Paint On, Drop In, Pig Out: Route 66 in Texas

Mention the Texas Panhandle and most people will likely envision wind sweeping across wide open fields of, well, nothing. Life on the Llano Estacado, or the Staked Plains, is not for the meek, with hot summers, cold winters, little rainfall, tornadoes, and dust storms. Constructed following the path of the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railroad, the 178 miles of Route 66 through Texas were an adventure, with large sections of the road remaining dirt (or mud) until the late 1930s. A number of small towns sprung up along the Route and not only survived, but thrived, until the all too familiar arrival of the interstate bypassed them and left them to wither on the high plains.

While they may not be the jam-packed, flourishing towns they once were (with the exception of Amarillo), you can still drop in to an art deco masterpiece, mind the gap, leave your mark, and partake in one of our favorite activities, donut tasting. And last but not least, grab your camera, a piece of pie, and celebrate making it halfway!

What to Do

Drop-in to the Tower Station and U-Drop Inn- Shamrock
The small town of Shamrock is home to what is perhaps the coolest former service station on Route 66. While its size holds true to the “everything’s bigger in Texas” mantra, particularly with its giant flared tower; the Tower Station and its adjacent U-Drop Inn Cafe are actually a gorgeous example of Art Deco, perhaps the last type of architecture you expect to find in the dusty, wind-blown Texas Panhandle.

The inspiration for the design came from John Nunn, who based it on the appearance of a nail stuck in the soil. Idea in hand, Nunn’s friend, J.M. Tindall designed the building and hired an architect to create blueprints for the gas station and cafe. In 1936, the impossible-to-miss station with its two towers, glowing green neon, glazed ceramic tiles, and geometric detailing, opened at the intersection of Route 66 and U.S. Route 83, one of the longest north-south highways in the country. Once construction was complete, Nunn hosted a contest to name the building. The winner? An eight year-old boy who won approximately $50 (roughly equivalent to a week’s worth of pay for a waitress) for suggesting the U-Drop Inn.

The only cafe within 100 miles of town when it opened, it was a popular stop for both locals and Mother Road travelers, with the local paper dubbing it “the swankiest of the swank eating places”. A sad story we’ve heard too many times, the station and cafe fell into a state of disrepair after the construction of nearby I-40. Thankfully though, the station was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1997; and in 1999, purchased by the First National Bank of Shamrock, who then gifted it to the city of Shamrock. With the aid of a federal grant, the station and cafe in all of its art deco gloriousness was restored and reopened as a visitor’s center.

On previous trips through Shamrock, we’ve always passed through at times when the station was closed, so we were excited to find it open and busy. Now home to the local visitor’s center and gift shop, the cafe and front office of the station have been redone to appear as they did in their heyday. The cafe no longer serves food, but the incredibly friendly volunteers brought Finley (and us) into the cafe and served him a fresh bowl of water. Definitely a stop not to miss!

Pose at the Route 66 Midpoint- Adrian
Head 1,139 miles west from Chicago and 1,139 miles east from Los Angeles and you’ll end up in Adrian, TX, the official midpoint of Route 66 and home of the Midpoint Cafe (be sure to grab a slice of the cafe’s famous “Ugly Crust Pie”). Opened in 1928, the Midpoint Cafe operated 24 hours a day back when Route 66 was in its prime. It went through a number of names before becoming the Midpoint Cafe in 1995 under the ownership of Fran Houser, the inspiration for Flo and her V-8 Cafe in the movie, Cars. Fran has since sold the cafe, but can be found next door at the Sunflower Station and couldn’t be any friendlier; plus, she has a Finley look-alike, Brodie, that hangs out in the shop with her. The cafe and midpoint is a must-stop on any 66 trip- food, photo ops, and friendly folks!

Drive the Jericho Gap- Alanreed
One of the most feared stretches of road back in the early days of Route 66, the Jericho Gap, located southwest of Alanreed, was an 18-mile stretch of unpaved muddy black soil. Cars routinely became stranded when the road was wet, providing locals in the nearby town of Jericho a living by pulling cars out of the mud. Rumor has it that the car retrieval services were so lucrative that locals would water down the road. Route 66 was rerouted in 1939 and the town of Jericho eventually succumbed to the lack of traffic; home now to nothing more than the whipping winds of the Texas Panhandle and the ruins of a tourist court and service station/grocery, it’s a piece of history now known by too few.

Only a small stretch of the original Jericho Gap can still be accessed on County Road B, but if you don’t mind getting off the interstate and taking a detour via dirt road, you can get some beautiful views (sans interstate) and the true early 66 traveling experience. Just be sure to watch the weather and mind the gap.

