New Mexico’s Mother Road provides the Route 66 enthusiast with a variety of landscapes, from beautiful mountain ranges to sandstone mesas, desert sagebrush, ponderosa pines, and ghost towns. Along the vintage pavement in the Land of Enchantment, you will also see ancient pueblo cities, abandoned motels, neon signs and an eclectic mix of ancient and contemporary cultures. Dating back thousands of years, you are sure to enjoy New Mexico’s rich history, beginning with the Native Americans, continuing through the Wild West days, into the era of the Mother Road, and beyond.
Crossing the entire state of New Mexico, Route 66 was created when the state was only 14 years old, becoming the gateway to the southwest. New Mexico Governor A.T. Hannett introduced Route 66 to the state in 1926 and was instrumental in leading the charge for the National Highway System that was formed in 1927.
In the beginning, the meandering roadway was little more than 500 miles of gravel road slicing together many former trails that had been used for wagon trains and railroads. However, at a time when New Mexico’s economic condition was on a downward spiral, the Mother Road put hundreds of unemployed men to work when the state began to pave the roadway. From 1926 to 1937, historic 66 meandered north, through the upper Pecos Valley to Santa Fe and then turned south through Sandoval County to Albuquerque and on into Valencia County and Los Lunas. When the later fully paved alignment was completed in 1938, 126 miles had been shaved from the route, bypassing the many small towns of the Pecos Valley and Santa Fe.
Today there are over 260 miles of pre-interstate era Route 66 that remains drivable. In a few places, the old road is still designated as a state highway, although none continue to carry the U.S. 66 designation. Other portions have reverted back to county or tribal maintenance. The remaining miles have long since been “covered over” with the superhighway, I-40.
To further the preservation of the Mother Road and the many historic landmarks along the old sections of the highway, New Mexico established those original roads still open to traffic as a National Scenic Byway in 1994. Starting at the New Mexico-Texas State Line, the byway travels more than 300 miles through compelling, scenic, and dramatic stretches of the famed highway, offering travelers a quintessential motoring experience.
Another major undertaking in New Mexico was the Route 66 Neon Sign Restoration project by the New Mexico Route 66 Association. The Association has led a tremendous effort along Route 66, restoring vintage neon signs in Tucumcari, Santa Rosa, Moriarty, Albuquerque, Grants and Gallup. As a result, business owners, as well as entire communities, have a renewed pride in their Mother Road heritage. The project is a partnership of the New Mexico Route 66 Association, the New Mexico Historic Preservation Division, and the National Park Service Route 66 Corridor Preservation Office.
Your westbound journey through the Land of Enchantment begins at the ghost town of Glenrio, straddling the Texas and New Mexico border. Beyond Glenrio is a 20-mile gravel stretch of the old highway to San Jon. This was the last remaining segment of Route 66 before it became I-40 in 1982. Along this dusty road, you can get the flavor of early-day travel on the Mother Road through vast ranchlands and the tiny long-dead communities of Endee and Bard. The accommodations and services that were once available to those long-ago travelers have all closed until you long-ago. The stretch from Glenrio to San Jon is almost all dirt and gravel and the bridges along this original stretch have load limits of eight tons.
From San Jon, travelers can drive an almost entirely intact 24-mile paved chunk of Route 66 all the way to Tucumcari. Cedar Hill, just west of San Jon, was a major stop for travelers, particularly those going east because the steep hill would cause radiators to boil over. The remains of a small motel and general store can still be seen. The roof of the store is shingled with flattened metal oil cans.
Along the stretch to Tucumcari, the early roadbed paralleled the Tucumcari and Memphis Railroad, constructed in 1910 and abandoned in 1954. Today, travelers can still see the old wood and steel bridge supports to the side of the highway.
Along Tucumcari Boulevard, you will see a long stretch of the authentic Mother Road, where you can enjoy many vintage 1940’s and 50’s icons including the Cactus Motor Lodge, Lasso Motel, the Pine Lodge, the Blue Swallow Motel, Teepee Curios, the Westerner Drive-in, The Palomino, and Travelodge Motel, and Del’s Restaurant. The Tucumcari-Quay County Chamber of Commerce has a wonderful, four-color brochure on Route 66, so be sure to ask for a copy at either the museum or at the Chamber’s office. The brochure also outlines a special Route 66 history tour of Tucumcari.
From Tucumcari, travel approximately 10 miles west on I-40 to the Palomas Exit, at which point the drive returns to Historic Route 66.
This section of the Mother Road travels along the Union Pacific Railroad tracks through ranch lands surrounded by scenic mesas on each side of the road. By crossing I-40 at Montoya, you will continue on the Mother Road into Guadalupe County.
Located on Hwy 54, 21 miles west of Tucumcari, the ghost town of Montoya started when the Southern Pacific Railroad came through. Montoya’s once busy Richardson’s Store & Gas Station (1925) begins an almost uninterrupted 38 miles of old Route 66, through the tiny ghost towns of Newkirk and Cuervo, all the way to the west side of Santa Rosa. Montoya Mesa stands out with the washes of Caliche, a nitrate-bearing gravel, down the side. These deposits of Caliche were used to build the roadbeds for I-40 and to surface many unpaved roads in Quay and Guadalupe counties.
The 4,984-foot Cuervito Peak is one mile northwest of the village of Cuervo. Continuing your journey, return to I-40 at Cuervo and take exit 277 into Santa Rosa.