Chilis & Pueblos…The Best Route 66 NEW MEXICO Attractions
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!
There’s something to love about every state that Route 66 passes through, but I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that I think New Mexico is my favorite.
First of all, New Mexico undoubtedly has the best neon on Route 66…by a longshot. And for me, Route 66 is all about the neon.
It also has some of the most sweeping landscapes and that real “western” imagery that I know a lot of people are looking for. The leg of the drive out around Gallup is pretty dreamy.
And add in all of the Native American culture that’s so highly concentrated in New Mexico and it’s a recipe for a FANTASTIC stretch of Route 66.
I’ve written pretty extensively about my Route 66 trip and you can read my play by play posts on the Amarillo to Albuquerque stretch, Albuquerque, and the Albuquerque to Flagstaff stretch, but this post is more of a postmortem or a post game wrap up, if you will. I’m writing these state by state posts to recap what I liked, what I loved, what I wasn’t very impressed with, etc.
I’ve got notes on what turned out to be my favorite spots and favorite restaurants plus recommendations of what I’d do differently next time. And I’ll also make recommendations on places that I would actually stay (because I’m not usually a $79/night motel kind of gal).
New Mexico Route 66
Okay, here we go…
Route 66 Towns in New Mexico
Let’s start off with a list of towns that Route 66 passes through in New Mexico so you can lay it out on a map. This is NOT every single town, there are just the ones that I personally found to be the most noteworthy.
My Favorite New Mexico Route 66 Attractions
Glenrio Ghost Town: Glenrio, NM
Glenrio straddles the Texas New Mexico border so it gets claimed by both states. If you’re driving westbound, Glenrio will be your first intro to New Mexico.
Glenrio is probably the best preserved ghost town along the route that I’ve seen so far.
There’s a motel, diner, and service station all in various stages of decay. They look frozen in time but also about the crumble and it perfectly represents what happened to so many little Route 66 towns that got bypassed by the interstate.
Teepee Curios: Tucumcari, NM
The first time I showed up in Tucumcari it was after dark and we just popped off the interstate real quick because I’d heard about the neon in town. Well we drove into town on the end of town where Teepee Curios and the Blue Swallow are (they’re pretty much across the street from each other), and I’m not going to lie, it felt like I was at Disneyland (Carsland is spectacular if you’ve never been).
I knew then that I had to come back when I had more time (and things were open), but the neon at Teepee Curios is just so stunning.
It’s a cute gift shop too with everything Route 66 themed you could imagine. There aren’t many places like this left along the route.
KiMo Theater: Albuquerque, NM
Architecturally speaking, the KiMo Theater is probably the most recognizable and distinct spot in Albuquerque. Opened in 1927, the “Pueblo Deco” picture palace combined the wildly popular art deco architecture style with Native American and Southwest culture. Built during an era when popular movie theaters were experimenting with Chinese and Egyptian styles (don’t miss those when you make it to Hollywood!), only a few theaters used the Native American style and the KiMo is considered the best.
The theater fell into disrepair in the 1960s and was badly damaged by a fire, but the city ended up purchasing the theater to try and restore and save it. The final round of renovations were completed in 2000 and today the theater hosts many events besides just movies.
Old Town: Albuquerque, NM
Albuquerque’s oldest neighborhood is home to 300 years of architecture and culture and if you’re not going to make it to Santa Fe on your Route 66 road trip, then you NEED to spend a little time in Old Town.
While Albuquerque has some really great Route 66 holdovers (neon, diners, and vintage motels galore!), part of what’s so great about driving the route is seeing how diverse America is. And Old Town is where you’ll get the best feel for what’s so special about New Mexico.
One of my favorites was Luna and Luz. It’s upstairs in the Plaza Don Luis so you probably won’t stumble upon it but they call themselves “modern west goods” and that’s usually a hit in my book.
Continental Divide: Between Grants & Gallup, NM
The Continental Divide: an imaginary line down the middle of the US where all of the rainfall west of it flows to the Pacific Ocean and all the rainfall to the east of it flows to the Atlantic. And it crosses Route 66!
It’s not like you can tell it’s the Continental Divide if it weren’t for the sign, but there’s something so “classic American road trip” about taking your picture at a sign that designates something important. And it’s a very good views.
Route 66 Auto Museum: Santa Rosa, NM
I’m not really much of a car person, but I’d read good things about the auto museum in Santa Rosa and there wasn’t much else in the area so I decided to stop and check it out.
It’s $5 per person and IT’S TOTALLY WORTH IT. It’s one man’s private collection and I seriously couldn’t have been more impressed. Besides the cars (of which there are around 30), there’s a ton of vintage memorabilia in the warehouse and it’s well air conditioned.
I’ll drop a bunch of photos here because I couldn’t even describe what I saw very well, but I will say that there were some teenage boys that came in with their parents while I was there and they were pretty thrilled. It’s definitely a place that the whole family can enjoy.
Where I Ate, What I Liked & Where I Would Go Next Time
Del’s Restaurant: Tucumcari, NM
We had dinner here and went back for breakfast the next day because we like it so much. There are several restaurants on the route in Tucumcari, but this one seemed the most “alive” and was full of locals and I think that’s always a good sign. There’s a fresh salad bar at dinner and everything from diner and home cooked favorites to New Mexican specials.
Breakfast was really solid…try the pancakes!
The Dog House: Albuquerque, NM
Route 66 is chock full of diners, dives, and drive-ins (hey somebody should make a show about that ; ) but the Dog House in Albuquerque is on my short list of best places on the entire route.
