consideration the weather, the length of time you plan on hiking and your physical condition. To help you out, I’ve assembled a list of my top 10 things to take I take when go exploring.
1. Water: The most crucial of all your gear. Hydration is your number one priority before going on any hike. My advice: take more than you think you’ll need.
2. Camera: This is the second on my list of equipment. While it doesn’t need to be a top-of -the-line DSLR, having a camera will allow you to capture the most exciting moments of your adventure and show them off to your buddies when you get back.
3. Friends…the more the merrier. While it’s nice to spend some time alone every now and then, being able to share in your adventure with others only adds to the excitement. Not only is it safer to go hiking with friends, but you’ll increase your chances of finding something.
4. Snacks. An ample mix of protein and carbs will give you the energy to walk that extra mile. I suggest some quality beef jerky, trail mix and an apple. Hint: A little chocolate never hurt anyone either.
5. Hiking Pack: Don’t be the person who has to leave everything in the car because you forgot your pack at home…or worse…the one who has to put stuff in the packs of others. Nobody likes being a pack-mule. Just remember, the more you bring, the more weight you’ll have to carry.
6. Snake Gaiters: When the weather begins to warm up in the spring and summer, there’s a greater chance that rattlesnakes will be slithering around. Wearing snake gaiters will help give you that of peace of mind and avoid that expensive trip to the emergency room.
7. Med-kit: For all other non-life threatening injuries. Pack band-aids, moleskin (for blisters), and Neosporin. Better to be safe than sorry.
8. Hiking Stick: When you find that old whisky bottle under a thorny mesquite bush, you’ll be wishing you had one. If not, you can always improvise with a dead yucca branch.
9. Hat / Sunglasses / Sunscreen: Alright, I may be cheating by grouping these into one category, but the Top 10 things sounded much better than the top 13. Nonetheless, these are all nice to have.
10. Sense of Adventure: Have fun! You’ll never know what cool treasures you may await you unless you get out and go exploring.. Besides, even if you don’t find anything, hiking one of Arizona’s lost highways is a great way to get out and spend some time enjoying the outdoors.
Have you been on this adventure? What did you think? Comments and updates welcome by clicking here.
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