Enchanted Travels: Route 66 in New Mexico

With a long and storied history covering more than a millennium, there is no shortage of beautiful historical sites, ruins, and places to explore in the Land of Enchantment. Despite being much more recent historically, there is just as much 20th Century Americana waiting to be discovered. Our love for Route 66 began in Tucumcari more than 10 years ago, so we were excited to go back to where it all began and we spent four days hunting for neon, making music, and even renewing our vows. Come along for the ride as we explore the 379 miles of the Mother Road through the Land of Enchantment.

What to Do

Drive the Original Alignment from Glenrio to San Jon
As you head west from Glenrio on the Texas-New Mexico border, there are two options: 1) turn around, head back to Exit 0, and hop on westbound I-40; or 2) continue driving west out of town, following the original alignment of Route 66 as it heads to San Jon (pronounced San Hone). Here, the pavement ends, and nothing lies ahead but a dirt road and the wide-open New Mexico plains. At the time of its creation in 1926, this 18-mile stretch of road between the two towns paralleled the Chicago, Rock Island, and Pacific Railroad, and was paved for a time in the 1930s, before the county decided it was too expensive to maintain and removed the paving in favor of gravel. With the railroad tracks no longer in use, and the traffic moving by on I-40 a few miles to the north, there is nothing but you, the plains, and a few remains on this drive that shouldn’t be missed.

Five miles west of Glenrio lies the ghost town of Endee. Named for the ND Ranch, it was once a truly “Wild West” town. Legend says that a ditch was dug each Saturday to bury the losers of gunfights on Sunday. At one time, it had more than 100 residents and served Route 66 travelers with a gas station, motor court, garage, and grocery. Little remains now but a few long-forgotten structures and a building boasting “Modern Restrooms”. A neat place to step back in time and also appreciate modern plumbing.

About 13 miles west of Glenrio, you’ll quickly pass by the very little that remains of the town of Bard. Established as a siding for the railroad in 1906, it was named either for the local Bar-D Ranch or for a railway siding in Texas. Not unlike its neighbor to the east, Bard was also a rowdy town where gunfights were common. Prior to the interstate’s arrival, Route 66 travelers could find a gas station and store. Now, just a few crumbling foundations remain.

Get Married/Renew Your Vows at the Route 66 Wedding Chapel- Tucumcari
We’ve always joked about how fun and kitschy it would be to renew our vows in Vegas at a drive-thru chapel. When we discovered there was a chance to renew our vows on Route 66, we knew it was an experience that we weren’t going to pass up. Not a place that you would expect to be on a list of dog-friendly places to visit on Route 66, our experience was fabulous (we can’t say enough great things about the owner, Leigh, and her employee, Jean) and one of the most dog-friendly of our entire trip. Finley was not just allowed, but enthusiastically welcomed to join us for the entire vow renewal- and was even provided with a bow tie and cuffs! Everything was super casual per our request and Finley had so much fun running around the chapel and posing for pictures. We had such a blast that we stayed to get our pictures taken at Mother Road Old Time Photos (in the same building, also owned by the same couple). This is a unique and memorable experience and a perfect way to get some photos where the dog is actually looking at the camera.

*We’ve recently learned that the Route 66 Wedding Chapel and Mother Road Old Time Photos will be closing soon and potentially relocating to Nashville. Despite their leaving, we had such an unforgettable experience that we still want to share it with other travelers. Wishing them the best of luck in all of their future endeavors!

Bask in the Neon Glow- Tucumcari
At one time, it was impossible to drive Route 66 through New Mexico and not see giant billboards claiming “Tucumcari Tonite! 2000 Motel Rooms”. Although it no longer boasts even close to 2000 rooms, the catchy alliterative slogan from the Mother Road’s heyday lives on in advertising, appears in murals on the sides of buildings throughout town, and is even immortalized on a sign located next to the historic Motel Safari. While many of the old motels and many their elaborate signs are gone, some very cool neon signs live on and still light up the night.

One of the most recognizable neon signs on all of Route 66, the Blue Swallow Motel opened in 1940. Originally named the Blue Swallow Court, it offered ten rooms with attached garages. Over the years, two more rooms were added, and the now iconic and absolutely fabulous neon sign was installed in the 50s. One of the most popular motels on Route 66, we haven’t had a chance to stay here since we always stayed in town with Finley but look forward to doing so someday.

The Americana Motel in Tucumcari, NM began life as an auto court called the State Motor Lodge. New owners in the ‘30s renamed it the Desert Air Motel, and added the still in-use sign that once had a cactus atop it, (most likely) in the 1950s. As the ubiquitous Whiting Bros chain started to branch out from gas to lodging, they purchased this motel and branded it as their own. Eventually, Whiting Bros sold off their motels, and based on pictures it appears that the new owners kept much of the original neon sign.

