New Mexico Scenic Drive: Historic Route 66

Many of the early curiosities that made Route 66 intriguing to travelers have fallen victim to interstate highways, but you can still see much of the route's character if you leave the beaten path, both around Albuquerque and on other parts of Historic Route 66.

On Albuquerque's eastern edge, you can pick up parts of Route 66 at Tijeras Canyon, where a serene and rural atmosphere allows you to leave the big city behind. Other parts of Historic Route 66 lead you to quaint and historic sites, enabling you to catch a glimpse into the past.


Archaeological Qualities of Historic Route 66

Petroglyph National Monument along Albuquerque's West Mesa gives you the chance to see amazing images carved by native people and early Spanish settlers. With five volcanic cones, hundreds of archaeological sites, and an estimated 25,000 images carved by native Pueblo Indians and early Spanish settlers, the monument protects part of the early culture and history of the area for generations to come.

Covering a 17-mile stretch, the Petroglyph National Monument allows the past to come alive; images on the rocks tell the stories of natives and settlers in carvings of animals, people, spirals, stars, and geometric shapes. Perhaps the most famous symbol found at the Petroglyph National Monument is that of Kokopelli, the humpbacked flute player.

Although no one knows the exact dates the carvings were made, archaeologists have compared the petroglyphs with other artwork of a known date. Some carvings are thought to have been created between A.D. 1300 and A.D. 1650; others are closer to 3,000 years old. The most recent are thought to have been created by Spanish settlers during the Spanish colonial period.

Cultural Qualities of Historic Route 66

Museums and abandoned pueblos featuring ancient artwork and dress provide Route 66 travelers with reminders of the early culture that thrived for centuries. The Apache, the Navajo, and some nomadic nations all inhabited the desert land; some lived in permanent mud-brick settlements near waterways that were called pueblos when first encountered by Spaniards.

The word pueblo also refers to a Native American culture that is unique to the Southwest and not to a particular Native American group. Even though they share many common elements, each pueblo has its own government, social order, religious practices, and language.

The Pueblo people are further distinguished by their art. Each group's jewelry, pottery, weavings, and other art have a different style. Black-on-black matte pottery, for example, is unique to the San Ildefonso pueblo. Geometric black and white pots are particular to the Acoma.

Other non-Pueblo Indians, such as the Navajo and Apaches, are known for their unique and beautiful artwork as well: the Navajos for their weaving and silverwork; the Apaches for their basket weaving.

Many Native American nations have cultural centers, where contemporary artists' work can be viewed and purchased. The byway's museums display ancient artifacts that bring past cultures a little closer. Visitors are also often allowed on American Indian land to tour trading posts, cultural centers, and shops.

Spanish conquest is much engrained in early New Mexico's culture. Explorers from Spain in search of riches happened upon the New Mexico area in the early 1540s. Although they didn't find their sought-after gold, they did find thousands of potential Catholic converts. By 1680, Spanish priests had set up more than 80 missions in the area.

Although much of the colonization was peaceful, the Spanish culture and Catholic religion imposed on some American Indian nations led to the Pueblo Revolt of 1680.Native Americans from all over the area overthrew the settlers, burned churches, and killed priests. The Spanish returned 12 years later and were more attuned to native cultures and religions.

Today's culture is a blend of the Spanish and Native American cultures: Catholicism and indigenous religions, along with festivals and architecture that reflect both cultures. Spanish and Native American art, architecture, and music meshed to create a blend that today is known simply as Southwestern. Mariachi music, pottery, and adobe buildings are cultural reflections of the Southwest that result from a fascinating mixture of many civilizations.

Historical Qualities of Historical Route 66

When incumbent governor A. T. Hannett lost the 1926 New Mexico gubernatorial election to Richard Dillon, he was infuriated over the loss and what he felt was a betrayal by his own party. So he exited with a flamboyant farewell gesture, sending orders to E. B. Bail, the district highway engineer, to assemble all road-building equipment north of U.S. 60 and cut a new road between Santa Rosa and Moriarty before the year (and Hannett's term) ended. Historic Route 66 as we know it today was created.