What to See

Glenrio Ghost Town- Glenrio
One of our favorite places on the Western portion of Route 66 is the ghost town of Glenrio. Straddling the borders of Texas and New Mexico, Glenrio began life as a stop for the Rock Island Railroad. As travel changed from rail to trail, a push for roads throughout the country lead to the construction of a new road right through Glenrio, which eventually became Route 66. With cars, come the need for gas, food, and lodging, and Glenrio became a neon oasis alone in the middle of the high plains, with the closest towns of Amarillo and Tucumcari, 73 and 41 miles away, respectively. Although the town was technically in both states, the federal government considered it a part of Texas. This meant that mail would be delivered to the Texas side, requiring the postmaster to carry the mailbag to the town’s post office on the New Mexico side for delivery. Another quirk of this bustling border town was that travelers would find gas stations only on the Texas side due to higher taxes in New Mexico, and bars on the New Mexico side because the Texas county was dry.

With the construction of I-40 bypassing the town in 1975, Glenrio quickly became a ghost town. With 17 buildings still standing including the State Line Motel with a sign boasting “First in Texas” and “Last in Texas”, depending on which direction you were traveling; and a weathered but still recognizable Valentine Diner, the remnants of once hopping Glenrio and its four-lane wide stretch of Route 66 were added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2007.

Although a bit rough-and-tumble, this is a magical place. We’ve traveled this section of Route 66 numerous times and regardless of our schedule or plans, we always make a stop in Glenrio. And every time we stop, we take a few moments to pull over, roll down the windows, breathe in the fresh air, soak up some sun, and imagine how amazing it would have been to cruise this strip of 66 when neon signs were a glowing beacon in the night sky and cars waited for hours to fill up at the pump to continue their travels down the Mother Road.

Palo Duro Canyon- Amarillo
Texas is not one to shy away from embracing the “bigger is better” philosophy, so it’s fitting that the second largest canyon in the U.S. is located in the Texas Panhandle in Palo Duro Canyon. Located 25 miles southeast of Amarillo, The Grand Canyon of Texas, is 120 miles long and provides some spectacular geologic eye-candy that feels out-of-place in the wide open plains of the Panhandle.

A small entrance fee gets you into the park and access to more than 30 miles of hiking trails. Despite our drizzly October day, we hit the Givens Spicer Lowry Trail and enjoyed the views, the solitude, and our first tarantula encounter. Be sure to drive through the park and stop at the Visitor’s Center to take a get a glimpse of the best view in the park. Just a short side trip off of Route 66, a visit to Palo Duro Canyon is definitely worth a stop.

First Phillips 66 Station in Texas- McLean
Opened in 1928 in McLean, this small cottage-style gas station was the first Phillips 66 in the state of Texas. Though it hasn’t pumped gas since the late ‘70s, it has been restored to its original appearance and is a must-stop for photos when traveling Route 66 through the Texas Panhandle.

Cadillac Ranch- Amarillo
One of Route 66’s more recognizably kitschy roadside stops, ten late-’40s to early-’60s era Caddys buried nose down in an east to west orientation, are known collectively as Cadillac Ranch. Created in 1974 by an art group from San Francisco, Ant Farm, with the assistance of Texas billionaire, Stanley Marsh 3, the cars are located on private property, but visiting and spray painting are encouraged. Occasionally the cars are repainted, including an instance in more recent years when the cars were restored to their original colors by Hampton Inn as part of a Route 66 restoration project; however, the newly restored cars made it less than 24 hours before the spray paint cans and graffiti artists made their way back.

Even if graffiti isn’t your thing, stopping to take the short walk out and explore the cars is well worth the time and photo opportunities. If you’ve always wanted to leave your mark with spray paint, this is definitely a stop not to miss.

What to Eat

Buttermilk Bar at The Donut Stop- Amarillo
Donut. Those five magical letters. Although we haven’t posted to our Donut Digest in a while, that doesn’t mean that we haven’t been researching (umm, devouring) donuts while on our travels. Initial research didn’t lead to us discovering The Donut Stop in Amarillo, rather a serious craving did. In search of a donut as we left Amarillo and headed towards Tucumcari, we discovered The Donut Stop in a nondescript strip mall on Route 66. Making donuts since 1974, it’s a pretty safe bet that these guys know what they are doing. Spoiler- they definitely know what they’re doing.

Perusing the menu, we came across the Buttermilk Bar. As usual, we chose a few different options and made the last-minute decision to include the mysterious Buttermilk Bar. Best decision ever. Log-shaped with a dark brown, almost burnt looking exterior, it’s not the prettiest donut you’ve ever seen, but it might well be the tastiest. It was vaguely reminiscent of a shortbread with a crunchy glazed exterior and fluffy yellow cake inside. Each bite was a harmonious blend of slightly burnt, but sweet (from the glaze) cake taste and had a buttermilk tang that was slightly sour and super tasty. Jay’s take: “Surprisingly addictive”; Jen’s (once she finished licking the crumbs out of the bag): “Awesome, I want like 3 more. Is it too late to turn around?”. She even went so far as to suggest that, “this might be the best donut I’ve ever eaten”. Wow.