Padre Canyon

The author stands along the rim of Padre Canyon with the old Route 66 bridge in the background. (Photo courtesy of Randy Wilson/Arizona Daily Sun)

Visiting a casino might not be the best way to get some exercise — even the one-armed bandits of old have been replaced by digital slot machines.

But if you are visiting Twin Arrows Casino and want a chance to stretch your legs, consider a side hike to Padre Canyon and its 99-year-old bridge on the original Route 66.

We did so on the Saturday after Christmas and found it an excellent mix of exercise and history.

Padre Canyon was, along with Diablo Canyon to the east, one of the chief obstacles to early cross-country travel by automobile between Flagstaff and Winslow. An infamous shooting incident in the canyon in 1899 between Navajos and ranchers sensitized both sides to the need to work out land disputes peaceably and led to the northern part of the canyon being transferred to the Leupp district of the Navajo Reservation.

A decade later as statehood approached, Arizona officials began planning for a road paralleling the railroad tracks between Flagstaff and Winslow. The bridge over Padre Canyon filled in one of the last gaps, opening in 1914 after costing $7,900 to build.

The roadway became part of the Route 66 alignment, but was one of the most dangerous due to the series of dangerous curves that led down to the canyon crossing.

The bridge was abandoned in 1937 when a new alignment to the south was included in a new bridge, which is now the alignment of Interstate 40.

The Padre Canyon bridge is only a mile west of the new Twin Arrows Casino, but signs at the first roundabout declare the dirt access track heading west to be private property.  

So, rather than trespass, we decided to come in from the west by exiting I-40 at Winona. On the north side of the interchange, we took the first right before the tracks onto Angell Road, named for an old railroad siding, according to several Route 66 history books.

We drove east along the road, marked as FR510 on the Coconino National Forest Service Map, for about five miles until it forked into two dirt tracks up a slight rise that would have required slipping our Jeep into four-wheel drive. But since we were out for some exercise anyway, we disembarked and continued east on foot.

The highway includes a mix of pavement and dirt for about a mile until reaching the canyon, where it curves north. The bridge is around a bend, out of sight of I-40, but when it comes into view, it appears almost to be a mirage in a wilderness landscape.

The right of way descends to the elegant concrete span, which had tire tracks across but appeared to be in poor condition. Most of the concrete pillars supporting the railings had crumbled, and in one section a railroad tie served as the railing and the only thing preventing a 60-foot fall to the rocks below.

The bridge dedication plaque had been pried nearly off, but two black-and-white Route 66 logos were still perfectly preserved on each of the eastern concrete abutments.

Walking over the bridge and up the twisting roadway on the eastern end, we got a sense of the hazards early travelers faced as they clung precariously to the canyon’s edge.

Up top, the landscape stretched nearly featureless to the horizon except for the casino building, which jutted up in the northeast.

We turned around here and headed back to the Jeep. Our recommendation to Twin Arrows Casino would be to work out access rights and develop a walking trail to a National Historic Register structure right on its doorstep.

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