The first sizeable town away from the Texas state line along I-40 in eastern New Mexico, Tucumcari is known as a gateway to New Mexico. Its Route 66 connections and vintage charm also earn it the moniker “Heart of the Mother Road,” but the Route 66 journey starts even before you hit the town limits.
An original stretch of the Mother Road travels from San Jon, 24 miles to the east, and was originally part of the Ozark Trail. The National Register of Historic Places recognizes the significance of this path, which predates Route 66 and was used in the 1910s. By the mid-1920s, the federal highway system was aligned along the route. The dirt road was paved by 1933, which eased travelers’ ways as they cruised into town along the seven-mile stretch of Route 66 known as Tucumcari Boulevard. Along the way, you’ll spot neon signs, throwback architecture, and classic Mother Road motels. Follow the signs proclaiming “Tucumcari Tonite” for an unforgettable stop along Route 66.
Here are six reasons to get your kicks in Tucumcari.
1. New Mexico Route 66 Museum
Get your Mother Road orientation at this home-grown museum. Housed inside the town’s convention center, a Route 66 kiosk in the lobby offers the first taste of what’s inside with a few black-and-white photos from Tucumcari’s heyday. Inside you’ll find Michael Campanelli’s photo collection with more than 160 images of Route 66, from Chicago to Santa Monica.
Vintage memorabilia takes you back with a diner display featuring a Rock-Ola jukebox, gas pumps, and several classic automobiles including a 1956 Mercury Montclair and a 1963 Studebaker. The museum tells the route’s New Mexico history, but Tucumcari certainly stars in its displays and audio/visual presentations.
2. Murals of Tucumcari
Tucumcari has nearly 100 public murals, which is an impressive number for a town of 4,900. Husband-and-wife duo Doug and Sharon Quarles are responsible for many of the murals. The team of artists relocated to Tucumcari and set about painting the town red—and just about every other color! You can spot most of the murals along Tucumcari Boulevard, while others are down side streets, decorating shops, restaurants, and even the grocery store.
Be sure to check out a Mother Road–themed mural at the corner of Second Street and Tucumcari Boulevard. Also look out for the Magnolia gas station from the route’s heyday that’s been emblazoned with signs, images, and phrases that evoke the Mother Road.
3. True Route 66 Motels
Many Tucumcari hotels are holdovers from yesteryear, like the Tucumcari Travelodge, which has been refreshed as the chain Value Inn. However, many of the historic motor lodges are still lovingly cared for as family-owned lodgings.
Blue Swallow Motel has been housing travelers since 1939 and is a highlight along the entire Mother Road. Most of its rooms have carports or garages bedecked with transportation-themed murals. Inside, the rooms feature 1950s and ’60s décor, from the bed frames and vintage-style quilts to the art and rotary phones. Smithsonian magazine called it “the last, best, and friendliest of the old-time motels.”
If the Blue Swallow is booked, there are several other charming options. Motel Safari owner Larry Smith is a Route 66 and mid-century modern enthusiast, and he’s updated each of the guest rooms with furniture, décor, and even murals from and evoking the time period. Historic Route 66 Hotel says it all in the name. Continuously operating since 1963, the exterior still reflects the once-popular International Style. Each room features floor-to-ceiling windows that look out onto the parking lot, just how Route 66 travelers like it.
Although these Mother Road hotels may be historic, their amenities are modern. They feature TVs, WiFi, and other items to serve today’s travelers. Historic Route 66 Hotel even has an espresso bar on site.
4. Casual Dining
Like its Route 66 neighbor Tee Pee Curios, La Cita Restaurant’s architecture is a big draw: A concrete Mexican sombrero perches above the restaurant’s entrance. After you’ve taken a few pictures, step inside for a menu of classic New Mexican fare. Pow Wow Restaurant & Lizard Lounge is another popular Mother Road stop. It serves New Mexican classics, like enchiladas, and standard grill dishes like burgers. Don’t miss the interior wall murals that depict some of the town’s famous residents.
5. Instagram-worthy Spots
Tucumcari has a handful of must-stop photo ops for Mother Road travelers. The first is a Route 66 sculpture that welcomes you at the western edge of town. Thomas Coffin created the chrome and rock sculpture in 1997 to evoke 1950s cars and road trips. Coffin carved the red stone base with the shape of tires, and the sculpture’s chrome upper looks as though it’s a tailfin from a classic car—it even has tail lights that glow red at night. You can find the sculpture in front of the Tucumcari Convention Center.
Tee Pee Curios has reached icon status along the Mother Road thanks to its novel architecture: the entrance is shaped like a teepee. The striking façade calls travelers off the route and inside the souvenir shop to browse all manner of Route 66 paraphernalia. The building dates back to 1944 when it was a Gulf gas station, grocery, and, yes, it was even a souvenir shop then. The teepee entrance was added and the pumps removed in 1959.
6. Route 66 Neon
Thanks to its hearty collection of motels, restaurants, and shops, Tucumcari buzzes with neon. Blue Swallow Motel and Tee Pee Curios are both photographers’ favorites for their elaborate neon signs. (Just check with the owners before taking photos.) The Buckaroo Motel also has a throwback sign.
Waiting until nighttime to see the town’s neon is just one more reason to stay over in Tucumcari on your trip across Route 66.
Written by Ashley M. Biggers for Matcha in partnership with New Mexico Tourism Department.