Hannett, in his 1964 book Sagebrush Lawyer, recounts that he conceived of the idea of a shorter route by laying a ruler on the map between Santa Rosa and Gallup. Of course, the idea was protested not only by chamber of commerce members in Santa Fe (who led a fight to enlarge and straighten a northern route), but also by delegations from the small towns along U.S. 60, a highway that passed through Vaughn, Encino, Mountainair, and Socorro before heading north to Albuquerque. Business leaders in those towns knew that U.S. 60 would have to compete with the new road, but Hannett prevailed because the new shortcut would almost halve the distance from Santa Rosa to Albuquerque.

Plunging ahead, Bail, the district highway engineer, realized the near impossibility of the order. Assembling equipment and organizing road crews would take the rest of November, which meant that the actual construction of 69 miles had to be accomplished in just 31 days. The new cutoff would connect the road seven miles west of Santa Rosa to an existing highway from Moriarty on into Duke City, reducing the distance from 195 miles to 114.

Bail's account of the adventure, first published in 1952 and later appended in Sagebrush Lawyer, credits the road crews with marshaling the motley collection of surplus World War I Caterpillars, tractors, and graders. They did battle against the blowing snow and dense pinon forests.

Irate citizens along the southern and northern routes, upset by the impact that reduced traffic would have on their vital tourist business, tried to sabotage the project. Workers found sugar in gas tanks and sand in their engines. Bail brought in blankets so that the workers could sleep next to their equipment at night. Ironically, no one troubled with the most logical way to put a hitch in the project -- by fighting it with a lawsuit.

The road was not quite completed by the end of the year so, immediately after taking the oath of office on January 1, 1927, the new governor, Richard Dillon, dispatched an engineer from Santa Fe to halt the venture. However, inclement weather prevented his arrival at the job site before January 3. By then "Hannett's Joke" was complete, and cars drove across the new road. (Hannett denied that his method for accomplishing the project originated as a joke.)

Hannett, whose home base had been Gallup, moved to Albuquerque, practiced law from an office in the Sunshine Building, and wrote a daily column for the Albuquerque Journal. Although no monument credits him with the golden thread that helped Albuquerque develop into a metropolitan center, one of the city's streets is named Hannett.

View Enlarged Image This map of Historic Route 66 will take you all the way across northern New Mexico.
View Enlarged Image This map of Historic Route 66 will take you all the way across northern New Mexico.

Natural Qualities of Historic Route 66

Historic Route 66 is full of natural caves and geological formations. One of the most fascinating natural formations is La Ventana, a large natural arch in the sandstone bluffs on the east side of El Malpais National Monument and Conservation Area near Grants.

Established in 1987, this monument preserves 114,277 acres, of which 109,260 acres are federal lands. El Malpais means "the badlands," but contrary to its name, this unique area holds many surprises. Volcanic features such as lava flows, cinder cones, pressure ridges, and complex lava tube systems dominate the landscape. Sandstone bluffs and mesas border the eastern side, providing access to vast wilderness.

Another famous and exciting place to visit in El Malpais is the Bandera Volcano and Ice Cave. Nicknamed the Land of Fire and Ice, the two features offer contrasting phenomena: an ancient lava trail winding toward an ice cave on one fork and an erupted volcano on the other. In the ice cave, layers of blue-green ice are up to 20 feet thick and sit in part of a collapsed lava tube, and the temperature never rises above 31 degrees. The Bandara Volcano is 800 feet deep and erupted more than 10,000 years ago, leaving a 23-mile lava flow.

Recreational Qualities of Historic Route 66

Evidence of New Mexico's diversity in culture, climate, and landscape is everywhere, making the area surrounding Historic Route 66 the perfect place to find any type of recreation imaginable.

