I’ve heard it’s not for everybody, but I am a bit of a road trip nut. I believe in the idea of the journey as the destination. I feel freedom in the simplicity of a full tank of gas and the open road. I suppose the variables of road travel are just as intense as flying, but when I’m driving I feel less likely to become stuck – stuck on the tarmac, stuck circling the destination, stuck at the airport in an unsuspected layover. There are unknowns and adventures on the road, to be sure, but the solutions to the problems feel more limitless. Maybe we’ll discover a back road, meet a friendly stranger in a small town or come across a sight we never would have even known about had just focused on “getting there.”
As many borders remain closed for International travel, I’ve wondered how many of us might capitalize on this time to see our own country and, in turn, how that might impact our state of affairs. What would conversations look like between American ideologies if we were out from behind the devices and speaking up close? How might I better listen to a fellow American whose life is so different than mine if I was in their town, benefitting from their hospitality?
As John Steinback wrote of the cross-country trip he documents in Travels with Charley, “I discovered I did not know my own country.” I always find a long drive to be good for my soul, and wonder if a greater dependency on The Great American Road Trip for recreational travel right now may be what the soul of our country needs. I am serious that this is how much I like road trip! Talk amongst yourselves.
Road tripping is not just a historic pastime of our country, but a lost economic opportunity for the towns along our old travel highways. During the hey-day of Route 66, American families in rural America offered warm welcomes, clean rooms and chilled air-conditioning to a steady stream of visitors. The properties were often passed down amongst generations of families, with plenty of jobs for everyone in the family to contribute. To many, it was a vocation. As Lillian Redmond, the former owner what I think is the best Route 66 motel, Blue Swallow Motel, said, “I end up traveling the highway in my heart with whoever stops here for the night.”
Thanks to the hard work and dreams of preservationists, there are still opportunities to stay at some of our country’s iconic roadside motels when driving today. Many have taken these beautiful sites and preserved their heritage while upgrading interiors and amenities for the modern road-warrior. These spots make an overnight pit stop a memory and opportunity to meet other curious Americans. Here’s just a few favorites that we’ve stayed at from driving from Texas to Colorado and beyond.
Stagecoach Inn, Salado
*Since publishing, this charming spot has been updated and given its original name, Shady Villa Hotel!
Erected in 1861 on the Chisholm Trail this property with 48 recently renovated guest rooms is believed to be the oldest standing structure in Salado, Texas – a quaint spot about 40 minutes outside of Austin.
Living in Dallas but with family and life consistently taking us down I-35 to Austin, we love this spot as an alternative to staying in the city. Backdoor patios open to lush grounds, the pool is ready for us in the summer and the rooms are spacious for half of what we would pay in Austin proper. The restaurant still carries many of the menu items today that Ms. Van, who restored the building with her husband and opened it as the Stagecoach Inn in 1943, developed. For both my mother’s generation and myself growing up, it was famous for the waitresses who recited the day’s menu just like the pioneer women did for passing stagecoach passengers and cattle drivers in the Inn’s early days. We love Lively Coffee House & Bistro right down Main Street for a morning latte and breakfast sandwiches before splashing in the gorgeous creek that runs through town.
El Vado Motel, Albuquerque
El Vado opened in 1937 as one of Albuquerque’s first places to stay for Route 66 travelers.
We really loved the rooms here, which compete with those of a modern hotel. Even with the center court hosting the pool and a communal space with walk-up dining options, firepits and patio tables, our room was so well insulated from noise that we were able to tuck in for the night without being disrupted by the nearby activity. We loved all of the connected shops as well for local treasures, especially Metal the Store. Route 66 Diner is just down the road for an authentic road trip dinner and the Albuquerque Botanical Garden is directly across the street for a nice morning constitutional before getting back on the open road.
Even though we stayed here over two years ago, my daughter still loves to mention “the hotel made of clay with the best pool.” We can’t wait to be back on the road and in the ABQ area again soon!
Blue Swallow Motel, Tucumcari
This sweet motel seems to be perfectly preserved from the time it was built in 1939, although given how pristine and charming it remains, one can tell it’s been a significant labor of love that’s kept it that way. Any nerves I had about staying in a more remote area while on the road subsided the minute I met the friendly folks here. Now, it’s my preferred place to stop for the night when traveling. The air conditioning really is ice cold.
For a family with just one child in tow, this was such a special and charming place to stay. We loved sitting in our patio chairs taking in the night sky and outdoor neon, the friendly front desk staff and the very memorable twin bed tucked into a cabinet! Make sure to stop in to the perfectly maintained Kix on 66 Diner for breakfast and coffee before getting back on the Mother Road.
El Rey Court, Santa Fe
Designed and built by the same developer as Albuquerque’s El Vado Motel in 1936, the El Rey Court was another original Route 66 stop before the construction of I-40. The gorgeous property has expanded over time to five acres, with a picturesque pool and swim club, greenhouse, lounge and guest rooms of all sizes. There’s even a trendy Mezcal bar in it’s current iteration. We loved our suite with a kitchenette for our stay here when many restaurants were closed due to pandemic safety.
Santa Fe is so much more than a one-night stop, but it always delivers for a great evening when we’re on the road. When it’s safe to do-so, we love visiting Meow Wolf. Lunch at Museum Hill Cafe is a perfect primer before visiting the Museum of International Folk Art, where you can see the impact of Alexander Girard on the local arts culture beyond his design influence you’ll see at El Rey.
Red Cliffs Lodge, Moab
It’s a little over-the-top to list this gorgeous working ranch on the Colorado River as a “roadside motel,” to be sure, but the long history of this property, from welcoming guests traveling to the beautiful nearby Arches National Park to filming some of the best-known films of the Western movie era, qualifies it as a top vintage stay.
We loved the spacious rooms, morning breakfast on the river and, above all else, the back patios of the guest suites that opened to a greenbelt of grazing ponies (!!). The pristine pool beats the summer heat with a backdrop of canyons. We can’t wait to come back here for at least a week of full recreation with their horseback riding, rafting and gorgeous grounds to explore.
Just thinking about the friendliness, comfort and novelty of these stop-overs makes me want to pack my bags and take a weekend off. Do you have a place you love to stay on the road that feels like home?