Though it’s not exactly scenic, Gallup (pop. 22,670) is a fascinating place. Founded in 1881 when the Santa Fe Railroad first rumbled through, and calling itself “The Gateway to Indian Country” because it’s the largest town near the huge Navajo and other Native American reservations of the Four Corners region, Gallup has some of the Southwest’s largest trading posts and one of the best strips of neon signs you’ll see anywhere on old Route 66.
For travelers intent on experiencing a little of the charms of old Route 66, Gallup also has El Rancho Hotel (1000 E. Route 66, 505/863-9311, $115 and up), a delightful old hotel lovingly preserved in its 1930s glory. Built by a brother of movie director D. W. Griffiths, El Rancho feels like a national park lodge, with a large but welcoming lobby dominated by a huge stone fireplace. All the rooms in the old wing are named for the movie stars who have stayed here over the years—the W. C. Fields Room, the John Wayne Room, the Marx Brothers Room (which sleeps six), even the Ronald Reagan Room—and signed glossies of these and many more actors and actresses adorn the halls. El Rancho also has a good restaurant serving regional food, and a gift shop selling souvenirs and locally crafted jewelry, pottery, and rugs.
Gallup hosts the annual Inter-Tribal Ceremonial (505/863-3896), perhaps the largest Native American gathering in the country, held early in August at Red Rock Park, nine miles east of Gallup, and culminating in a parade that brings some 30,000 people out to line old Route 66 through town. Festivities include a rodeo, powwows, and a beauty show.
In the heart of historic downtown, the old Santa Fe train depot (still in use by Amtrak), houses the Gallup Cultural Center (201 E. Route 66, 505/863-4131). Free dances are staged at the nearby courthouse square nightly in summer, next to a statue of a World War II Navajo Code Talker. Another place worth spending some time is Richardson’s Cash Pawn and Trading Post (223 W. Route 66, 505/722-4762). Family-run since 1913, this busy but friendly space is crammed to the rafters with arts, crafts, and pawned goods—Navajo rugs and jewelry, ornately tooled leather saddles, pearl-inlaid guitars, and more—that give a better sense of local lifestyles (and all their ups and downs) than any museum ever could.
If you like huevos rancheros, breakfast burritos, or even diner stand-bys like french toast, you can sample some of the best at the unpretentious but excellent Plaza Café (1501 W. Route 66, 505/722-6240), which is way better than it looks amid the neighboring gas stations and car repair shops.