Tucumcari, New Mexico, may be family-friendly today, but like many towns in the West, it had a rowdy start. The Chicago, Rock Island, and Pacific Railroad built a construction camp on Quay County’s western edge in 1901. Originally called Ragtown, numerous gunfights quickly earned the camp the name Six-Shooter Siding. By 1908, the railroad camp was a permanent settlement and it was redubbed Tucumcari (pronounced “TWO-come-carry”) after a nearby mountain.
Later, the Mother Road was built through Tucumcari, giving the town a neon glow. As a kid spending summers in town, I loved driving down Tucumcari Boulevard listening to my mom’s stories of cruising Route 66 in its heyday and stopping in for a malt at the soda fountain.
Today, Tucumcari is the Quay County seat with a population of some 4,900 residents. It’s an everybody-knows-everybody kind of town, where trips to the grocery store turn into hour-long occasions as you visit with neighbors and friends in every aisle. The culture from surrounding ranches doesn’t just mean boots and jeans are always in style here; old-fashioned manners are still en vogue here. And locals are happy to extend those neighborly ways to visitors, too.
Town pride is on display in the town’s collection of museums—the displays often give a nod to the local who donated the artifact or discovered the fossil in his or her backyard. All destinations welcome families and are remarkably budget-friendly. Here are seven not to miss on your next trip to Tucumcari.
1. Mesalands Dinosaur Museum and Natural Sciences Laboratory
Tucumcari’s mountain earned the town its name, but its history predates the town’s beginnings. In 1891, a geologist dated Tucumcari Mountain’s strata to the Cretaceous age. Today, the fossilized remains of dinosaurs hailing from that period find a home in the Mesalands Community College’s Dinosaur Museum and Natural Sciences Laboratory.
The building houses a host of replicated and original fossils, from tiny footprints to a 40-foot-long skeleton of Torvosaurus, a rare carnivore relative of Tyrannosaurus rex. The museum bills itself as the first in the world to display a Torvosaurus skeleton and has another claim to fame—it’s the world’s largest collection of bronze skeletons and fossils. The community college’s staff molded the creations and built them in the college’s foundry.
A new exhibit features samples from the Eocene epoch, including 50-million-year-old specimens of leaves, fish, and insects. Children don’t have to keep their hands off, either—many exhibits encourage interaction.
2. Tucumcari Historical Museum
Families can catch up on the town’s more recent history at this homegrown and homespun museum set in a 1903 schoolhouse. School will be in session as you wander themed rooms and outdoor displays overflowing with artifacts and memorabilia. The museum has a grandma’s attic feel to it, with displays devoted to cowboy boots, styles of mustaches, bootleg liquor stills, and even a bucket of particularly colorful cow patties. The first floor displays many essentials to early settlers and military items from Fort Bascom.
Outside, you’ll find annexed buildings like Tucumcari Firehouse No. 1, which house a 1926 Chevrolet Fire Truck that’s still in working condition, and an open pavilion where an original chuckwagon is parked.
3. Tucumcari Railroad Museum
It’s all aboard for train-loving kiddos at this downtown museum housed in a restored 1926 Spanish-style depot. The museum displays a healthy collection of historic photos and memorabilia that tells the story of the development of the Union Pacific railroad. Kids can step behind a real hands-on control stand for a GP38 diesel locomotive as it makes its run on a train simulator.
4. Route 66 Kicks and Cars Views
A seven-mile stretch of Route 66 cruises through downtown Tucumcari, which the New Mexico Route 66 Museum celebrates with historic photos and memorabilia, like gas pumps and a jukebox. Car-crazy kids can see the classics here: The collection includes a 1929 Ford Model A Sedan and a 1956 Mercury Montclair, among others.
Tucumcari’s vintage vibe also influenced Disney’s Cars, a town that captures the Mother Road’s culture. The movie’s fictional town of Radiator Springs was a composite of several Route 66 locales, and Tucumcari was one of them. When you’re in town, look to Tucumcari Mountain and the famous “T” that residents painted on the hillside. A cartoon version appeared in Cars with the letters “RS” for Radium Springs.
5. Odeon Theatre
To experience Tucumcari’s current film culture, grab a ticket to see a move in the Odeon Theater. Built in 1936, the Art Deco landmark landed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2007. But this historic gem screens today’s movies—and many are family-friendly, from the Marvel superhero blockbusters to the Lego movies.
6. Disc Golf
In disc golf, participants throw frisbees toward “holes” (above ground stands with chain nets to catch the flying discs), and just north of town, families can test their frisbee-throwing skills on an 18-hole course, the Robert Lumpkin Disc Golf Course at 5 Mile Park. There’s a mix of long and short holes that wind through the desert landscape offering views of rolling hills and mesas.
Tip: Pack sunscreen or hit the course early in the day. There’s not much shade out that way.
7. Family Dining
All of Tucumcari’s restaurants are casual and welcoming to groups. Del’s is a landmark on Route 66 and dishes up American and Mexican comfort food in a funky diner (you’ll know you found it when you see the cow atop a neon sign). The expansive menu has something for everyone, and local favorites include enchiladas and the chicken fried steak. However, there’s also a well-stocked salad bar for healthier fare. Its sister restaurant Kix on 66 is a go-to for breakfast and lunch (try the breakfast quesadillas!).
Cornerstone First Edition Pizza & Subs is the town’s local pizza joint. It has all the classic toppings, like pepperoni, but the menu also features specialty pizzas with New Mexican twists, like the red enchilada pizza with corn tortillas, red meat chile sauce, cheddar cheese, onions, lettuce, and tomato. Save room for a banana split for dessert.
Watson’s BBQ is another local favorite. The family who owns this restaurant also operates the Tucumcari Ranch Supply, so they serve pulled pork sandwiches, brisket, ribs, and peach cobbler that cowboys would be proud of. It’s just another place in Tucumcari welcoming to little buckaroos.
Written by Ashley M. Biggers for Matcha in partnership with New Mexico Tourism Department.