Route 66 Through New Mexico

New Mexico’s culture, food, and landscape set it apart from any other place on Route 66.

Here you’ll see the oldest community in the country, one of the oldest churches, and the oldest continuously used public building in the United States. As Route 66 crosses New Mexico, it passes over three distinct topographies, with elevations ranging from 3,800 to 7,500 feet; these include the Pecos and Canadian Valleys of the Great Plains, the Basin and Range Plateau, and the Intermountain Plateau. Hidden amid the valleys and curves are quaint Spanish villages, soul-stirring sunsets, rustic adobe-brick chapels, and sun-kissed pueblos set against a cerulean sky. Welcome to the “Land of Enchantment.”

New Mexico was the wildest part of the West—nothing compared to the all-out revolts that took place here. The state’s deep, multicultural history encompasses the Spaniards, Mexicans, and Indians who fought to claim the territory and retain their independence. Once the violence subsided, the state was filled with native communities that were walled off like fortresses. Today, New Mexico is home to 19 pueblos, each of which has its own distinct culture and traditions, as well as two Apache tribes and about 107,000 members of the Navajo Nation.

A crumbling church bell tower and wooden crosses mark the site of the Pueblo Revolt of 1680.
A crumbling church bell tower and wooden crosses mark the site of the Pueblo Revolt of 1680. Photo © Goran Bogicevic/123rf.

In 1912, there were only 28 miles of paved roads in New Mexico. Between 1933 and 1941, government spending to build roads increased, but the state’s diverse topography gave early highway engineers quite a challenge. Originally, Route 66 zigzagged northwest along the Santa Fe Trail, from Santa Rosa to Santa Fe, and then dipped south to Albuquerque and Los Lunas before heading west to Gallup.

Then in 1937, a major realignment changed Route 66’s north-south trajectory into an east-west corridor (and made Albuquerque one of the few Route 66 towns with two alignments that intersect). The new, more direct road shortened the route through the state from 506 to 399 miles. After all was said and done, Route 66 became New Mexico’s first completely paved highway.

Planning Your Time

You can speed across New Mexico in 2-3 days, but there’s a lot to do. Route 66 enters the state near Glenrio. Spend the night in Tucumcari, just 40 miles west. The next day, follow the pre-1937 alignment along the scenic “Santa Fe Loop” (rather than following I-40 between Santa Rosa and Albuquerque), ending in Santa Fe for a second overnight.

From Santa Fe, a side trip to Taos will add a day, but is completely worth it to visit the Earthship Biotecture. Another overnight—either Taos or Albuquerque—is recommended so that there’s time to visit the Acoma Pueblo before zipping through Gallup to cross the border into Arizona.

blue swallow motel
The Blue Swallow Motel on Route 66. Photo © Sylvain L., licensed CC BY.

Local Eats

New Mexico grows more chile peppers than any other state in the United States. In fact, it takes its chile so seriously that it’s even spelled differently (Chil is an Aztec word that means pepper; the Spanish added the “e” at the end). Chile is both the state vegetable and its largest agricultural crop. New Mexican chiles have a distinct and delicious flavor—perhaps it’s the convergence of 400 years of Spanish and American Indian history. Farmers have been perfecting the art of growing, drying, and roasting chiles in the southwestern sunshine for centuries. The climate of warm days and cool nights with a steady wind produce the best-tasting chile. If you visit in the fall during roasting season, the air is perfumed with their sweet, earthy aroma.

Route 66 road-trippers will have a big decision to make with each meal: whether to order red or green chile. Green has a tangy flavor, similar to a green tomato, while red is imbued with a rich, deep, earthy flavor. If you can’t decide, just order “Christmas-style” for a bit of both.

Best Restaurants

  • Comet II Drive-In, Santa Rosa: This former carhop serves up some serious green chile.
  • Santa Fe Bite, Santa Fe: Bite into the best green-chile cheeseburger in New Mexico.
  • Tia Sophia’s, Santa Fe: This locals’ hangout serves New Mexican cuisine and some of the best green chile in Santa Fe.
  • Sugar Nymphs Bistro, Peñasco: It’s worth the drive just to dine on locally sourced cuisine served by the former executive chef of the famed Greens Restaurant in San Francisco.
  • Jerry’s, Gallup: Don’t leave New Mexico without trying the chiles rellenos at this classic.

Driving Considerations

There’s so much to see and do in New Mexico that you could easily spend two weeks here. Plan ahead in order to experience much as you can in one of the most magnificent states on the Mother Road. If time is running out, I-40 and I-25 will quickly get you to the next destination. Gas is available in Tucumcari, Santa Rosa, Santa Fe, Albuquerque, Taos, and Gallup.

A storm gathers over the desert in New Mexico. Photo © Paul Moore/123rf.
A storm gathers over the desert in New Mexico. Photo © Paul Moore/123rf.

If you happen to be driving through New Mexico from mid-June through September, this is monsoon season. Practically every afternoon, the sky opens up like clockwork to rain for about an hour. Sometimes the showers are quite dramatic with lightning and thunder. But as soon as the storm passes, the sun usually comes out and the skies are even more gorgeous.

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