With the spectacular landscapes of the Navajo Nation to the northwest, the ancient culture of the Zuni Pueblo to the south, and the lively cities of Albuquerque and Santa Fe to the east, the small town of Gallup, New Mexico is perfectly situated for taking in a surprising number of Southwestern U.S. treasures.
Over the years, I’ve passed through Gallup many times while driving along the east-west Interstate 40 corridor. On a recent road trip to the Navajo Nation and western New Mexico, I decided to take a closer look, and I found Gallup to be a wonderful base for exploring both the multi-faceted town and the destinations all around it.
Like many historic Route 66 towns along I-40, Gallup’s charm isn’t fully apparent from the interstate, where chain motels and restaurants cater to long-haul road trippers. But delve deeper into the historic downtown, the rich Native American culture, and the area’s many outdoor adventures, and you’ll find a fantastically fun spot to spend a few days. I was hosted by Gallup Tourism for a portion of my stay, but my opinions are my own.
Here are 10 fascinating things to do in Gallup.
1. Explore Quirky Downtown Gallup
From the multiple trading posts to the Native American art on display on the street corners, downtown Gallup is the perfect place to immerse yourself in all that the region has to offer.
Since the late 1800s, Gallup has served as an important trading and commerce center for the surrounding Native American communities, and that status continues today, with curio shops selling Navajo rugs, pottery, and jewelry lining the downtown streets.
The downtown area is compact and walkable, and I loved wandering along Route 66, Coal Street, and Aztec Avenue, stopping in at any of the shops that caught my attention. I especially enjoyed the Richardson Trading Post, the Ellis Tanner Trading Co., and the Perry Null Trading Co.
2. Visit Beautiful Red Rock Park
Red Rock Park is billed as the crown jewel of Gallup’s park system, and it is easy to see why. With walls of red rock all around it, the park offers a range of services, including a convention center, rodeo grounds, and campground.
Located north of I-40 on the eastern outskirts of Gallup, Red Rock Park is near the small town of Church Rock, which sits at the base of the soaring rock formation of the same name. Even if there are no events going on at Red Rock Park, it’s worth a drive-through for the great views of Church Rock and other amazing rock formations.
A hiking trail that starts at the parking lot for the Church Rock Post Office offers great views of the steeple-like formation as well as the valley spread below. The Church Rock hike is about 2.6 miles out and back and is rated as moderate.
Pro Tip: Red Rock Balloon Rally
The Red Rock Park is also the site for the December Red Rock Balloon Rally, which features hot-air balloons flying high over the red rocks.
3. Take In The Route 66 Vibe
With trains regularly rumbling through town on one side, and vintage buildings lining the other, Gallup’s stretch of Route 66 will take you back to the heyday of the historic highway.
Route 66 opened in 1926, traversing 2,400 miles from Chicago to Los Angeles. Through the years, the iconic highway became known as the “Mother Road” and the “Main Street of America.”
Gallup’s section of Route 66 stands out for its beautiful neon signs, featuring bright yellow, red, and blue tones. I loved the glowing sign on the El Rancho Hotel and the cute Route 66 sign on Glenn’s Bakery.
4. Spend The Night At The El Rancho Historic Site Hotel
Located right along Route 66, and not far from I-40 sits the historic treasure of the Hotel El Rancho. A sign out front alerts visitors that this is “the home of movie stars,” and the interior walls are covered with photos of dozens of Hollywood stars including John Wayne, Gregory Peck, Humphrey Bogart, and Katharine Hepburn, who stayed at the hotel while filming in the region.
For me, El Rancho’s two-level Southwestern-style lobby was the highlight. Two curved staircases lead to an upper level, where visitors can go out onto a charming open-air balcony and sit in rocking chairs while taking in views of Route 66.
5. Learn About The Navajo Code Talkers At The Cultural Center
The tradition of military service spans multiple generations in Gallup, according to the Visit Gallup website. It adds, “The community’s connection with World War II is particularly poignant, because the 29 Navajo Code Talkers who participated in the pilot program trained at (nearby) Fort Wingate, deploying overseas from the Gallup railroad depot.”
Today, visitors can stop by the Gallup Cultural Center to learn about the crucial role the Navajo Code Talkers played in World War II. The Cultural Center is located on the second floor of the historic Santa Fe Railroad Depot on Route 66. It also tells the story of the early railroad, Route 66, and other histories of the region.
