Road Tripping along America’s Mother Road- Route 66 and Interstate 40 has always been an adventure for me in the past two decades. Sometimes it was a quick drive where I stopped for sleep, a meal, and gas. While there were other times that I took my time and stopped off at Albuquerque, Santa Fe or took photos of Roadside America architecture in Tucumcari.
Route 66 has been idealized, immortalized, and romanticized over the last many decades in popular culture through songs, movies, and media. It has been a deep part of our transportation and travel history. It is quirky, kitschy, and best of all- it is freedom of the road.
Route 66 was established on November 11, 1926 as one of the original highways in the United States Numbered Highway System. It had served as the primary route for those who were migrating west, especially during the Dust Bowl of the 1930’s. All looking for greener pastures, and better weather in the west. Highway 66, quickly became one of the most famous in the United States and ran from Chicago, Illinois through Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and ending in Santa Monica, California.
Since many people were travelling this major highway, entrepreneurs became prosperous opening up accomodations, restaurants, gas stations, automotive repair shops and everything a weary traveler could use. Many of these structures are still there today, some have been revitalized, others in their original state, while many have long been closed.
After years of realignments and improvements, the United States officially removed it from their original highway system in 1985, and was replaced with Highway 40, as part of the Interstate Highway System. There are still portions of the old Mother Highway that pass through Illinois, Missouri, New Mexico, and Arizona that have been designated as a National Scenic Byway, with the name “Historic Route 66”.
It is not to say that the change in the highway system caused distress, especially to those whose livelihood depended on the business of Route 66. The businesses along the old highway had fought to keep this highway alive, similar to the Disney Movie ‘Cars’, which is based on Historic Route 66.
Today, you can still travel parts of the Mother Road in New Mexico by getting off of Highway 40 through many of the original towns such as Gallup, Albuquerque, Santa Fe, Tucumcari, and Santa Rosa.
In this article I have noted the New Mexico cities and attractions, along with my own photos, that I have visited over the last 20 years of driving along I- 40 and Route 66. Some are now remnants, while others are still alive along America’s Mother Road.
I hope this serves as an inspiration when you take that trip and “Get your kicks on Route 66.”
Gallup, New Mexico
Gallup is a true “Cowboy and Indian” town in the Southwest, being that this town was one of old Hollywood’s favorite filming locations for western films. During the 1930’s and the 40s, over 100 westerns were filmed around Gallup.
The landscapes around the town are remarkable- sandstone bluffs, wide open desserts and glorious colorful sunsets. It is no wonder that the film industry decided to use this part of the country for its classic westerns, that have played a large part of our American culture.
Gallup was also a popular destination with road travelers along Route 66, as it went right through the town. During those years many Native American businesses opened, and you can still visit several today. Especially ones specializing in Native American art, which are a favorite of mine. There are also remnants of quirky Roadside America in Gallup including hotel neon signs, the Indian Kachina Statue, and the Muffler Man “Dude Man”.
Hotel El Rancho – Gallup, New Mexico
One of my favorite locations to visit in Gallup is the historic Hotel El Rancho. This old western hotel was home of the movie stars during the 30s and 40s, while they filmed in the surrounding area. To name drop a few of the celebrities who stayed here while filming were- Jane Fonda, Humphrey Bogart, Katherine Hepburn, Lucille Ball, Gregory Peck, Betty Grable, Kirk Douglas and many more.
The interior of Hotel El Rancho is like stepping back in time. The dark wood and authentic vintage ranch style design is renascent of a luxurious yester year, something that I can never tire of. One can imagine old Hollywood stars descending down the red staircase, mingling in the lobby with a cocktail in hand, or getting their boots shined at the original shoe shine stand. It is a magnificent historic hotel.
Inside Hotel El Rancho is a delicious American Mexican restaurant that I like to stop in to have a meal before I get back on the road, and after I walk the lobby. My favorite dish is ‘The Rita Moreno’, named after one of my favorite classic movie stars. It is a flavorful plate of three enchiladas with a side of rice and beans. This full meal makes for a pleasing and filling stop while on a long road trip.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
Route 66 played an integral part to this city’s history, and today is still important to Albuquerque’s cultural heartbeat. Along Central Avenue, historic Route 66 brings visitors to the city’s most interesting neighborhoods. There are lit up neon signs, eclectic shops and fantastic restaurants.
My favorite location in Albuquerque is the historic Old Town district for its Southwestern charm, and friendly atmosphere. Old town, founded in 1706, is a nationally designated historic site. Many of the buildings are constructed from adobe (mud brick) with large beamed ceilings. It is a magnificent place to stroll, do some shopping, and to try New Mexican cuisine.
Albuquerque is the largest city in New Mexico, so one will always find something interesting to see and do here.
Church Street Café
We were introduced to Church Street Café over a decade ago when our hotel in the historic district of the city suggested it. We were hooked and came back again a couple years later when we were road tripping through New Mexico. The restaurant is located inside of Casa de Ruiz, which was constructed sometime after 1706. This would make Casa de Ruiz the oldest residence in Albuquerque, as well as one of the oldest structures in New Mexico.
The food was excellent, especially their old fashioned chile rellenos and sopapillas. Their red chile sauce and salsa are terrific as well, and you can purchase them jarred to bring home. Church Street Café is our favorite Albuquerque restaurant in the historic district for their delicious Southwestern flavors, and the ambiance of Casa de Ruiz.
