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If you spend enough time driving Route 66 and learning about the highlights along the way, you’ll inevitably stumble upon the El Rancho Hotel and its movie star history. When we found ourselves driving through the American Southwest, we couldn’t resist staying a night. Located right on Route 66 in Gallup, New Mexico, this historic hotel is not only a fun place to sleep, it’s also a fun Route 66 attraction that will have you looking in every nook and cranny for its surprises.
History of El Rancho Hotel
In the 1930s, a man named R.E. Griffith, known as Griff, came to Gallup. He liked the area enough that he decided to build a hotel, so he hired Joe Massaglia to build the hotel on Route 66. In 1936, the hotel was completed. Griff’s brother, movie director D.W. Griffith, used the hotel to house movie stars and production crews that filmed westerns and other films that needed the backdrop of the Old West. Soon, other productions used the hotel as a base due to the hotel’s luxurious rooms and proximity to popular western filming locations.
The hotel hosted many famous performers in those golden years of Hollywood. Over 100 movies were filmed in the Gallup area up until the mid-1960s. Every room at the El Rancho Hotel is named for one of those performers, including John Wayne, Lucille Ball, Mae West, Ronald Reagan, Betty Grable, and one of my favorite comedians, Jack Benny.
The Ronald Reagan room is known as the Presidential Suite.
As time went on, western films began to lose their popularity. One source I read made the interesting point that as more people traveled Route 66, the landscape of western movies became less mysterious since people had actually experienced these amazing deserts with their mesas and buttes. Throw in more movies being filmed and shown in color, and the black and white American Western became more like a relic of the past (“El Rancho Hotel–Route 66: Discover Our Shared Heritage Travel Itinerary”).
As film production in the area lessened, the El Rancho Hotel faced maintenance issues, and in 1986, Armand Ortega purchased the hotel. After extensive renovations, the hotel opened in 1988 and was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The Ortegas still own the hotel, and as of June of 2022, they are currently in the middle of a $6 million renovation project.
We saw some evidence of this renovation during our stay, but it was really minimal and didn’t disrupt our stay at all. The most noticeable project we saw was at the front door. Bricklayers were laying a new brick sidewalk and entranceway.
“El Rancho Hotel–Route 66: A Discover Our Shared Heritage Travel Itinerary.” Nps.gov, 2022, www.nps.gov/nr/travel/route66/el_rancho_hotel_gallup.html. Accessed 20 Aug. 2022.
“Historic El Rancho Hotel | Visit Gallup.” Visit Gallup, 2022, www.visitgallup.com/blog/el-rancho-hotel-a-route-66-classic/. Accessed 20 Aug. 2022.
The El Rancho Lobby: Lower Level
El Rancho Hotel is just one of those places that you need to see at least once in your life. As soon as you step inside, you’ll feel like you’ve stepped back in time.
The lobby, and especially the hearth, reminds me of the many national park lodges we’ve seen.
We arrived a little before check-in time, and our room wasn’t ready, so we had plenty of time to explore.
Check out this old cigarette machine.
How about some music?
Or a shoe shine?
The El Rancho Hotel has many tributes to the stars that have called the hotel their temporary home during filming. Most are on the 2nd level of the lobby, but John Wayne has a display case on the lower level.
You may also get lucky and get to see some weaving in the lobby!
The gift shop, Ortega’s Indian Store, is right by the front desk. They have a lot of great items, including crafts and jewelry. We bought a magnet, of course!
You can also access the restaurant from the lobby. More on that later.
El Rancho Lobby: Upper Level
Even if you’re only stopping by to check out El Rancho, be sure to head upstairs to see the movie memorabilia. You can also use the most ancient elevator I’ve ever encountered. And yes, we used it when we were toting our luggage to our room. Scary.
The upper level is a mezzanine that overlooks the lower level.
The walls are covered with Southwestern art and photos of the movie stars who stayed at El Rancho.
We slowly made our way around the mezzanine, looking at pictures of our favorite stars.
We even found my favorite comedian–Jack Benny
Eventually, you’ll come to the upper-level porch that overlooks the parking lot and Route 66.
Soon, it was time to check in, so we headed back downstairs.
There was a short line by the time we got to the front desk, so we explored the lower-level hallway. You can see a couple of guest rooms through the archway.
There is nowhere in the world quite like the El Rancho Hotel.
From little murals on the walls to Southwestern carpet, this hotel is a place I won’t forget. Even the ceiling is cool!
El Rancho Hotel: Our Room
I know I have a hundred pictures of this place, but somehow I failed to take a picture of the door to our hotel room. So, no big reveal for which room we had. No drum roll. Without the door, it’s just not the same.