6. Shop Local At An Authentic Flea Market
If you happen to be in Gallup on a Saturday, the Gallup Flea Market is a not-to-be-missed experience. The market, which is billed as one of the largest Native American markets in the U.S., regularly attracts vendors offering everything from handmade jewelry to Navajo rugs to regional food specialties like mutton, tamales, blue corn mush, and elotes (grilled corn).
The flea market is also a good way to buy jewelry and art directly from the artists. When I visited, I was fascinated to see booths selling varieties of tamales and Navajo fry bread alongside stands of colorful pottery and turquoise necklaces and earrings.
7. Savor New Mexico Cuisine At Jerry’s Café
Visitors to Gallup will find many places to sample New Mexico’s famous style of Mexican cuisine. I tried several, and you really can’t go wrong with any of them.
I loved Jerry’s Café for its vintage diner feel, as well as for its convenient downtown location and authentic food. As in many eateries in New Mexico, servers at Jerry’s will ask if you want green or red sauce on your entrée. I tried the green sauce on my chile relleno and cheese enchilada combo plate, and it was rich and flavorful.
I also dined at the Hotel El Ranch Restaurant, which offered delicious Mexican-cuisine choices as well. I loved the Pancho Villa salad with greens, jicama, roasted green chiles, and grilled chicken. The El Rancho restaurant also serves breakfast specialties like the huevos rancheros with eggs, corn tortillas, pinto beans, and green chile, and the Monument Valley enchiladas with corn tortillas, scrambled eggs, hash browns, and chorizo.
More dining spots are available on the Visit Gallup website.
8. Shop For Fine Navajo Rugs And Jewelry At Richardson Trading Post
For one of the region’s largest selections of Native American arts, crafts, and jewelry, head to the sprawling Richardson Trading Post, located right on Route 66 in downtown Gallup. The historic trading post occupies several adjoining buildings and offers a dazzling array of fine Navajo rugs, pottery, paintings, and silver jewelry.
Displays of Navajo squash blossom-style turquoise necklaces stand side-by-side with shelves of intricate Hopi kachinas and rows of saddles. Richardson’s also has a separate rug room, and its huge selection of hand-woven Navajo rugs is a sight to see.
9. Learn About Ancient Culture At The Zuni Pueblo
Less than an hour south of Gallup, visitors can step into an ancient culture that has been occupying the region’s mesas, buttes, and valleys for an estimated 1,300 years. Spanish explorers first encountered the Zuni Pueblo in 1540 during their search for the legendary Seven Golden Cities of Cibola.
The Zuni people are famous for mosaic patterned, inlay jewelry, and you will find fine examples of the signature turquoise bracelets and necklaces in a number of shops, including at the All Tribes Jewelry & Arts along Zuni’s main street.
The Zuni Pueblo is on the Trail of the Ancients Scenic Byway, and tours are available for several of the pueblo’s ancient sites, including the Middle Village and the Village of the Great Kivas. The Our Lady of Guadalupe mission church, which was constructed in 1629, can be visited on a limited basis.
10. See The Splendor Of El Morro National Monument
The Trail of the Ancients Scenic Byway also takes in the hidden-gem El Morro National Monument, a site that is about 40 minutes east of the Zuni Pueblo and about an hour southeast of Gallup.
For centuries, El Morro was a popular campsite for Ancestral Puebloans and Spanish explorers because of a reliable water hole at the base of a sandstone bluff.
Travelers through the ages carved messages and artwork into the soft sandstone of the butte. Today, visitors can see those historic inscriptions along the monument’s popular Inscription Trail, a must-see at the monument. The paved half-mile is rated easy and takes less than an hour to walk. Other trails include the 2-mile Headland Trail (moderate to strenuous), which takes in Atsinna, an Ancestral Puebloan ruin.
Gallup Outdoor Adventure
Gallup is sometimes called the “Adventure Capital of New Mexico,” and its rugged red rock terrain offers a wealth of hiking, mountain biking, and climbing opportunities for all skill levels.
Spring, summer, and fall are all great seasons to visit Gallup. June, July, and August all post average high temperatures in the 80-degree Fahrenheit range, while May and September have average highs in the 70s, and April and October are in the 60s. Winters tend to be cool, with highs in the 40s from December through February.