THE LETTERS ON THE NEON SIGNS framing the route into Gallup follow a familiar pattern. A large blocky word beside one or two tilted script words—all written in gas-filled phosphorescent tubes—proclaim each business’s moniker with impossible-to-ignore retro glee. The signs, inextricably linked to Route 66, remain as the most visual reminder of America’s everlasting love affair with the highway.

But as I roll into Gallup in the late afternoon with a snowstorm on my back, the neon is not yet lit. I park at El Rancho Hotel, the 1937 stop-off and home away from home to a slew of black-and-white-era Western movie stars who filmed pictures in the Gallup area during Hollywood’s Golden Age. This historic hotel and its pink neon sign share the parking lot with its sister property, the recently renovated, Route 66–themed El Rancho Motel, where I check in to Room Seven.

Bold Route 66 murals adorn El Rancho Motel. Photograph courtesy of El Rancho Motel.

“We’ve definitely seen an increase of our Route 66 travelers just in this past summer,” says general manager Alexis Sherman as we sit down at the meeting table in the center of the grand old hotel’s Western-themed lobby. A large fireplace beside a half ring of cozy, low-backed chairs anchors the two-story room, where a steady stream of guests wanders past hotel staff busy disassembling a massive Christmas tree inside the lobby. Thick stone walkways arch over the fireplace, leading up to the hotel’s mezzanine, where scores of photographs of film actors, many of them signed, hang on the walls.

Although the number of guests eased during the pandemic, El Rancho has been steady ever since. Sherman points behind her to the guest book at the end of the check-in counter. “We were able to gather a lot of data,” Sherman says. “Out of 800 people who signed the book, 400 of them were traveling Route 66.”

While the Mother Road was paved through Gallup in 1934, El Rancho Motel was late to the game. It opened in 1974, just two years before construction of the Gallup section of I-40 began and siphoned off its commercial lifeblood. Within a decade, El Rancho Hotel was bankrupt and closed.

In 1986, Armand Ortega Sr., whose grandson Shane Ortega is the current owner, purchased the block containing the hotel and motel at auction. The family has worked carefully to restore the buildings ever since, with the motel’s remodel as the latest addition. “We started the renovation process in 2022,” Sherman says. “We actually just got to open last year."

This historic El Rancho Hotel and its pink neon sign share the parking lot with its sister property, the recently renovated, Route 66–themed El Rancho Motel. Photograph courtesy El Rancho Hotel.

Inside my room, I first notice the grill and hood of a bright red Cadillac protruding from the wall, suspended five feet above and to the left of the king bed—a nearly full-size sculpture designed to spark Route 66 nostalgia in overnighters. A cactus-shaped lamp sits on the table beside the Cadillac, while a mural along the entire back wall depicts blacktop running through a desert expanse with a Route 66 exit sign raised in the foreground. Next to the door, a record player and a small stack of vinyl topped by a Bing Crosby album invite you to set the mood. The sink and bathroom walls feature sections of corrugated tin that reflect the room’s bright colors.

Each detail serves as a full-throttle homage to the Mother Road. “Every day, they all come through here and say, ‘We’re doing Route 66,’ ” says Leroy McCray, who has served as the property’s on-staff historian for the last six years.

The next morning, I walk outside to find Gallup covered in snow. After breakfast, I check out, as workers with shovels dig out the motel driveway.

When I say I’m headed back to Santa Fe, they wince. The elder one says to take Route 66 out of town—the road’s 45-mile an-hour speed limit makes it safer than driving on the 75-mile-an-hour interstate with semitrailers zooming by.

I leave town going east, ignore the I-40 ramp, and head toward Grants on the historic highway, running beside aging farmhouses and snow-capped shrubs in the vast frozen desert.

Read more: While there are many Sands Motels across the Southwest, the retro 1950s-era budget motel in Grants provides a unique experience for Route 66 enthusiasts.

Year built: 1974. Renovation: 2022.
Don’t miss: Spin a few Frank Sinatra tunes on the room’s record player.
Neon: The pink Hotel El Rancho sign sits atop the hotel with a strip of neon over the expansive front entry that reads “Charm of Yesterday .… Convenience of Tomorrow.”

1000 E. US 66, Gallup; 505-863-9311,

Jerry's Cafe's inviting neon sign hangs off West Coal Avenue and South Fourth Street.


One of Gallup’s most recognizable neon signs hangs just off West Coal Avenue and South Fourth Street. The bright yellow arrow leads customers to the legendary Jerry’s Cafe, just one block from Route 66. “It’s family-owned since 1977,” says owner Archie Baca. “I grew up in there.” Named after original owner Jerry Gonzales, Jerry’s Cafe has enjoyed generations of repeat customers due to the warm service and fantastic recipes. “We pride ourselves in the quality of the food,” says Baca, who recommends the breakfast sopaipilla in the morning and the chicken à la Mexicana for lunch. “It has a homemade quality.”