It Really Is About the Journey

Gallup at Night Hotel el Rancho

Photo credit: New Mexico True.

Learn how to enjoy one of the most magical stretches of Route 66 right here in New Mexico

By Erin Mitchell

U.S. Route 66 was commissioned in 1926, when New Mexico’s statehood was just 14 years old. In the wake of World War I, the economy was quickly moving toward a reliance on automobiles for the transportation of goods across vast expanses of land, and the existing road systems were sparse. The United States was challenged by the need to connect cities that were rapidly urbanizing to the spread-out rural counterparts across the west. Route 66 began as an ambitious plan to utilize as much of the existing road system as possible, ultimately emerging from gravel and dirt as a clear path connecting Chicago all the way to Santa Monica, California.

Geographically, New Mexico sits on the western side of Route 66. The state’s varying topography made road-building efforts arduous, resulting in a series of threatening switchbacks that traversed the 2,000-foot drop in elevation between Santa Fe and Albuquerque. From 1926 to 1937, the road veered north through the Pecos Valley to Santa Fe and all the way down to Los Lunas, but this loop was straightened out for efficiency’s sake in 1938 when the fully paved alignment of Route 66 was completed. It’s interesting to note that Albuquerque boasts the only intersection of Route 66 where the current version of the road and a previous version of the road actually overlap.

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Now, I-40 has taken over much of the original Route 66, but there are over 260 miles of the old route that remain drivable in the state, giving way to some of New Mexico’s original boomtowns that popped up in Route 66’s prime: Tucumcari, Santa Rosa, Grants, and Gallup are among them. As you’ll find out, taking a drive through this historical stretch of quintessential mid-20th-century Americana can prove to be quite the adventure. Getting your kicks could yield a stay in a vintage motel marked by an iconic neon sign, sipping a milkshake at a classic diner, snapping photos of picturesque red sandstone bluffs, stepping into adobe churches that predate Route 66 by centuries, or exploring museums and monuments and ghost towns alike. While this iconic highway stretches across eight states, there is no better place to experience the nostalgia, discovery, and glamor of the Mother Road than right here in the Land of Enchantment.

ABQ Downtown Route

Photo Credit: New Mexico True.

Santa Fe is located right at the top of Route 66’s original alignment, providing the perfect starting point for an adventure that explores the western or eastern regions of the state. Begin your journey eastbound by driving 166 miles to the town of Tucumcari. Stop by the Tucumcari Historical Museum, delving into the area’s rich history and Route 66 heritage, before snapping photos at the Route 66 monument at the Tucumcari Convention Center and the world’s largest Route 66 mural. As the sun sets and Route 66 transforms into a glowing trail of neon signs, check in to the Blue Swallow Motel, a restored vintage gem built in 1929 that allows you to live within the story or Route 66, even if just for a night. That evening, dine at Del’s Restaurant, known for its homestyle cooking and retro atmosphere as much as for the cow atop its neon sign.

The next day, before departing town, take a visit to Mesalands Dinosaur Museum, a first-class museum housing the world’s largest collection of spectacular full-scale bronze dinosaur skeletons. For lunch, stop into Watson’s BBQ, renowned for its smoked meats and rustic feel. On your way out of Tucumcari, don’t miss the glowing green cactus that marks TeePee Curios to pick up a souvenir. Hop back onto Route 66 and head west to the nearby ghost town of Cuervo, taking in the expansive ranchlands and abandoned buildings frozen in time. Before returning to Santa Fe, stop at the charming town of Santa Rosa for the night. Enjoy breakfast at the Silver Moon Café, a Route 66 landmark eatery, before visiting the Blue Hole. There, discover a natural swimming hole with water so blue, you’ll forget you’re in the desert. If you’re not in the mood for swimming, check out the Route 66 Auto Museum and grab a bite to eat at Comet II Restaurant and Drive-In that delivers chile-smothered fare right to your car before you head back to Santa Fe.

Classical Gas Museum Embudo

Photo Credit: New Mexico True.

Looking west, you’ll find an entirely new adventure. Your first stop is Albuquerque, where Route 66’s charm is found everywhere from the motels that line Central Avenue to the unique restaurants in Nob Hill. Stop for lunch at Albuquerque’s Dog House Drive-In, marked by a glowing dachshund sign that wags its neon tail. From there, explore the historic Old Town plaza to browse the shops and art galleries. Spend the day perusing or visit the nearby Explora Children’s Museum and the New Mexico Museum of Natural History. In the evening, check in to one of New Mexico’s first motels: the El Vado. Here at this restored vintage Route 66 motel, you can grab a snack or drink from a changing lineup of food pods just steps away from your room.

On your way out of Albuquerque, drive through Nine Mill Hill to marvel at the Rio Grande Valley before continuing west toward Gallup. There, you’ll check into the historic El Rancho Motel for a taste of Hollywood history, as it was home to Hollywood stars back in the mid-1900s when Gallup was the Western film capital. From there, explore downtown Gallup with its Native American art galleries and numerous souvenir shops. Consider venturing out to Red Rock Park for a hike or a picnic among picturesque red bluffs formed more than 200 million years ago, and then settle in for dinner at Jerry’s Café for some hearty comfort food. Begin the following day with a visit to the Gallup Cultural Center, where you can learn about the rich heritage of the Navajo Nation and other indigenous peoples of the region that predate Route 66 by centuries. Before you return to Santa Fe, be sure to save your appetite for the World Famous Laguna Burger, located roughly 40 miles west of Albuquerque.

Tucumcari Blue Swallow

Photo Credit: New Mexico True.

There you have it: More than 465 miles of history, nostalgia, and good times. A trip along Route 66 in New Mexico blurs the lines of time, from the adobe mission churches to the restored neon-lit signs. The Route 66 Centennial is coming up in 2026, so now is the perfect time to celebrate the Mother Road of America and discover what it has in store for you. Let New Mexico’s stretch of Route 66 be living proof that sometimes, it really is more about the journey than the destination.

Erin Mitchell serves as the communications and content coordinator for the New Mexico Tourism Department. Erin received her MBA from the University of New Mexico and was born and raised in Farmington.

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