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 images as you explore this little slice of Americana.
Today’s travel selection should give you a good taste of the legendary Route 66, as Eastern New Mexico has some of the best collection of historical motels, souvenir shops, and restaurants from the nostalgic age of the highway…many with neon signs to match. Here’s an overview of what you can still experience from Glenrio to Santa Rosa. Today we’re headed west, so get your RV stocked and let’s hit the road!
Starting at the state line, Glenrio, New Mexico is nothing more than a spot on the asphalt today. But back in its heyday the town attached most of its dreams to the new highway that came to the area in 1926, building establishments to serve the influx of travelers. Today you can still find a preserved café and gas station, both built in the popular art deco design during the height of Route 66’s popularity. There is also an old motel that could use a little sprucing up, but it is definitely worth a drive-by.
Just to the west of town, the road becomes gravel, so you may want to jump back onto Interstate 40 for 21 miles, as the prairie quickly transforms to a desert landscape.
At San Jon, you’ll find one old gas station-turned-auto-parts store on Main Street that is a hold-over from bygone days, but not much else exists for Mother Road enthusiasts here. I-40 is your best bet to keep heading west toward Tucumcari. And keep your eye out for “Tucumcari Tonite” billboards along the way.
Twenty-six miles later you should arrive at a most unusual place—one supposedly named for two star-crossed Native American lovers: Tocom and Kari. This desert town got its start as a railroad camp but found fame and economic growth when the highway system paved straight through its center.
A trip to the Tucumcari of today will satisfy every Route 66 admirer’s dream—it is filled with old motels, restaurants, and curio shops from the original days of automotive exploration. At the top of most wish lists is the Blue Swallow Motel, complete with neon sign and vintage Pontiac parked out front. You can book a room here for around $70 and feel like you’ve been transported back to the 1950s or come back at night to photograph the establishment in all its lighted glory.
The Buckaroo Motel down the road has a great sign with a cowboy on a bucking bronco, but the neon at night declared it to be “The Buckaroo Mo.” Don’t miss Safari Motel with its camel sign and “Squeaky Clean” rooms, or if you want to trade your RV in for a night’s stay in this little beauty with Betty Boop, here’s your chance!
Tee Pee Curios looks just like its name—a kitschy souvenir shop in the shape of a teepee. Be sure to stock up on Mother Road collectibles, postcards, and jewelry before cruising down the rest of The Route. Then search for several vintage service stations with original gas pumps and even one with its own cockroaches!
As you can see, wall murals abound in Tucumcari, so keep your eyes open for paintings of Marilyn Monroe and Clark Gable admiring a Chevy Corvette (and each other), legendary automobiles painted within the surrounding landscape, and the entire town of Tucumcari artistically represented on the side of a business. If you look closely, you’ll also find buildings and signs in the shapes of Mexican sombreros and thunderbirds as you head out of town toward your final tour destination.
Your last stop on this section of The Mother Road is about an hour to the west at Santa Rosa, New Mexico. Famous for its vast Blue Hole, this little town was full of hospitality and great food during the highway’s pinnacle. Many travelers followed the direction of billboards and ate where the “Fat Man” suggested: the Club Café, which sadly closed its doors in 1992.
The Blue Hole is an artesian well that is 80 feet deep and 80 feet in diameter, with water that is so clear scuba divers come from miles around to practice their craft. It’s been a staple in Santa Rosa long before Route 66 passed through, but it’s a great place to cool off, especially in the desert heat.
There are several motels that were operational when The Route was popular, and many still cater to travelers. But one fun attraction may catch your eye…a bright yellow roadster posted 30 feet off the ground announcing the “Route 66 Auto Museum.” For $5 you can go inside and enjoy about 30 restored relics from the days when automotive transportation was celebrated. If you prefer, there are several restorations outside to see at no cost.
Well, you’ve just completed about 100 miles on this section of the famed Route 66 highway through eastern New Mexico, but your travel back in time probably felt like decades! You can, of course, spend as much or as little time to meander through these areas—I took a long weekend for this route, hoping to capture both day and night images, indulge in local foods and soak in the attraction of this most unique American trail.
Next, we’ll tackle the original alignment of the Mother Road, jumping into the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and Santa Fe, before dropping back down into Albuquerque, or as I like to call it, “Route 66 Central.” Then it’s on to the rest of this iconic and beautiful road.
You can drive the rest of Route 66 with our other “Get Your Pics on Route 66” articles. Read the entire series.