Tucumcari: Where History, Charm, and Route 66 Vibes Collide

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neon sign and front of blue swallow motel tucumcari
Neon signs light up the night at vintage Tucumcari motels like the Blue Swallow. Photo credit: Nasreen Stump

If a family road trip is in the works for 2023 and you’re going to include the stretch of iconic Route 66 from Oklahoma City to Albuquerque, detour through Tucumcari, New Mexico. You’ll get a kick out of the vintage neon motel signs and “blast from the past” feel. The kids will be blown away by the dinosaur exhibit and teens will love the Insta-worthy murals. Here’s what to do in Quay County’s Tucumcari.

The writer was hosted.

Why Tucumcari?

We ended up in Tucumcari, New Mexico by accident on our New Mexico road trip. Hotels in Santa Fe were pricey. We needed to be in Canyon, Texas (near Amarillo, home of the famously weird Cadillac Ranch) the next night. As I searched for motel rooms along a remote stretch of Historic Route 66, all options pointed to Tucumcari. Looking on the map I didn’t understand. It was in the middle of nowhere? Why was everyone heading to Tucumcari?

Turns out there was a long history there. Back in the heyday of Route 66, Tucumcari boasted that they had 2000 hotel rooms under an ad campaign called “Tucumcari Tonite!” Today, that number has dropped drastically but there is still the opportunity to stay in some really cool vintage motels. Since we were on a family road trip with Chrysler Pacifica, it seemed only fitting that we’d bring our minivan to Tucumcari, a staple of the Great American Road Trip from days past.

Read More: Why Hotel Chaco is a Great Place to Stay in Albuquerque

Get Your Kicks on Route 66

Route 66 has many names – the Main Street of America, the Mother Road and Will Rogers Highway. Running over 2400 miles from Illinois to California, it was one of the original highways in the United States and the first to be completely paved. It suffered when newer highways were put in, leaving towns like Tucumcari “off the beaten path.” In recent years, revitalization efforts are ramping up. Today, Tucumcari has the Blue Swallow motel (with their recognizable neon sign) listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Unfortunately, former historical motel Cactus Lodge closed recently.

When you head to Tucumcari you need to have expectations. Our motivations for staying there were convenience, nostalgia and photo opportunities. We were pleasantly surprised with Mesalands Community College Dinosaur Museum and Natural Sciences Laboratory. The town itself, however, is still in recovery. If you think that falling down buildings signify a “bad area” or you need a lot of nightlife, then Tucumcari isn’t for you. If you see beauty in the past and love neon signs, you’ll like Tucumcari.

vintage pull in garage at tucumcari motel safari
Vintage touches at Motel Safari include a garage painted with a fun modern mural. Photo credit: Nasreen Stump

Hotel and Motel Options in Tucumcari, New Mexico

There are two fairly distinct Tucumcari hotel options. The first are your chain hotels – Days Inn, La Quinta Inn (pet friendly), Holiday Inn Express, Best Western. These lie right off of I-40, not in the heart of Tucumcari where old Route 66 runs. As with chains, you have a set of expectations for these hotels. They’ll have swimming pools, free breakfast and traditional hotel room amenities. There will be some truckers in these hotels. Many seem to prefer the specials and easy parking at Value Inn.

If you are looking for the vintage motel feel, you’re going to want to venture off the highway and into town. Located on Route 66 Boulevard (formerly known as Tucumcari Boulevard), options like the Blue Swallow Motel, RoadRunner Lodge and the Motel Safari offer a different experience. We stayed at the Motel Safari. The rooms were decorated with period furniture and even had radios playing oldies in every room.

Read More: Why Flagstaff’s Americana Motor Hotel is a Great Route 66 Pit Stop

Murals in Tucumcari

If you love photography, Tucumcari is a great stop for you. With its mix of abandoned buildings, neon signs, nostalgia and tons of murals, Tucumcari is full of photo ops. I got a little ambitious; my daughter and I got up at 5:15 a.m. to take sunrise photographs around town. We hit snooze a few too many times but caught perfect light.

Murals range from gorgeous scenery to Route 66 kitsch to historical. There is truly something for everyone.

Museums to Check Out

Mesalands Dinosaur Museum

There are also several kid-friendly museums in Tucumcari, including a Dinosaur Museum in partnership with Mesalands Community College. This museum was the perfect size for kids. It made for a manageable visit in the morning before we left. The mix of scientific information and kid-friendly activities and exhibits made it perfect for my kids who range in age from 2-15.

