This post is part of a series I’ve done on Route 66. In 2022, I drove the entirety of Route 66 from Chicago to Los Angeles. 2500 miles, 8 states, countless stories, and an endless stretch of small towns, neon, diners, motels, and roadside attractions. Read through all of my Route 66 posts here. They’re also linked at the end of this post. If you’re planning your own Route 66 road trip, either the whole thing or just a part, I hope these help you out. Enjoy the drive!
Westward ho! Honestly, this is the stretch of Route 66 that I was most excited to drive. Growing up in Tulsa, OK I’ve seen plenty of the Midwest and the Great Plains, but the Southwest seems so exotic.
And it didn’t disappoint! Heading west from Albuquerque those vast western landscapes really start to open up. Driving past mesa after mesa that seem to go on forever like long, pink ribbons, you half expect to see John Wayne or Clint Eastwood riding up on a horse.
Route 66 Albuquerque to Flagstaff
Albuquerque is the largest city in New Mexico with a 12+ mile stretch of Route 66 that’s honestly been pretty well preserved. There’s a LOT to see and do in Albuquerque. I spent a couple of nights here on my road trip and you can read all about it here.
It’s a great place to spend (at least one) night and I think the El Vado Hotel is the perfect place to stay. It’s a historic Route 66 motel that was saved from demolition to be completely restored to its former glory. Actually, probably a lot better than its former glory. They’ve kept all of the historic integrity and charm of the property, but really modernized it so it’s pretty comfy. Read my full review of the El Vado Hotel here.
Albuquerque, NM to Grants, NM
Leaving Albuquerque, Route 66 follows the interstate most of the way to Laguna.
Just before you come to the Laguna Casino, you’ll see the Rio Puerco Bridge. It was the longest single span steel truss bridge built in New Mexico and you can pull off the frontage road to get a better view.
Coming into Laguna, Route 66 splits away from the interstate in patches and it’s pretty scenic.
Route 66 borders (and in some places cuts through) the Laguna Reservation on this stretch, so be sure to keep an eye out for where you are and where you aren’t supposed to be. You’re fine driving down the road, but this isn’t the kind of place where you want to pull over and start poking around old buildings (you really shouldn’t be doing that anywhere ; )
Coming into Grants, you’ll start to see lava fields which I was not expecting. After doing a little research, it looks like the El Malpais National Monument is nearby (but south of the interstate) so that could be a nice diversion if you want to see and learn more (or collect your National Parks Passport stamp).
Grants is a sizable little town (hey, they’ve got a Walmart Supercenter!), but what they really have is an excess of old neon. Grants has a kind of “crumbly” vibe that makes you just want to photograph everything.
If you’re looking for something “to do,” the New Mexico Mining Museum is supposed to be pretty good. Inside, the Uranium Mining Museum is the only recreation of an underground uranium mine and it’s pretty hands on. If you have kids that are itching to get out of the car, I would hit it up.
Grants, NM to Gallup, NM
The road pulls away from the interstate in pretty long stretches between Grants and Gallup.
You won’t want to miss the Continental Divide. A photo op at the sign is a must and the view is honestly pretty great. If you’re like me and you have to look it up…the continental divide is the imaginary line down the middle of the continent where all of the rainfall west of it flows to the Pacific Ocean and all of the rainfall east of it flows to the Atlantic Ocean.
Here’s my personal opinion: the drive coming into Gallup is the most scenic stretch of Route 66. It’s exactly what I thought driving Route 66 through New Mexico and Arizona would be like. I didn’t make note of where it started when I was driving, but I’m going to say roughly around Prewitt, NM to the New Mexico/Arizona state line is where you’ll see the best sections of those iconic pink ribbon mesas.
Besides Tucumcari, Gallup ended up being one of my favorite Route 66 stops in New Mexico.
There’s some decent original neon on main street and while it hasn’t all been renovated and kept up, when I was standing on the corner and looking down the street, I felt like if I squinted and tilted my head, it was one of the most vintage looking stretches of Route 66 I came across. It had a feeling of being stuck in time.
So the reason I liked Gallup so much was because of the El Rancho Hotel. THIS IS A DO NOT MISS.
I didn’t spend the night in Gallup, but we stopped by for lunch and to take a look around and you’ve got to do at least that.
The El Rancho Hotel was Hollywood’s headquarters in the 1940s and 1950s. Built by R.E. “Griff” Griffith (brother of famous Hollywood director D.W. Griffith) in 1937, the El Rancho Hotel housed countless movie stars that were in the area to film movies. Remember those dreamy landscapes I was telling you about around Gallup? They were the backdrops for dozens of films during Hollywood’s golden heyday.
The El Rancho Hotel was considered one of the best hotels in the southwest, and it’s still something to see today. Every room is named and themed after a different movie star and the lobby is packed with memorabilia.
We had lunch (the “Rita Moreno” enchiladas were great) and did a little shopping at Ortega’s Indian Store. You’ve definitely got to stop here!
Gallup, NM to Petrified Forest National Park, AZ
It’s not terribly far from Gallup to the Arizona border. Route 66 deviates a little bit from the interstate in a few sections and passes some old trading post kitschy type places.
Almost immediately once you cross into Arizona, the topography surprisingly flattens out. At least it was surprising to me. I imagined I was going to be driving through canyons, red rock mesas, and stunningly dramatic landscapes all the way through Arizona. I guess I’ve seen Pixar’s Cars one too many times ; )
But anyways, if it’s dramatic landscapes you seek, it is dramatic landscapes you will find. In Arizona, where there’s a will there’s a way. So make your way to Petrified Forest National Park.