For starters, have you ever seen a BETTER neon sign? I don’t think so.
Next up, any place that serves burgers, fries, chili dogs, milkshakes, etc. to me in my car is a winner. The food was VERY good here and the car hops were friendly and speedy. There just aren’t many places anymore that have carhops so it’s more fun than a drive thru or a walk up window.
Frontier Cafe: Albuquerque, NM
After reading about all of the Route 66 famous breakfast spots in Albuquerque, I decided to go with the Frontier Cafe. It’s newer than some (opened in the 70s) so it doesn’t get as much talk as other spots, but it’s the place that looked most interesting to me. It’s right across from the University of New Mexico campus so it’s always hopping and it’s got a diverse clientele…students, old men with newspapers under their arms, families, etc.
Order at the counter and wait until they call your number. The breakfast burrito and pancakes were a solid combo.
El Rancho Hotel: Gallup, NM
This is a don’t miss for the history of this place alone and if you’re not spending the night you 100% need to at least stop and have a meal here. Also, I love that while they do have burgers and some diner food, the menu and specials focus on New Mexican classics so it’s a nice break.
This place really plays up its hollywood heritage so take a few minutes to wander around and look at all of the old photos.
And I highly recommend the “Rita Moreno” enchiladas.
Places I Would Actually Stay
I’ve mentioned before, but most of those $79/night roadside motels just aren’t for me. It has to be something pretty special to peak my interest and mostly I prefer something a little nicer.
That being said, New Mexico has several big time “vintage Route 66 motels” that I would (and did) actually stay in.
Blue Swallow Inn: Tucumcari, NM
Staying overnight at the Blue Swallow Inn should be at the tippy top of every Route 66 traveler’s bucket list. It’s been so pristinely preserved that it feels like it could be a movie set or in a museum or theme park (hello ever been to Carsland at Disneyland??), but it has such a great community atmosphere. Make reservations well in advance because it only has a dozen or so rooms and regularly sells out during peak travel seasons.
Motel Safari: Tucumcari, NM
Looks super cute and very well maintained! Mid century modern vibes (which I love) and the rooms look a bit more modern than the Blue Swallow.
El Vado Motel: Albuquerque, NM
Built in 1937, El Vado was one of New Mexico’s first motels and an absolute Route 66 icon. Like many of its day, the motel fell into disrepair (although it was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1993) until it was purchased by the city in 2010.
The property was completely renovated in 2018 (to stay true to the Spanish Revival style with Pueblo detailing) but modernized to combine elements of boutique hotels, gathering spaces, food pods, local shops, etc. and it’s pretty much perfect.
I think this is the perfect place to stay if you’re visiting Albuquerque (whether on a Route 66 trip or not). The rooms are well designed and modern, it has a fun vintage motel feel, there’s good dining and shopping onsite, you’re close to top attractions like Old Town and the ABQ BioPark, there’s a pool which is important because Albuquerque often feels like the surface of the sun, AND it’s pretty reasonably priced.
I’ve got a full review of my stay at El Vado in this post.
El Rancho Hotel: Gallup, NM
At the far western end of New Mexico where you see all those wide vistas made famous by Hollywood’s westerns, El Rancho Hotel opened in 1937 to serve Hollywood’s booming film operations in New Mexico. It was built by Griff Griffith (brother of director D.W. Griffith), and 85 years later it’s still a site to see.
I haven’t stayed here, but I stopped by for lunch and IT IS SO COOL.
I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves.
And don’t miss the Ortega’s Indian Store in the lobby. The Ortega Family (who now owns the hotel) has had a high end Native American jewelry store on the Plaza in Santa Fe for many years.
Other Things to See & Do in New Mexico BESIDES Route 66
This section is really important to me, because the whole point of driving Route 66 recreationally was to See America so besides all of the vintage, kitchy, and historic attractions on Route 66, I like to spend a little time focusing on what you might be able to see and experience in each state that’s unique to that part of the country.
New Mexico is one of my favorite states and I think it’s one of the most unique states in the country. Now, it’s a big state and Route 66 passes through the northern end so that’s where I’m mostly going to focus:
Santa Fe should be on the short list of “must visit cities” in the US. Forget Austin and Nashville, Santa Fe has the character, charm, and history that make it a noteworthy destination. It’s a city that doesn’t feel like every other city in the country.
Santa Fe was actually on one of the earlier Route 66 alignments before it settled through Albuquerque so it’s not a big stretch for a side trip. Things in the Sante Fe area that are worth your time: shopping for turquoise jewelry at the Indian market in front of the Governor’s Palace on the square, the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, Meow Wolf, Museum of Indian Arts and Culture.
Bandelier National Monument
North of Santa Fe, the Bandelier National Monument has an incredible collection of cliff dwellings and ancient pueblos.
About an hour north east of Santa Fe, Taos is one of New Mexico’s culturally richest towns. The Taos Pueblo is a MUST SEE. And I also really love the Harwood Museum and the Taos Art Museum at Fechin House. I’ve written a lot about Taos and you can read about things to do, where to eat, and where to shop.
Tour a Pueblo
Besides Taos Pueblo, there are over a dozen pueblos in New Mexico and many welcome visitors. I haven’t been yet but the Acoma Pueblo is supposed to be amazing.
Other Places in New Mexico
These spots aren’t anywhere near Route 66 and would take pretty big detours, but I thought they’d be worth a mention:
White Sands National Park
Carlsbad Caverns National Park
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).
Plus I’ve done roundups by state: Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, California.
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.