One of the coolest parts of this museum? You can look into the paleontology lab at scientists while they work. My kids deemed this “awesome.” The gift shop is filled with affordable options to remember your visit by. We paid $34 for our family of 6 and it was worth the price. Hours vary depending on season but they are open year round Tuesday-Saturday.

mesalands dinosaur museum tucumcari nm dinosaur skeleton
Kids of all ages will love the Dinosaur Museum in Tucumcari. It has tons of hands on exhibits as well as a view into an active laboratory! Photo credit: Nasreen Stump

New Mexico Route 66 Museum

The New Mexico Route 66 Museum is filled with Route 66 memorabilia like antique cars and gas pumps. It’s not large and works better for older kids. Stop if they’re open. The location is ideal because it’s located behind the Convention Center. In front of the Convention Center is the Route 66 Monument, so you can accomplish two things at once.

Read More: Continuing on Route 66? Check out the fun, FREE Things to Do in Tulsa

Tucumcari Historical Museum

The Tucumcari Historical Museum is only explained in one way. Do you have a Grandpa who likes to collect things? Every time you go by to visit, there’s a new stack of old coins, an old vintage sign and three metal thermoses. Well, The Tucumcari Historical Museum is what happens when Grandpa is a little more discerning and knows how to organize displays. I promise you that you will see something new and learn at least ten things. Plus the price is right – kids 6-15 are $1 and kids under 6 are free. Open Tuesday- Saturday 9 a.m. – 3 p.m.

Need a Souvenir? Check Out Tee Pee Curios

A road trip isn’t a road trip without a kitschy souvenir like a refrigerator magnet or key chain. Tee Pee Curios is worth a stop. It’s a vintage Americana throwback. You’ll find it on historic Route 66. It’s impossible to miss at night with its retro neon sign.

Stretch Your Legs in Five-Mile Park

If the kids are getting wiggly, head to Five-Mile Park. There are several hiking trails; info about access and difficulty can be found on All Trails. The predominant landscape feature in Tucumcari is Tucumcari Mountain, a red rock mesa.

Hungry? Head to the Sombrero Restaurant

Another “you can’t miss it” attraction in Tucumcari is La Cita, a Mexican restaurant serving traditional favorites in a low slung yellow block building topped by a giant sombrero.

Or check out the family-friendly options at Del’s Restaurant on Route 66 Blvd.

chrysler wood panel minivan
Remember these? I was in diapers when this bad boy came out. This year it turns 35! Photo credit: Nasreen Stump

Family Road Trips: Why They’re Important

This road trip that took us through Tucumcari originated in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. We were invited by Chrysler Pacifica to join them for their #FamilyRoadTrip campaign, which emphasizes how important the family time on road trips is. As someone who personally has road tripped all over the United States in my minivan, I was 1000% on board with this idea.

In 2019, my kids and I road tripped through 32 states and Washington DC. While I thought I knew everything about making family road trips easy, I did learn a few things about Chrysler Pacifica features designed to make road trips a breeze.

chrysler pacifica minivan
This Chrysler Pacifica took us from Wyoming to Texas in comfort and style. Also, I think in-car vacuums are the equivalent of dresses having pockets. Wow! Photo credit: Nasreen Stump

Chrysler Pacifica Features You Need in Your Life

First of all, the Stow N’ Go seating and storage system is genius. Basically, there are secret spaces below the van’s seats that you can put supplies in. One of the tips I share in my Long Road Trip Survival Tips is to not over pack your vehicle. It makes you a target for theft. Stow N’ Go seating allows you to do a lot of your packing underneath your seats. How cool is that?

Second, the Chrysler Pacifica has a vacuum in the car (Stow N’ Vac). I honestly don’t know how I lived without this before. It was SO convenient. Every crumb, spill or dust infestation, I’d just turn it on and suck it all up without dragging a vacuum out. I miss this feature now that we’ve returned the car. It’s on my must have list for our next minivan.

Third, the sound system (20 speaker Harmon Kardon sound group). I’m going to have to take my 15 year old son’s word for it, but apparently the sound system is fire. I thought everything sounded great but he couldn’t stop raving about it. He was very happy playing DJ for miles on our trip.

Read More About Road Trips Here:

Awesome Road Trips Across the USA

5 Northeast Road Trips for Families

Road Trip with Baby: A Survival Guide for Parents

Nasreen’s adventures started out as business travel. Working as a territory sales manager she covered 21 states during her tenure, traveling 3-5 nights a week. As she visited new cities and states, she always worked in a quick stop at a unique or iconic site. A travel writing career was born. When her father-in-law’s cancer came back she started writing and consulting full-time around his chemotherapy schedule. Traveling with her firefighter/paramedic husband, kids, friends and solo allows her to cover a variety of situations and topics. Her four kids (19 year old boy, 13 year old girl, 11 year old girl and 7 year old boy) are professionals at the cross country road trip. After 10 years in Texas, their family is back in the Northeast exploring both familiar and new destinations. There she runs her own business providing go-to-market, sales strategy, podcast, and content marketing consulting for websites and B2B businesses. Whenever possible she writes for a variety of publications in the podcast, travel, and business space. Connect with her on LinkedIn to chat about travel, content, sales, and podcasts!
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