No trip to the area would be complete without dining in one of the authentic Mexican restaurants. Famous for its fiery hot chili peppers, New Mexican cuisine is an adventure in itself. The climate of central New Mexico makes outdoor recreation possible year-round. Summers lend themselves to hiking, camping, biking, and fishing, while New Mexico's winters delight both downhill and cross-country skiers with trails and runs across the state.

The Sandia Mountains, located near Albuquerque, provide exciting recreational opportunities. Travelers enjoy hiking and biking beginner to advanced trails in the summer and skiing the 200 acres of terrain of the Sandia Peak Ski Area in the winter. The ski area's tramway whisks you and your skis or bike to the top of the mountain year-round; just one reason the Sandia Mountains are an excellent place for outdoor adventure.

The geography of the area is unlike any other place. Lush forests, clear lakes, and sporadic mountains break up the desert landscape. Natural caves and rock formations in El Malpais National Monument and Conservation Area are open for tourists to view. Erupted volcanoes, bat caves, and sandstone cliffs and mesas dot the beautiful area, providing a truly rare chance to see one of the world's most fascinating regions.

If urban entertainment is what you are looking for, New Mexico has that, too. You may want to catch a symphony, attend a hockey game, or shop in unique outdoor markets. The nightlife heats up as the temperatures cool down after dark. Dance clubs, bars, and live music venues around the larger cities come alive at night.

Find more useful information related to New Mexico's Historic Route 66:

  • New Mexico Scenic Drives: Historic Route 66 is just one of the scenic byways in New Mexico. Check out the others.
  • Albuquerque, Grants, Santa Rosa, Tucumcari: Find out what there is to do in these cities along Historic Route 66.
  • Scenic Drives: Are you interested in scenic drives beyond New Mexico? Here are more than 100 scenic drives throughout the United States.
  • How to Drive Economically: Fuel economy is a major concern when you're on a driving trip. Learn how to get better gas mileage.

One of the sites you'll see as you take Historic Route 66 across New Mexico is this scenic bridge across the Rio Puerto.
One of the sites you'll see as you take Historic Route 66 across New Mexico is this scenic bridge across the Rio Puerto.

Historic Route 66 is unique in that it embodies plains, grasslands, vistas, mountains, deserts, and virtually every kind of terrain available in New Mexico. The beautiful and varied desert landscape along the byway, coupled with unique Southwestern architecture, provides an exceptionally scenic drive. The sunsets and sunrises on the byway are spectacular, and you can see for miles in any direction in most places along the route.

Historic Route 66 is a truly amazing visual experience. Orange rock dotted with green plantlife rests dramatically against a turquoise-blue sky in summer, creating a postcardlike desert scene. Yet, a few miles down the road, a forest surrounds a bright blue lake, with a waterfall cascading down the dark rock. You'll often find this contrast in this unique geological area: Six of the seven life zones identified on Earth are found in New Mexico.

As you approach cities, you'll notice that the distinctive architecture of the cities also embodies Southwestern flavor. The stucco and brick buildings are often colorful and particular to the pueblo style. This style is apparent in the downtown shops, outdoor markets, and residential areas. Even new construction keeps the traditional style alive with colorful buildings of stucco and landscape of cacti and yucca.

Because Historic Route 66 is more than 600 miles long, the following must-see tour of the byway is split into two sections: one starting near Grants and heading westward into Gallup; the other starting east of Tucumcari and heading westward into Santa Rosa.

Western Must-See Tour

Acoma Sky Pueblo: The first stop along this section is just south of McCarty's, off of exit 96. The Acoma Sky Pueblo offers a unique view worth seeing -- a city atop a 400-foot mesa. The people of the Acoma Pueblo ask that visitors respect the posted warnings and signs and be respectful of residents. Always ask permission to take photos.

Also, if you are fortunate to visit on a celebration day or during a dance, remember that dances are prayers and require concentration. Please do not talk to the dancers, walk on the dance plaza, or applaud when a dance ends.

