Route 66—the iconic Mother Road of the country. Originally built in 1926 and running from Chicago, Illinois to Santa Monica, CA, the highway became one of the most famous roads in the country. It first served to support all the migration west, as well as the industries and towns that were popping up in that time.
By the 1950’s, Route 66 became popular among travelers heading to Los Angeles. The rise in tourism is what led to the revival of many of the existing lodges, turning most into motels, and for some, adding some nice mid-century neon signage.
But road travel started to change pretty quickly, starting in 1956. Larger roads were being built, taking traffic away from the classic two lane options like Route 66. More corporate hotels chains started popping up, which created a different level of convenience and brand trust. And then also, air travel.
To protect the history of Route 66, Route 66 associations started popping up in the 1980’s. The first “Historic Route 66” marker was put up in Springfield, Missouri, and these days various sections of the road are listed on the on the National Register of Historic Places.
Not every motel that once roomed travelers is in still in operation, but there are quite a few. The following are some of the many interesting motels along Route 66.
The Wigwam Motels—also called the “Wigwam Villages”—date back to the 1930s.
They were the brainchild of Frank Redford, who wanted to honor a part of American history. He started with a museum/shop that showcased Native American Artifacts and then continued on to build the wigwams around that.
I happened upon the San Bernadino/Rialto while attending a photo shoot at the location, and got the chance to both see inside the Wigwam rooms, as well as do a bit of exploring on the grounds.
That location was the last of seven Wigwam motels to be built during the years of 1933 to 1949.
Other locations were built in Kentucky, Louisiana, Florida, Arizona, and Alabama, but most of them have not stood the test of time. The Rialto location is one of three that still stands, fully functional after being purchased and restored by the Patel family in 2013. After that restoration process, the motel was added to the list of the National Register of Historic Places.
Each wigwam is 32 feet tall with a poured concrete foundation, wood framing, and a stucco exterior. The rest of the property offers a lobby that’s open 24 hours a day, a pool, a big lawn area, and even some classic cars to look at. The Wigwam Motels are a unique stay as well as an interesting look at the classic type of roadside attraction.
Roy’s Motel and Cafe
Roy’s is one of the locations that is no longer in service as a motel, but that doesn’t stop travelers (and Los Angeles photographers) from making it a destination.
Roy’s is located in Amboy, California, a town that is under the stewardship of a private preservationist in its entirely.
Unlike the former motel and repair shop, Roy’s has a café and gas station that are both in operation.
The motel rooms are empty, white buildings that have been used to host art shows. But the Roy’s neon sign is really the main draw—it’s a mid-century beauty that was put up in 1959, 19 years after the location first opened.
It’s might be important to note that Roy’s is in the Mojave Desert, kind of in the middle of nowhere, and it gets very hot out there. Please prepare for your journey!
Other nearby destinations nearby include the Amboy crater, a dormant cinder cone volcano that is estimated to be 79,000 years old. The last eruption was around 10,000 years ago, which left a 27 square mile lava field surrounding it. The inside of the volcano still houses a lava lake.
Tucumcari, New Mexico’s Roadrunner Lodge is fully functional and welcoming at that. When the motel was rebuilt and restored after five years of abandonment, owner David Brenner made sure to maintain the 1960’s vibe, which goes way beyond the architecture and the aesthetic.
The Roadrunner Lodge Motel even has its own radio station, which is utilized to play not just music, but also commercials from the 60’s.
Roadside time traveling, anyone?
Another Tucumcari, New Mexico classic motel (there are a few), is the Blue Swallow Motel. This motel has been a Route 66 traveler stop since 1939, when it first called The Blue Swallow Court.
It started to go by “motel” in the 1950’s, which at the time was a more modern way of marketing. It was also in that era that its large, blue swallow neon sign came to life.
In the late 1990’s, new owners Dale and Hilda Bakke went through a process of extensive restoration work on the motel, which included modernizing the electrical work while retaining a vintage flair. This is how the 1939 Bell rotary-dial phones came to be installed in each room.
The motel continued to change hands over the years, as well as go through more restoration. In 2020 it was purchased by Robert and Dawn Federico, who intend to protect the motel’s legacy.
Each motel room features a hard copy of a welcoming benediction that was written by Lillian Redman, who owned the Blue Swallow Motel from 1958-1998.
“…May the business that brought you this way prosper. May every call you make and every message you receive add to your joy. When you leave, may your journey be safe…”
The Boots Court Motel
Carthage, Missouri’s Boots Court motel is one of the oldest motels that’s still in operation on Route 66. It was built in 1939 and initially only offered four rooms, which quickly expanded to eight, and later 13.
In its original prime, the motel hosted guests like Clark Gable, Mickey Mantle, and Gene Autry.
At one point the motel went into complete disrepair. It had gone through a series of owners who used it for different things, including at one point low income housing. Ultimately the nonprofit Boots Court Foundation was created to oversee a complete restoration, which it is in the process of now. A portion of the motel remains open in the midst of it.
The Red Garter Inn
The Red Garter Inn was built in 1897 by a German merchant tailor named August Tetzlaff, who carefully designed it to operate as a saloon and bordello. And that it did.
In 1899 a portion of the yard was leased to Fong Chee and Kim Kee, who wanted to operate a pork chop house and restaurant at the location as well. This expanded to a BBQ shed, an outhouse, and…an opium den. As you may or may not know the 1800’s were my top interest as a child, and you can see why—that era was wild!
Its history continues on just as rocky as you might expect. Trouble with fire, trouble at the mines, trouble with Prohibition, illegal flourishing during Prohibition, a sidewalk stabbing. By the 1970’s the Red Garter was being used as a tire warehouse, and then purchased by the current owner John Holst.
These days the inn features four guest suites, each feeling very 1890’s in design, but fulfilling your modern needs with wifi…and your very own bathroom!
The motel is located in Williams, Arizona, about an hour from beautiful Sedona.