Route 66, the iconic “Mother Road,” winds its way from Chicago, Illinois to Santa Monica, California. Taking a year to travel the entire route would be great, but if you don’t have the time for a sabbatical, why not conquer this icon of American transportation history in chunks? We’re going to help you do just that with a series called Get Your Pics on Route 66 in hopes that you’ll capture some great memories and images as you explore this little slice of Americana.
Today’s section of Route 66 in Central New Mexico covers the original alignment of the road, dating back to 1926 through 1937. Because we’ll be heading west, start at what became known as the Santa Rosa Cutoff. We’ve covered the town of Santa Rosa in our Eastern New Mexico segment. So head northwest from there on Highway 84 toward Las Vegas (New Mexico, that is!).
The Mother Road never quite made it to Las Vegas but followed what is today US Highway 84 through Romeroville, on its way to the state capital of Santa Fe. Because Route 66 was laid out along the old Ozark Trail, this tiny little town marks the convergence of that famous pathway with an even more historic route—the Santa Fe Trail.
There is not much to see at Romeroville, but the fact that you are traveling a historical part of the famed highway that many people miss should give you pause. After patting yourself on the back, hop onto Interstate 25 heading west towards Santa Fe.
Travel 33 miles, then exit the interstate at the town of Rowe and take Highway 63 towards Pecos, New Mexico. Congratulations! You are back on original Route 66 pavement!
Today the ancient ruins in Pecos National Historical Park look very much as they did when travelers along the Santa Fe Trail would venture to see the old Spanish church and Pueblo. They were about 30 miles from their destination, but taking a short rest while climbing Glorieta Pass was certainly needed. They stopped at Koslowski’s Stage Stop to rest their stock, while they enjoyed fresh trout from the Pecos River and a good night’s rest in a soft bed, before finishing their journey into Santa Fe.
You, too, can explore the adobe mission and the Cicuye pueblo. Crawl down into a kiva (but check for rattlesnakes first). Hike the loop trail and see the wisdom in establishing this community in a location with great defensive attributes and control of several trading routes. Admire the stubborn Spanish explorers who built not one, but four churches here to minister to the locals. Then take a guided tour of the Forked Lightning Ranch, which has a rough-and-tumble history of its own, including rodeo promoters, oil barons, and Hollywood actresses.
When you’ve soaked in the history of Native Americans, Spanish explorers, Santa Fe Trail settlers, Civil War soldiers, and Mother Road enthusiasts who all left their mark on this area, I think you’ll agree that Pecos is an undiscovered gem in North-Central New Mexico!
Climb back onto I-25 west to follow the first alignment of Route 66 into Santa Fe on Old Santa Fe Trail Road. If you are traveling by motorhome or with a travel trailer, please park it outside of the downtown district, as roads are narrow and winding. Take your toad into the city or call Uber for a lift, because you won’t want to miss the historic Santa Fe Plaza and all it encompasses!
You’ll not find a town more taken with art, great food and its own colorful history than this, the second oldest city in America. And even though there’s not much here in the way of Route 66 reminders, you will want to wander the downtown streets (and especially Canyon Road) in search of sculpture, paintings, mixed media, photography and pottery—all authentic and enticing. Keep your eye out for restaurants specializing in New Mexican cuisine and take a gamble—you won’t be sorry.
Take a moment to relax on a bench in The Plaza and envision first, Pueblo Indians numbering in the hundreds of thousands wandering this area. Then imagine the Spanish, then Mexican peoples inhabiting the adobe buildings around you. Finally, can you see the wearied travelers from the Santa Fe Trail rolling into town at the end of their 1,000-mile journey? It’s too bad that Route 66 motorists were only directed right to this plaza for 11 years before the highway was redirected. Look what the others have missed since then!
It would be easy to spend weeks, if not months exploring the area around this capital city, but when you are ready to finish this section of the famed Mother Road, enter I-25 heading south toward Albuquerque.
