I-40 Through New Mexico ~ Fire Rock Casino & Indian City!
Traveling from east to west on I-40 through New Mexico is the fastest way to get to the many National Parks and scenic destinations in the Southwest. Because of the desolate vast expanses of this region, the speed limit on I-40 is 75 miles per hour. This means that the travel time that it takes to cover the long distance through New Mexico is somewhat bearable.
It can take nearly one full day to go from one end of New Mexico to the other on I-40. Most of the scenic landscape along this highway consists of flat desert grasslands that stretch out to distant mesas on the horizon. There is not much of anything to break up the monotonous scenery when traversing the eastern half of the state when driving on this freeway. Toward Albuquerque in the center of the state, the long drive on I-40 West does start to get interesting. The southern Rocky Mountain terrain takes over and there are some majestic views. Albuquerque is also a key jumping off point for exploring the ancient native heritage sites of central New Mexico.
Historic Route 66 parallels I-40 all the way through New Mexico, but old Route 66 only acts as a highway frontage road in the wide open spaces. However, the Mother Road is still the main street through most towns along the way and for a tourist, this is where the action is. As one travels further west toward the border of Arizona, the red and orange sandstone rock outcrops paint the desert terrain with views that look as if they belong in classic western landscape painting. The west end of New Mexico along I-40 is as picturesque as can be and this region was called Indian Country back in the golden age of Route 66 tourism.
Many of the old original Route 66 wayside stops have vanished in this region over the years. In some places along “The Mother Road” in New Mexico, the only thing that remains is a few dilapidated buildings and a concrete slab where gas pumps used to be. After seeing the dusty remnants of the past, it is easy to imagine how the livelihood of so many people were devastated when Route 66 was bypassed by I-40 back in the 1960s.
Just like in Arizona, modern New Mexico Route 66 tourism is still thriving in most small towns along I-40 and the old sections of Route 66. A good old fashioned diner restaurant or western style steakhouse can be found in nearly any old town along Route 66 in this state. Everything from RV Parks to old fashioned motels and “cheesy” 1950s style tourist traps can be found in places where the Route 66 lifestyle still lives on. Albuquerque is world famous for its “Mother Road” heritage and this city has a website devoted to everything Route 66.
There are opportunities to experience some cultural exchange along the way when traveling on I-40 through New Mexico, especially in the western half of the state. Tribal nations have gotten into the modern hospitality and tourism industries and there are a few tribal casino resorts and casinos along this road that are worth checking out. Some of these resorts are the closest accommodations to nearby Native American Heritage Sites and National Monuments, which is a nice convenience.
By the time that I was approaching the border of Arizona while hurrying along on I-40, it was a few hours after dark. Hunger started setting in, so I decided to find accommodations in the town of Church Rock in the Navajo Nation. As luck would have it, the Navajo Fire Rock Casino was on Route 66 in Church Rock and as everybody knows, a casino usually has a restaurant that is guaranteed to be open late at night, so this was a good choice for curbing the hunger.
As it turned out after stepping through the Fire Rock Casino door, Cheii’s Restaurant was having its grand opening after a recent remodel. The new menu featured many Native American food specialties from around the local Four Corners region. A good vegetarian stew sounded like pure revitalization after being on the road all day, so I tried the Four Corners Stew. The Four Corners Stew was made with local Navajo farm sourced squash, beans, maize and sweet potatoes. This old fashioned Navajo vegetable stew definitely revived the dulled senses after the long drive. After the great meal at Cheii’s Restaurant, I played casino card games for a few hours and made enough money to top off the tank with gas before calling it a night. The visit to the Fire Rock Casino turned out to be a memorable Route 66 style experience!
Toward the western end of New Mexico, there are many Navajo, Hopi and Zuni trading posts along both I-40 and Route 66 that are worth checking out. These trading posts offer an opportunity to purchase priceless mementos of a once in a lifetime vacation out west. The trading posts offer a vast selection of Hopi Kachina along with Apache or Navajo rugs, pottery and works of fine art. Navajo and Zuni silver or turquoise jewelry is what many of the native trading posts are famous for. The craftsmanship of the local silversmiths is exquisite and the jewelry has meaningful design.
Chee’s and Indiand good roadside trading posts to keep an eye out for when traveling through western New Mexico on I-40 and both of these trading posts are located at the same exit ramp. Of course quality commands a price and you get what you pay for when shopping at a trading post and this is important to keep in mind. There are cheap trinkets that are made in China, which are easy to recognize and these items are okay for children. The handcrafted local goods do command a higher price and often the items are made by famous native artists. The Navaho trading posts usually offer utilitarian items too. I actually found an old fashioned manufactured wool blanket with a Southwestern style design when shopping at Indian City. I also purchased a Navaho Horse Hair Pottery item as a gift for some relatives too. Money goes a long way in these parts and the money spent does help the infrastructure of Navajo Nation Tourism, which is a good cause.
As one can see, traveling west on I-40 through New Mexico does not have to just be a long boring drive. All it takes is getting off the four lane expressway and doing a little exploring on good old historic Route 66 to perk things up. Stretching the legs while grabbing a bite to eat or doing some shopping at a trading post definitely breaks up the monotony and nearly anything purchased will be a conversation piece for many years to come!