Restaurant information- Church Street Cafe
Santa Fe, New Mexico
Santa Fe is my favorite city in New Mexico, hands down! It is one the most historic cities in America and dates back to 1610, when it became the capitol of Nuevo Mexico. The old adobe buildings and southwestern architecture is what I love about Santa Fe, as well as its tremendous art and culture scene. This little New Mexico city is considered one of the world’s best art cities and is also recognized by UNESCO’s Creative Cities Network, since 2005.
Historic Route 66 did originally pass through Santa Fe during its earlier alignments, and passed alongside the downtown Plaza. More than a decade later in 1938, the road was redirected and was directly aligned to Albuquerque.
For more information and places to see in Santa Fe, please visit – SANTA FE – My Favorite Southwest Town | Exploring New Mexico
Santa Rosa, New Mexico
Santa Rosa was another important and popular town along Historic Route 66. The city is located in-between Albuquerque and Tucumcari. During its heyday, this stretch of 66 was lined with businesses for those traveling- motels, restaurants, cafes, bars, shops and auto services. It may not seem like much today, but you can still catch glimpses of old Roadside America when passing through.
Comet II Restaurant – Santa Rosa, New Mexico
Comet II located along Historic Route 66 is a retro diner and drive-in that boasts “The Best Mexican Food in Town”. This old school diner is exactly what you would picture while traveling the ‘Mother Road’. It has been open since the late 1920’s and is the oldest restaurant in Santa Rosa.
The food was very good here and served in a retro diner way, on inexpensive plates and plastic bowls. They offer a big menu with North New Mexican specialties, sandwiches, seafood and burgers. Since this is the best Mexican food restaurant in town, I ordered the enchiladas and they were delicious! For seating, I decided to sit at the long lunch counter instead of getting a booth. It just looked cooler and it felt right, especially in a place such as Comet.
For restaurant information, please visit Comet II Restaurant & Drive-In.
Tucamcari, New Mexico
I love saying the name of this town, “Tucumcari”. The name sounds like it just belongs in the Southwest, and along Historic Route 66. Truth be told, this town is my favorite stretch in New Mexico for its original kitchy signs, and Roadside America architecture. I have spent hours just getting out of my car to explore and take pictures of Tucumcari, it is a classic piece of vintage America.
I first read about Del’s in ‘1,000 Places to See Before You Die’ book by Patricia Schultz. That has been my travel bible for over a decade and has never steered me wrong. Del’s Restaurant is a special place along Historic Route 66 in Tucumcari, New Mexico. It opened in 1956 and has been serving the best Chicken Fried Steak for decades.
Del’s is a steakhouse but does offer seafood, and chicken dishes as well. If you do find yourself here, please order the steak fries or the chicken fried steak. The battered fried steak dishes are the best that I have tried. It was very difficult for me to order chicken fried steak for years in other restaurants after I had it at Del’s, just a warning!
For restaurant information, please visit – Del’s Restaurant
New Mexico Food Scene
New Mexico is one of my favorite Southwestern states to road trip through, and I have done it many times in the last twenty years. Main Street America aka Highway 40 goes right though New Mexico, and parts of old Route 66 still exist in this state. The food scene in New Mexico is full of flavor, and probably why I like driving through it.
My favorite city to eat in is Santa Fe, which is also my favorite city in New Mexico. The flavors of this state have a Mexican food base, but are different due to the cultures and region. There is a mix of Native American and contemporary flavors, along with the traditional red and green chile sauces that are specific to this state. New Mexican cuisine is amazing and I now want to take another road trip just to eat in Santa Fe!
For my New Mexico food blog, reviews and recommendations – What I ate in NEW MEXICO | A Food Journal
Additional New Mexico Locations
Although not along Historic Route 66 or Interstate 40, there are a couple of other places worth mentioning- Roswell and the Carlsbad Caverns National Park. Both locations are a few hours south of I-40, and can easily be done in two to three days while traveling through New Mexico
Roswell, New Mexico
The city of Roswell in New Mexico definitely owns it when it comes to their extra-terrestrial lifestyle. This tourist town of about 50,000 people is located in the southwest corner of New Mexico, and is world famous for an alleged UFO incident in 1947. It is also a two hour drive away from Carlsbad Caverns National Park, which makes it a natural stop while visiting the caves.
More Information – The International UFO Museum & Research Center | Roswell, NM
This museum is also a research center, and was organized to inform the public about the Roswell Incident that occurred in 1947. It is dedicated to the preservation and collection of written, audio and visual information and materials that were related to that event. This museum also contains additional data of many other unexplained phenomena that is related to UFO research. The International UFO Museum and Research Center is known as the leading source for information on the history, science and research of global UFO events.
Carlsbad Caverns National Park
Exploring Carlsbad Caverns was the best underground experience that I have done in my lifetime. I have gone below the earth’s surface on many occasions from caverns to mines, and these southeastern New Mexico caverns were phenomenal. If you were to visit one cavern system only once in your lifetime, Carlsbad Caverns National Park would be the best one to experience.
The inside of the caverns are easily accessible with railings and paved walkways. Although it is dimly lit inside, you can bring a flashlight or a head lamp although it is not necessary. Your eyes will adjust but I did see several people carrying lights throughout the caverns. Make sure to wear covered and comfortable shoes as well, because you will be doing a lot of walking, and there are natural wet areas due to water dripping from the cavern walls.
More Information – Carlsbad Caverns National Park, New Mexico | A UNESCO World Heritage Site
Get your kicks on Route 66…– Nat King Cole
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