Our room was the Tyrone Power room. I know what you may be thinking–who is Tyrone Power? We looked him up and discovered he did a lot of films in the 1930s-1950s, including westerns.
In fact, if you watch the TV show Dark Winds, this room even got a mention when the FBI agent tells Chee about staying in the El Rancho Hotel in the show. We didn’t watch the show until after we stayed here, though, so imagine our excitement as we watched the show and heard our room named. Some things are just fate. Or aligned. Or something.
The room was nice. I know sometimes I say things like “you’re staying here for the history, not luxury,” or “it’s not fancy by today’s standards; you’re staying for that once-in-a-lifetime experience.” Well, here, you don’t have to worry about that. The rooms are quite roomy and contemporary. We were really comfortable. The only thing that was missing that we missed was a fridge.
Our room had Tyrone Power details.
The room was pretty large, actually, especially for an older hotel. Not only did we have the two beds, but we also had a small loveseat area.
The TV is nice, and the western details are pretty cool.
I loved the lamps in the room,
The bathroom is a blast from the past.
But check out the best part of the whole room–Tyrone Power is on the shower curtain.
You may want to leave the shower open at night though, so you don’t wake in the darkness to use the bathroom and scare yourself to death.
Speaking of death, the hotel is said to be haunted. We didn’t have any major experiences in the hotel, just some anomalies in some photos that could just as easily be “user errors.” I mean, I don’t think I have to tell people I’m not an amazing photographer. We did bring our EMF detector and had some high readings near a particular door in the lower-level hallway, but we couldn’t eliminate the fact that there could’ve been some electric something or another near that door. So, take our experience however you’d like.
I will tell you this–I have trouble sleeping in “haunted hotels,” and this one was no exception. I’m better off not knowing a place is reportedly haunted.
Dinner at The Restaurant at El Rancho Hotel
We decided to go all out at the El Rancho Hotel, so we even had dinner at the restaurant. It’s a fun experience since some of the menu items are named after movie stars.
On the back of the menu, you can see if you can name the stars.
We started off with chips and queso, which is not on the menu. I was hoping to get something rather plain for Kristin and me, and they didn’t even blink an eye when I asked. Kristin will eat queso as long as when she dips her chips into the cheese, she can pull them out plain with no peppers attached. I know.
She ordered a child’s chicken strips meal so she could have some room for churros for dessert.
Jeff chose one of the hamburgers–maybe Jack Benny or W.C. Fields. Either way, it was completely plain how he likes them. If you ordered it off the menu as presented, it would look different.
I had the Rita Moreno. Yes, my picky eaters often indulge me so they can eat “normal” things and I can try something special to a location.
After learning in Albuquerque that I am a chili wuss, I didn’t order the chilis “Christmas” this time. Only green chilis for me. It was yummy!
As promised, Kristin was able to get churros for dessert. She doesn’t like caramel, so they are plain. I know. Just know if you order them here that they come with caramel sauce. She likes ice cream, though.
After dinner, we drove around Gallup a little. Soon, it was dark, and it was time to check out the El Rancho Hotel’s neon.
The 49er Lounge
After a drive, Kristin chilled in the room while Jeff and I decided to take a look in the 49er Lounge. This area is undergoing some transition, but the stained glass is pretty awesome.
It was a tad busy at the time, and they were a little short on help, so we decided not to grab a drink after all. But I’m glad we checked it out.
Neon Lights at El Rancho Hotel
One of the best parts of Route 66 is checking out the locations at night, especially if they have some nice neon to see when the sun goes down.
You may notice on the sign that it says “hotel and motel.” There is a motel wing across the side parking lot. Also, the main sign on the actual hotel will change. Sometimes it has the H for hotel, and sometimes it’s an M.
We had fun checking out the neon at different times. This one is more towards dusk. You can see some of the construction barriers at the front where they were replacing the brick sidewalk.
Here is the front door at night.
One benefit of staying the night at a place is that you can experience it at many times of the day. The El Rancho Hotel was awesome as the sky continued to darken.
And don’t forget the pink neon on the side part of the hotel.
During the summer, the balcony is a great place to relax at night.
We had a lovely stay at El Rancho Hotel. It was one of those places we’d always hoped to visit, and this trip provided the perfect opportunity for us to give it a try. We love road trips, history, Route 66, and the Southwest, so this was a no-brainer match for us. Everyone should pay it a visit at least once, even if you only check out the lobby, have a meal, or have a drink. It’s worth a stop on your road trip!
Click below to check out some of our other road trip adventures: