Across the New Mexico Continental Divide on Route 66

Continental Divide

Continental Divide

As you continue your journey westward from Grants, New Mexico, on Route 66, you’ll head out to several small villages, including Milan, Bluewater, Prewitt, and Thoreau, before reaching the Continental Divide.

This 31.4-mile segment was designated State Highway 6 in 1914 and is a part of the National Old Trails Highway. This trans-regional road association preceded the creation of the Federal highway system in 1926.

The road’s climb out of the Rio San Jose drainage toward the Continental Divide takes motorists out of an area known for its irrigated agriculture, especially carrots, in the 1940s. The discovery of uranium and the development of nearby mines in the 1950s is evident in distant tailing piles and settling ponds near Bluewater.

As the road begins to climb toward the Continental Divide, the highest point on Route 66 with an elevation of 7,263 feet, pastures give way to a pinyon and juniper landscape with Navajo homesteads, trading posts, and other businesses periodically lining the roadside. From Prewitt westward, Entrada sandstone cliffs parallel the road to the north, offering a stretch of spectacular unbroken red sandstone extending to the Arizona border. This roadbed remained gravel until the 1930s, when Federal funding resulted in projects to realign and pave the highway. Among these improvements was the elimination of two grade crossings by realigning the highway entirely south of the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe  Railway lines. As a result, Thoreau and other villages, which prospered with roadside commerce in the 1920s, saw businesses disappear or relocate in the late 1930s when Route 66 no longer passed along the towns’ main streets.

This road segment is now designated as NM 122 and serves as a frontage road along I-40 from west of Milan to the Continental Divide. The eastern 8.6-mile stretch is a divided four-lane road completed in 1951 when several sections of Route 66 in New Mexico were widened. The remaining 22.6 miles is a two-lane road, often closely paralleling I-40 and the tracks of the former AT&SF Railway as it climbs toward the Continental Divide.


El Ranchero Cafe in Milan, New Mexico by Kathy Alexander.

El Ranchero Cafe in Milan, New Mexico by Kathy Alexander.

Just three miles beyond Grants is the village of Milan, a suburb of Grants today. Before the uranium mining boom of the 1950s, Milan was not a town but rather a small cluster of service-related businesses catering to Route 66 travelers. However, with the mining success, the town was incorporated in 1957 and named for Salvador Milan, a major landholder in the area, and served as the town’s first mayor from 1957 until he died in 1970. Salvador Milan and his sister Mary were exiled from Mexico during the revolution of 1913.

Over the years, Milan continued to grow but recently has boomed, with its population increasing at the rate of 71.6% between 2000 and 2010. Today it is called home to about 3,300 residents. Milan is the site of the privately run Cibola County Correctional Center, which houses more than 1,000 federal prisoners and is a major employer. This facility first opened in 1993 as a county prison but was acquired and expanded by the Corrections Corporation of America in 1998, resulting in a large population boom. Growth continues in Milan as many new houses and service-oriented businesses are being built to accommodate its increase in population.

One Route 66 classic in this small town is the Milan Motel. Situated on the south side of Route 66 between Milan Street and Airport Road, this log cabin-style motel was built in 1946. It had 12 units, a snack shop, and gas pumps. It survived the bypassing of Route 66 by I-40 and the Uranium bust but finally closed in the 1980s. The property was restored with a National Park Service Route 66 Corridor Preservation Program grant and now serves as a Trading Post.

Between Milan and nearby Prewitt is an interesting section of the old road as it is quite wide but very seldom used.  At intervals, abandoned motels and empty gas stations can be seen along this stretch of the road.  When Route 66 was young, this was a major carrot-producing area covering thousands of acres. As visitors continue the journey westward, there are several lava flows in the region, associated with the much larger deposits of the nearby El Malpais National Monument south of Grants.


Bluewater Motel Sign

Bluewater Motel Sign

About eight miles beyond Milan, westbound Route 66 travelers will arrive at what was once the stopping point of Bluewater.

In 1870 several French ranchers came to the area and organized a cattle company, irrigating their ranches from a small reservoir. The town started when the Atlantic and Pacific Railroad, later Atchison Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad, built a station there in 1881 named it after Bluewater Creek. Local ranchers built an earthen dam on the creek in 1885, but floods washed it away a year later.

In 1889 a post office was established. In 1891-92, the area suffered a severe drought, causing many cattle to die, and many of the defeated ranchers gave up and left the region. Soon, a Mormon man named Ernst A. Tietjen, who lived in nearby Ramah claimed the land and built an earthen dam for irrigation at the point where the Cottonwood and Bluewater Creeks met. Unfortunately, that dam also washed away in 1904.

In 1905 Ernst A. Tietjen finished homesteading his land and obtained a clear title. He then began to have the land surveyed and a townsite laid out. He sold the first lot to E.H. Dewey for $15, and a school was built before long. The dam was replaced with a cement one, which was replaced by the current concrete arch dam constructed in 1926-27 by the Toltec-Bluewater Irrigation District. The water irrigated the farms downstream towards Grants, which became the “Carrot Capital of America.”

In 1926 Route 66 was aligned just north of Bluewater between Gallup and Grants. Although never much more than a railroad loading station, a trading post, two motels, a café, a garage, and a gas station, this stopover point once did a brisk business.

Remains of the Old Crater Trading Post north of Bluewater, New Mexico

Remains of the Old Crater Trading Post north of Bluewater, New Mexico

In 1935, a popular stop along this stretch was the Old Crater Trading Post, built by Claude Bowlin. It was named after a local volcanic crater. Bowlin had been trading with the Navajo since 1912, and his first trading post sold food and goods to the tribe, where he learned their language and customs. After World War I, from 1919 to 1935, Mr. and Mrs. Bowlin bought and sold several trading posts in the Gallup and Farmington areas of New Mexico. The Bluewater store was built with a flat roof, stucco walls with protruding viga beams, and featured colorful murals on its exterior. Selling rugs, dolls, jewelry, and pottery was popular with tourists along Route 66. In 1938, gas pumps were added. Bowlin opened more stores in New Mexico in the 1950s. When Uranium was discovered in the area, business boomed, and the original store was demolished and replaced with a new one in 1954. When I-40 bypassed it, the trading post was closed for good in 1973. The old building, located about 1.5 miles north of Bluewater, still stands. However, Bowlin’s Bluewater Dairy Queen Travel Center now serves this area on I-40.

Though the village is called home to about 600 people, the community is mostly a cluster of closed businesses and homes, but it still has a school.

All that’s left today of the Route 66 era are the remains of the old Bluewater Motel, Allen’s Garage, and the Old Crater Trading Post. All silent now, they attest to the better times along this old chunk of the road

Just beyond Bluewater, you will see beautiful red sandstone cliffs to the right and the volcanic cone of El Tinterio, where lava was said to have flowed as far east as Grants.


Prewitt, New Mexico bar by Kathy Alexander.

Prewitt, New Mexico bar by Kathy Alexander.

A small settlement was in this area before it became Prewitt. Called Baca, after a local ranching family, it dates back to at least 1890. However, in 1916 two brothers by the names o Bob and Harold Prewitt moved to the area and established a trading post in a large tent along the National Old Trails Highway. When a post office was established in 1928, it took the name of Prewitt. In 1946 it was described of consisting of little more than a trading post and a railroad siding.

At Prewitt, New Mexico a side trip to nearby Bluewater Lake State Park might be a stop for you if you’re looking for camping or fishing opportunities. The lake is stocked with rainbow trout, native or cutthroat trout, and catfish, with trout weighing up to 9 pounds having been caught in the lake. The park is also host to many of nature’s feathered friends. Situated on the north flank of the Zuni Mountains, the reservoir is about seven miles southwest of Prewitt. Swimming, water-skiing, boat ramps, electrical hookups, and a dump station are also available


Thoreau, New Mexico Market by Kathy Alexander.

Thoreau, New Mexico Market by Kathy Alexander.

Just another eleven more miles brings you to the small town of Thoreau. The town got its start as a siding for the Atlantic & Pacific Railroad in 1881. In 1886 a store and post office were established called Chavez. Several years later, in 1890, brothers William and Austin Mitchell relocated their timber business from Michigan to the Chavez area. The next year, the post office filed for a name change to Mitchell. Though timber was plentiful in the area, their business did not prosper. The third and final name change to Thoreau came in 1899 when the Hyde Exploring Expedition established an extensive Indian trading network and established their headquarters in the town. Residents pronounce the town’s name like “thuh-ROO” (similar to “through” or “threw”.

During Route 66’s heydays, Thoreau was home to several trading posts, a gas station, a garage, and about 375 people. One popular stop during these times was Roy T. Herman’s Garage and Service Station. Built in 1937 on Route 66, the building remains today and is listed in the National Register of Historic Places. In the 1960s Interstate 40 bypassed the old Route 66.

The population was 1,863 at the 2000 census.

Another side trip presents itself here. The town of Crownpoint, some 24 miles north of Thoreau is the southern jumping-off point to the Chaco Culture National Historical Park. Chaco Canyon is one of the key sites of the prehistoric culture in the Four Corners region.

Continental Divide

Indian Trading Post at the Continental Divide, New Mexico

Indian Trading Post at the Continental Divide, New Mexico, by Kathy Alexander.

Another five miles west of Thoreau brings travelers to the Continental Divide. In typical Route 66 fashion, there are a number of trading posts here to take advantage of the many people who stop along the route. In the early days of the Mother Road, the site included the Great Divide Trading Company, the Continental Trading Post, and Top O’ The World Hotel and Café.

If you are traveling the original road, you will need to rejoin I-40 at exit 47 as the old road dead-ends just beyond the Continental Divide. However, continuing down this short stretch provides photo ops including the old Top O’ The World Hotel and Café and the facing signs of an old Whiting Brothers Station.

Fort Wingate

From the Continental Divide, travelers will continue on I-40 to the small village of Iyanbito to the north of I-40 and continue westward to the historic Fort Wingate Military Reservation on the south side of I-40. Originally established as a trading post in 1860, a full-fledged fort was added in 1862. Garrisoning soldiers during the Civil War, it later functioned in the capacity of military surveys, escort functions, and patrols against raiding Indians. Among the soldiers associated with the fort were Christopher “Kit” Carson, John “Black Jack” Pershing, Douglas MacArthur, who lived there as an infant, and several Navajo Code Talkers.

In 1914 the fort housed Mexican Federalist troops and their families who had fled the Pancho Villa uprising. The Army renamed the deactivated fort “Fort Wingate General Ordnance Depot” in 1918.

Code Talkers at Fort Wingate, New Mexico

Code Talkers at Fort Wingate, New Mexico

Today, Fort Wingate is still an active base sometimes involved as a rocket launching testing site. The original trading post was sold to a private individual and continued to operate until the 1990s. The town of Fort Wingate grew up around the fort and trading post and exists today.

From here, you have reached the outskirts of Gallup, the Indian Center of the Southwest.


© Kathy Alexander/Legends of America, updated May 2023.

Also See:

New Mexico – Land of Enchantment

New Mexico Route 66

Route 66 Main Page

Route 66 Photo Galleries


Family Search Wiki
Hinkley, Jim, Route 66 Encyclopedia, Voyageur Press, 2012
National Park Service
Never Quite Lost
The Route 66