WAKING UP IN THE MYSTIC’S 1950S-THEMED ROOM IS A TRIP. The bedside radio clock, kitschy cowboy tabletop lamp, and other throwback decor could make a drowsy guest at the Santa Fe roadside motel believe in time travel—in this case, to the heyday of America’s legendary Route 66. But since this is 2024, the popularity of this special, nostalgia-steeped room in the renovated and renamed Silver Saddle Motel proves that the motor lodge is once again cool.

We’ve known that for a while here in New Mexico, where roadside culture shines like its neon-lit signs. Mom-and-pop diners, curio shops, tourist attractions, and unique motels appeal as much to modern travelers as they did to the millions of Americans who drove this fabled highway during its prime. “People are wanting an adventure, that sensation of being out of the generic, away from the familiar,” says Brennen Matthews, editor of Route Magazine, which is devoted to Route 66 and its related Americana. “They’re flocking to these motels because of the unfamiliarity, the quirky. People want to have an experience when they travel.”

Opened in 1926, Route 66 became a place for travelers to get their kicks, as the Bobby Troup song goes. The nearly 2,500-mile highway winds through eight states, connecting Chicago and metropolitan Los Angeles, with almost 500 miles passing through New Mexico (the longest stretch of any state). Traffic picked up after World War II, as soldiers returned home and eagerly set out with their families driving shiny new automobiles on the Great American Road Trip.

The Mystic serves up a modern take on the Southwest in Santa Fe. Photograph courtesy of The Mystic/Casey Addason.

“To understand America is to travel its highways,” says Matthews. He has driven the Mother Road a dozen times with his wife and son, now 16, which led to the book Miles to Go: An African Family in Search of America on Route 66 (University of New Mexico Press, 2022). “The GIs wanted to see their country. Once they got in their car and drove over every new hill and around every new bend, it was exciting. They started discovering these motels.”

What sprouted along the young highway were primitive campgrounds, tourist homes, and small cottages that evolved into auto courts, located near the roadway with free on-site parking (usually right by your room), and entry to the room from the outside. These motels also tempted travelers with carports, swimming pools, adjoining restaurants, and souvenir shops. The New Mexico stretch of Route 66 captivated tourists with the allure of the West. Neon signs picturing cowboys and Native Americans in fine headdresses lit the way to guest rooms decorated in cowboy and ranch themes.

“There’s something about New Mexico, where the venues are some of the most iconic,” says Matthews, pointing to the Blue Swallow and Motel Safari, in Tucumcari; El Rey Court and The Mystic, in Santa Fe; El Vado Motel and Monterey Motel, in Albuquerque; and El Rancho Motel in Gallup.

“New Mexico historic properties have so much character behind them that the properties themselves have character. So you’re not just staying in a really cool hotel, you’re almost staying in a character.”

The Mystic motel’s outdoor event space often hosts live music. Photograph courtesy of The Mystic.

However, the rise of hotel chains and the arrival of the Federal Interstate Highway System at the end of the 1960s took their toll. The new multilane interstates bypassed Route 66 and its easy access to small-town businesses. The Mother Road slowly declined and was decommissioned in 1985. But it didn’t take long for public and private groups to partner with government agencies in efforts to promote and preserve this storied highway and its unique destinations.

While it’s hard to say exactly how many Route 66 motels have been lost to history, it’s estimated that more than 300 once operated in the Land of Enchantment. Maybe 60 or so remain, many of those lovingly restored by their owners, including a few Route 66 enthusiasts.

At Tucumcari’s Motel Safari, for instance, guests still park next to their rooms at the 1959 motor court. “What I’ve done here is try to combine the original vision of the motel with modern conveniences,” says Larry Smith, a Nashville transplant who’s owned the property since 2017. “It’s a happy blend of what travel in the 1950s would have been like, but you still have Wi-Fi, TV, the things we really need.” With furniture custom-built on-site during the motel’s construction and original details such as Zia-styled room dividers, the guest rooms feature clean, midcentury design. “It’s not kitschy or too cutesy,” Smith says.

Just off the main drag in Tucumcari, Motel Safari is down with the Mother Road swag. Photograph by Gabriella Marks.

Others have transformed the classic motor lodge into something new. Amanda Tucker and her husband, Rick Goldberg, bought the Silver Saddle Motel in 2022 and refashioned the 1950s motel into The Mystic, a hip destination with a bar, restaurant, and backyard events. Of the motel’s 23 redesigned rooms, only two have a Route 66 vintage vibe. “Guests doing the Route 66 drive have stayed in our time-capsule rooms, and that’s been a really great enhancement of their experience,” says Tucker.

The Mother Road feeds the imagination of multiple generations, however, not just baby boomers hoping to relive its glory days. “Route 66 has come to be seen as the quintessential American experience,” says Jim Hinckley, author of The Route 66 Encyclopedia (Voyageur Press, 2016) and 21 other related books. “It means something to everybody. For my generation, Route 66 was about traveling. For a younger generation, it was about getting lost.”

Roadside motels have always played a major role in Route 66’s popularity. “The tourists heading west had this romanticized image of the West,” says Hinckley, who shares his travel adventures on his Coffee with Jim podcast. “The owners tried to capture that romantic appeal with the notion of the Indians and the cowboys.” With names like the Lariat Lodge, in Gallup; Arrowhead Motel & RV Park, in Ruidoso; and Desert Sun Motel, in Grants—along with blazing neon signs portraying a buckaroo, a longhorn steer, and a saguaro cactus—these New Mexico Route 66 motels roped in drivers from across the country.

Guests can swap stories around the Motel Safari firepits. Photograph by Gabriella Marks.

“Over the last decade or so, these one-of-a-kind neon signs have come to be appreciated as great examples of American folk art,” says Johnnie Meier, a historic preservationist with the New Mexico Route 66 Association, who restores neon signs throughout the state. He also owns the Classical Gas Museum, devoted to America’s roadside culture, in Embudo.

For Meier, the signs—meant to capture the imagination and pull you in—give these motels their personalities. Take Tucumcari, where the Blue Swallow’s neon birds welcome tired travelers to a motel renowned for its friendliness in the same way that sparrows were a hopeful sign to sailors that land was nearby. In Moriarty, the neon orange sundown at the Sunset Motel invites travelers to stop for the night and enjoy old-fashioned hospitality at New Mexico’s last Route 66 hotel that’s run by the original family. “I like to describe these neon signs as street jewelry,” Meier says. “You can characterize them in terms of emerald greens, pearly whites, ruby reds, and sapphire blues. It really adds a lot of glamour to the main streets.”

Today, travelers from every corner of the globe continue the journey of Route 66. The 100th anniversary of America’s legendary highway is on the horizon in 2026, with plans for festivals, car shows, parades, and other events in the works. “Things have come full circle,” says Hinckley. “If people are willing to try adventure, and try a place like Tucumcari’s Blue Swallow, they’re going to be hooked.”

These roadside motels create connection. Strangers swap stories in auto court parking lots, over coffee in small lobbies, or sitting poolside and around firepits. “It’s transformative,” Hinckley says. “Then you go across the street and have dinner with people from Germany who have saved their whole lives to travel Route 66. You start seeing your country and Route 66 through the eyes of other people, other countries.”

Read more: These roadside motels may be gone, but they’re not forgotten.