El Malpais National Monument: The next stop along Route 66 is El Malpais National Monument near Grants. The monument can serve as a central post while visiting several other sites, including La Ventana Natural Arch and Bandera Volcano and Ice Cave.

Bluewater Lake State Park and Casamero Pueblo Ruins: North of Grants, Bluewater Lake State Park offers a relaxing afternoon of hiking and fishing. The Casamero Pueblo Ruins near McKinley County Road 19 offers a unique view of the area's history.

Casamero Pueblo was first recorded by an archaeologist in the mid-1960s. A portion of the site and many smaller sites were reported to have been vandalized prior to this time. Between 1966 and 1975, most of Casamero Pueblo was excavated by archaeologists. In 1976 and 1977, they stabilized the ruins to help prevent deterioration of the walls.

Interpretive signs were placed at the site describing the cultural history of the Chacoan Anasazi and the features present at Casamero. The Bureau of Land Management restabilized Casamero Pueblo in 1986, replacing eroded mortar and loose stones. The Casamero Pueblo Ruins is fenced to keep livestock and vehicles from disturbing the site. A parking lot is provided along McKinley County Road 19 for visitors.

Gallup: The Route 66 Drive-In in Gallup makes a great stop for lunch in keeping with the theme of the drive. Don't forget the Red Rock Museum at Red Rock State Park, just east of Gallup. Also, while in Gallup, finish your trip along western Route 66 by inquiring about ongoing activities at the Gallup McKinley County Chamber of Commerce.

Eastern Must-See Tour

I-40: The modern Route 66 is essentially Interstate 40, although it detours slightly through Tucumcari and Santa Rosa. This section caused quite a lot of trouble back in the early days of Route 66, when the road was narrow and dangerous. This 40-mile stretch of road heading into Tucumcari was poorly maintained and was full of potholes. Driving long hours through this flat countryside often caused motorists to doze off; hitting an unexpected pothole would cause them to lose control. Many people died in collisions on this narrow road. In fact, some of the older residents in the area will tell you that there were "only six inches and a cigarette paper between you and death on 66." Today, I-40 is wider, safer, and well maintained.

Tucumcari: Once in Tucumcari, take exit 335 into town. Historic Route 66 continues along Tucumcari Boulevard. While in Tucumcari, you can easily spend the day shopping or visiting the Blue Swallow Motel (one of the oldest motels in town and one of the most famous along Route 66), Mesalands Dinosaur Museum, and Tucumcari Historical Museum.

Conchas Lake State Park: At the end of Tucumcari Boulevard, you can choose one of two routes. This tour takes you north on Route 54 toward Conchas home to Conchas Lake State Park, one of New Mexico's largest lakes. The park has a wide variety of water activities, and onshore exploring offers the potential of finding ancient rock formations and American Indian dwellings.

Santa Rosa: Heading farther west along I-40, you pass through Cuervo, and head on to Santa Rosa. The Route 66 Auto Museum is a must-stop for anyone taking in the true spirit of Route 66. The more adventurous will most likely enjoy a dip at Blue Hole, an 81-foot deep clear, natural artesian spring famous for its scuba diving opportunities. A stop at nearby Santa Rosa Lake State Park and Sumner Lake State Park will give the recreationally minded plenty of choices.

Capture the character of Route 66 by traveling along this historic portion of it in New Mexico. With scenery that can't be beat and some interesting cultural and historical tidbits along the way, this is a drive you'll never forget.

Find more useful information related to New Mexico's Historic Route 66:

  • New Mexico Scenic Drives: Historic Route 66 is just one of the scenic byways in New Mexico. Check out the others.
  • Albuquerque, Grants, Santa Rosa, Tucumcari: Find out what there is to do in these cities along Historic Route 66.
  • Scenic Drives: Are you interested in scenic drives beyond New Mexico? Here are more than 100 scenic drives throughout the United States.
  • How to Drive Economically: Fuel economy is a major concern when you're on a driving trip. Learn how to get better gas mileage.