Exit the interstate at Bernalillo on US Highway 550, heading west. Turn south onto Highway 313 to follow the original path of Route 66 into Albuquerque on the Camino Real. As 313 enters Albuquerque it becomes Fourth Street.
Only an hour from Santa Fe, Albuquerque holds more memorabilia of Route 66 than any other town along its 2,448-mile path. The town has embraced its history along the highway, incorporating much of the path’s iconic buildings and businesses into its bustling environment.
As you travel Fourth Avenue into town you will eventually cross Central Avenue right downtown. So now you are literally at a crossroads: old alignment or new? Let’s visit both! Start by following Fourth Street south.
In the original alignment of The Route, transportation-oriented businesses began to appear on South Fourth Street, catering to the needs of travelers along the highway. Today you can still see the influence of this first path in the architecture of buildings like the Red Ball Café and B. Ruppe Drugs in the Barelas-South Fourth Historic District. Several homes have the rounded adobe corners and porthole windows from the late 1920s and 1930s. But the popularity of Route 66 moved to what is now Central Avenue in 1937 when the highway was redirected.
If you would like to continue on the old alignment, hop back onto Interstate 25 south and exit at Los Lunas on Main Street heading east. Cross the railroad tracks and on the northwest corner of Main and Highway 314, you’ll see one of the last relics from the original route in this area—the Otero 66 Gas Station. It currently is the Route 66 Smokes Shop and has been remodeled several times over the years, but has retained that small cottage style design.
It is in Los Lunas that “old” Route 66 left its north-south configuration and ventured west once again. There is not much left to explore between here and where the road hooks up with “new” Route 66, so let’s go back to Albuquerque and Central Avenue to see what’s left of the more recent trial.
Central Avenue is today’s Route 66. From I-25 if you exit east on Central, you’ll first come to the University of New Mexico campus. Across the street is a nice holdover from The Route’s heydays – the Frontier Restaurant. A newer addition to Route 66, as it was opened in 1971, this eatery is popular not only with college students but locals and out-of-towners alike. The breakfast burrito with green chili is to die for!
Continuing east the path of the Mother Road is evident for several miles in the design of maintained shops, motels, and neon signs from another age. Albuquerque has protected and even encouraged preservation from the earlier age of automotive transportation, as many new businesses have inhabited the older buildings, bringing new life to a bygone era. Paul Bunyan still hangs out on top of May Café here, and Kelly’s has taken an old service station and transformed it into a hip new eatery. Check out all the vintage shops, old theater signs, and motels that still line this newer version of Route 66. It’s easy to envision a simpler time where “cruising” was all the rage!
For your final trip down Memory Lane, turn around and head west, going under I-25 toward downtown. There is a plethora of nostalgic attractions in this area, along with some new quirky additions for Route 66 fans of all ages.
The Kimo Theater is still in operation with its ornate exterior AND interior. Don’t miss an opportunity to peek inside if you can. Then stand outside the theater and look across the street for the Library Bar and Grill. The building is a little unique, with several new “edible” book titles adorning the exterior. It’s enough to give you hunger pangs!
Keep heading west and you’ll come across The Dog House (just in case you didn’t eat at The Library!) and eventually you will pass several motor courts, some still in operation…others, not so much. Be sure to enjoy those with “refrigerated air” and the “nonsmokers motel.”
When you’ve reached the end of Route 66 neon, you’ll know it, as a brand new lighted sign hangs over the entire roadway—an homage, if you will, to an era that brought Albuquerque a good deal of tourism and business. It also marks the end of our journey today on this unique highway through Central New Mexico. Be sure to join us when we take a bite of Route 66 out of Western New Mexico. It’s a whole new world out there—one full of native American pueblos, Hollywood movie sets, and the wide open road. You don’t want to miss it!
You can drive the rest of Route 66 with our other “Get Your Pics on Route 66” articles. Read the entire series.