Petrified Forest National Park (which includes the Painted Desert) is the only National Park that Route 66 passes through and it’s a don’t miss.
Here’s what you need to know about visiting: Driving from Albuquerque, you’ll take exit 311 from I-40 and enter at the north entrance to the park. It’s $25/vehicle (if you’re going to be visiting many National Parks and Monuments on your trip out west, you may want to buy an America the Beautiful Pass for $80/year).
There’s a great visitor center near the entrance (don’t forget to get your passport stamped!) with gas and a little cafe. Once you’re in the park, it’s one long scenic road that goes through the Painted Desert and the Petrified Forest. You’ll exit the park on Highway 180 which will take you up to Holbrook.
The northern end of the park is mostly the Painted Desert and the southern end is the Petrified Forest.
While there are places you can hike, you can see pretty much the whole park from the car. There are a lot of places to pull over for a better view, and in general it’s a great accessible park. If you’ve got kids, older folks, or people who aren’t able to adventure much, you will be able to see soooooo much natural beauty just from the car.
If you do have a little extra time, I would plan to hike the Blue Mesa Trail. You can see it super good from the overlook but I bet it’s even better up close.
Also, near where you cross back over the interstate to go into the southern end of the park, there’s a little monument to Route 66. A 1932 Studebaker sits where Route 66 once cut through the park.
We spent about an hour and a half driving through the park, but most of that was spent in the Painted Desert section. Once I got farther down south to the Petrified Forest, it was starting to rain and sleet and we were playing beat the clock with the sunset so I was a lot more hurried in that section.
I would plan to spend about two hours in the park if you’re not planning to hike but also not just zooming through.
And for you Route 66 sticklers…when you exit the park at the south end and take 180 up to Holbrook, yes you will bypass a bit of Route 66 but it’s mostly all interstate anyways.
Petrified Forest National Park to Flagstaff, AZ
Once you leave the National Park, the stretch of Route 66 that takes you into Flagstaff is a good one. Not necessarily scenery-wise, but there are some good stops to make.
Holbrook is a drive thru town for me. There are some good signs and old buildings, but nothing to stop the car for. There is a Wigwam Motel in Holbrook, though. Wigwam motels are so nostalgic to see, but this one has definitely seen better days.
You are going to want to get out of the car at the Jack Rabbit Trading Post though. This is an old time famous Route 66 stop. They used to advertise pretty heavily up and down the route so it was exciting when you finally saw it, but it pretty much runs on nostalgia these days.
Photo ops abound on the property from the giant jack rabbit out front to the billboard across the street.
A lot of these old places on the route are struggling to hang on so if you stop to take pictures, it’s always a good idea to go inside and buy something to support them.
Next up is one of the most famous towns in Arizona. It didn’t make the line up in the big Route 66 song, but it definitely got its kicks in the Eagle’s 1972 hit Take It Easy.
Well I’m standing on a corner in Winslow, Arizona
And such a fine sight to see
It’s a girl, my Lord, in a flatbed Ford
Slowin’ down to take a look at me
Why yes, there is a corner in Winslow, Arizona. It’s actually a park that cashes in, eh commemorates, the classic song.
And let me tell you..Standin’ on the Corner is a hopping spot! I don’t know the last time I saw so many boomers taking selfies ; ) But seriously…they’ve got the flatbed Ford, a huge Route 66 shield on the pavement…it’s a huge draw.
My personal favorite spot in Winslow is La Posada Hotel. I didn’t stay the night here (in hindsight I totally would have), but we stopped in for lunch at the Turquoise Room and to take a look around.
It is SUCH a great historic hotel. La Posada is an old Harvey House that’s been completely renovated, but it’s retained all of its original character.
So you should definitely spend the night there, but even if you don’t…you need to visit for lunch. We had one of the best meals of our trip at the Turquoise Room. The cuisine is local and fresh (have you had enough diner food yet?) and it feels a little upscale without being very expensive.
Their signature soup was amazing (it’s a smooth black bean and cream of corn) and the crispy pork carnitas were great but what completely stole the show was the pumpkin cheesecake served with caramel gelato. We are STILL talking about it.
From Winona, the drive into Flagstaff is pretty much all interstate until you get near Flagstaff.
Confession: Flagstaff is my favorite town on Route 66. It’s amazing how quickly you go from the desert to the mountains and Flagstaff is STUNNING. I’ve written a full post about Route 66 in Flagstaff here.
Planning a Route 66 road trip? I’ve got all of the info you need!
I’ve written about my cross country road trip pretty extensively section by section. Read them all here: Part 1 (Chicago), Part 2 (Chicago to St. Louis), Part 3 (St. Louis), Part 4 (St. Louis to Springfield MO), Part 5 (Springfield, MO), Part 6 (Springfield, MO to Tulsa), Part 7 (Tulsa), Part 8 (Tulsa to OKC), Part 9 (OKC), Part 10 (OKC to Amarillo), Part 11 (Amarillo), Part 12 (Amarillo to Albuquerque), Part 13 (Albuquerque), Part 14 (Albuquerque to Flagstaff), Part 15 (Flagstaff), Part 16 (Flagstaff to San Bernardino), Part 17 (Los Angeles).
I’ve got the scoop on where to stay including the best Route 66 motels recommendations.
And finally, my final trip recap where I spill the beans on how many days you need, the best itinerary, my favorite don’t miss spots, and other tips.