Tee Pee Curios began life as a Gulf station in the 1940s. When Route 66 was widened some years later, the station’s pumps had to removed. No longer able to sell gas, the station became a curio shop, adding the teepee entrance in 1959 and the neon sign sometime in the mid-1960s. The last of Route 66’s curio shops in New Mexico, you’re sure to find a great souvenir and be warmly greeted by the owners and their adorable dog lounging in his own vintage chair.

Make Music in Tijeras Canyon- Albuquerque
Just east of Albuquerque, in Tijeras Canyon, is the Musical Highway. Created in 2014 by the National Geographic Channel for their show, “Crowd Control”, in partnership with the New Mexico Department of Transportation, engineers created a series of grooves similar to rumble strips, on a quarter-mile stretch of roadway that when traveled at exactly 45 mph plays America the Beautiful. Go any faster or slower, or if you drift off the grooves, and you won’t be treated to this impressive (and way more fun than expected) piece of engineering. Some claim that the wear and tear that come with cars constantly traveling over it has changed the tune a bit, but we didn’t notice. On our first pass through, we drifted a bit and missed the very beginning, so we did what any roadside attraction loving travelers would do- turned around and did it again.

Take a Car Selfie in the Shield- Grants
Of course you’ll be taking lots of family photos (and perhaps selfies) on your Route 66 travels. If you don’t want your vehicle to feel left out, then it is definitely worth visiting the Route 66 Neon Drive-Thru Sign in Grants. Although we passed through during the day and didn’t get a chance to experience the 18-foot tall drive-thru sign in all of its neon glory, we still had fun getting some souvenir pics of our road trip mobile, Lamont Cranston.

What to See

Vintage Signs- Santa Rosa
On the off chance that you didn’t get your neon and vintage sign fix in Tucumcari, head 60 miles west to Santa Rosa. While many visitors are drawn to town to visit the World Famous Santa Rosa Blue Hole, an 81-foot deep natural artisan spring popular for swimming and scuba diving, there is still plenty of reason to drive the length of Route 66 through town. Though many of the popular places from back in the heyday of Mother Road are now closed, their broken-down buildings and faded signs remain.

One of our most favorite signs along all of Route 66 is the Sun ‘n Sand Motel in Santa Rosa. Built in the ‘50s, the motel is no longer open; however, the brightly colored 40-foot Zia-inspired (the same symbol found on the New Mexico state flag) sign still stands and hopefully will continue to do so for many years to come.

The Sahara Cafe/Lounge has been closed for many years, but its 1950s-era sign still stands, and we make it a point to take a photo of it every time we pass through town.

Opened in 1946 with just eight units, the La Mesa Motel has changed ownership a few times in its 70+ year history, but is still open and serving Route 66 travelers, earning positive reviews. According to the amazing resource, Roadside Architecture, the sign is probably from the 1950s or 1960s, and continues to beckon drivers with its neon sign that still glows at night.

From 1935-1992, the Club Cafe and its Fat Man logo welcomed Route 66 travelers with a healthy home-cooked meal. After the cafe’s closing, the Fat Man made his way down the street to Joseph’s Bar and Grill, where he still greets customers with his smiling face. Sadly, what remained of the Club Cafe was demolished in 2015 and all that remains are the weather-beaten signs.

Roto-Sphere- Moriarty
Roto-Spheres are some of the coolest and largest neon signs ever created. More than 200 Roto-Spheres, often referred to as “sputniks” as many thought they were inspired by the Russian Sputnik, were produced between 1960 and 1971. Contrary to popular belief, creator and producer, Warren Milks, actually based the design on a child’s toy or ornament that he saw on television. Regardless of the source of inspiration, nothing screams Americana and roadside attraction like a roto-sphere, and the only one remaining on Route 66 sits atop the former El Comedor de Anayas Restaurant in Moriarty. Installed sometime in the 1960s, the brightly-colored sign (thanks to a restoration in the ’00s) no longer lights up or spins, but it’s still worth a stop to capture a photo of one of these few remaining atomic age-inspired beauties.

Clines Corners- Moriarty
For more than 80 years, Route 66 travelers have been stopping at Clines Corners to refuel their cars and bellies. Originally opened in 1934 at the intersection of New Mexico State Highways 6 and 2, a rerouting of Route 66 in 1937 led founder Roy Cline to move his gas station and cafe to its current location, in hopes of cashing in on Mother Road traffic. Long gone are the days of a small station off the side of the road, the Clines Corners of the 21st Century has over 30,000 square feet of retail items, multiple restaurants, and a newly opened RV park. Even if you’re not in need of gas, no drive through New Mexico on Route 66/I-40 is complete without a stop at Clines Corners.

Fort Chief Yellowhorse Trading Post- New Mexico/Arizona Border

Straddling the New Mexico/Arizona border, there is much to explore at the historic Fort Chief Yellowhorse Trading Post (not to be confused with the Chief Yellowhorse Trading Post a few hundred yards away, across the border in Lupton, AZ). Run by the Yellowhorse family that started the Chief Yellowhorse Trading Post in the 1950s, the Fort was added in 1979 with the hopes of attracting the attention of travelers on I-40. We were the only visitors when we stopped by and were lucky enough to meet the grandson of the original Chief Yellowhorse who warmly welcomed us, Finley included, into the trading post and encouraged us to explore the property. Photo ops and sniffertunities abound- you can pose with wooden natives, get some shady relief inside a teepee, and stand (or sit) in two states at one time. A retro roadside Americana stop not to miss.

Where to Stay

Historic Route 66 Motel- Tucumcari
Open since 1963, the Historic Route 66 Motel looks exactly like we imagined it did on the day it opened as the Royal Palacio Motel. Despite having a new name, the motel looks much as it did back in its mid-century heyday, thanks to the current owners who have done a fabulous job of remodeling and upgrading the property, including preserving many of the original furnishings. From the breeze blocks to the floor-to-ceiling windows to the retro turquoise-colored Naugahyde easy chairs, there is nothing not to love about this motel located in one of our favorite towns on all of Route 66.

The pet-friendly King Room that we stayed in was roomy, bright, and had the original (and very cool) sink of quartz inlaid in terrazzo. A short walk to Del’s Restaurant makes for an easy take-out dinner that you can enjoy in the room. Post-dinner and dessert (we enjoyed our piece of Ugly Crust Pie from the Midpoint Cafe in Adrian), we relaxed into the turquoise chairs for a perfect night of gin rummy and Frank Sinatra. Though there is an on-site espresso shop, Circa, that we’ve visited on previous trips through Tucumcari, it was closed when we were there, and its future plans were uncertain. We’re hopeful that it will reopen before travels take us through Tucumcari again. And we plan to be back soon!

Hotel Parq Central- Albuquerque
Originally built and opened in 1926 as the Santa Fe Hospital for employees of the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railroad; then later spending some years as Memorial Hospital, a private psychiatric hospital for children and teens, the Hotel Parq Central is hands-down one of the coolest places we’ve ever stayed. Completely redone and reopened in 2010, the rooms are spacious with huge picture windows and stylish furnishings that pay tribute to the building’s former life as a hospital. The hallways have display cases full of items salvaged its past, from eye charts to surgical tools; the cabinet for the TV looks like it came straight out of a hospital room (in a very cool, not creepy way); and instead of the standard “Do Not Disturb” or “Housekeeping”, the door tags read “Quarantine” and “Nurse!! Please Clean My Room”. Though there are rumors that the hotel is haunted, we’ve had no ghostly encounters and nothing but wonderful experiences.

Dogs are welcome (for a fee) throughout the hotel, excluding areas that serve food; and can enjoy the great park just behind the hotel, perfect for small walks. Even though you won’t be able to sit and enjoy the complimentary (and very tasty) breakfast, the incredibly helpful staff will give you a to-go box so that you can take some goodies to your room to eat. The rooftop Apothecary Lounge overlooking Central Ave/Route 66 has fun cocktails and an amazing view of downtown. Dogs aren’t allowed at the bar; but again, the friendly staff will mix up some drinks that you can take back to your room, so that you can enjoy them with your furry travel buddy. There are some small plates available in the Apothecary Lounge, but you may want to look elsewhere for dinner. Just around the corner, Holy Cow Burgers has a nice covered dog-friendly patio where you can enjoy a burger and beer, or if you feel like simply enjoying your super cool room, you can order from one of our favorite restaurants in town, Poki Poki, via Grubhub and have dinner delivered directly to your room. One of our most favorite hotels, we make every effort to stay here if our travels take us anywhere even close to Albuquerque!

Where to Eat

Kix on 66- Tucumcari
A trip down Route 66 isn’t complete without at least one meal in an authentic diner. Originally a Denny’s, Kix on 66 maintains the vintage mid-century diner feel and experience, food included. Serving traditional diner-style food for breakfast and lunch for people, Kix on 66 also has a dog-friendly patio, complete with a “Fur Friendly ‘Pet-io’ Menu”. Unfortunately, the morning that we dined was raining, so Finley didn’t get a chance to check out the patio or dog menu, but we enjoyed the tasty Mainstreet Extravaganza with two eggs over-easy, hash browns, and house made sausage. It wasn’t gourmet, but we didn’t expect it or want it to be; it was exactly as advertised and the perfect way to start the day before we took that left turn to Albuquerque.