Tucumcari Mountain, near Tucumcari, N.M., has long been one of the Mother Road’s most-recognized natural landmarks.
It was first mentioned in journals in the 1700s, and can be seen for miles from Route 66 and Interstate 40. For the weary traveler looking forward to a night’s sleep in Tucumcari, the sight of the mountain has served as a beacon. And the legend of how the mountain got its name is entertaining, if highly unlikely.
Tucumcari Mountain even served as an inspiration for the mesa seen in the fictional Route 66 town of Radiator Springs in the movie “Cars” — right down to the “RS” letters on the side of the mountain instead of the real-life “T.”
Tucumcari Mountain sports a distinctive look because it looks like two mesas that were plopped on top of each other. According to MountainZone.com, Tucumcari Mountain stands at 4,951 feet above sea level, nearly 1,000 feet above the city for which it’s named.
I’ve been somewhat surprised to see no previous online journals from others who have hiked the mountain. Tucumcari Mountain is dotted with numerous radio and cell-phone towers, which means maintenance trucks have to get up there some way.
It turns out it’s not that easy. First, Tucumcari Mountain is on private property, so there’s always the danger of being caught trespassing. Second, the base of the mountain is 1 1/2 miles down a primitive dirt road, even before you start climbing. Third, hiking the mountain itself can be strenuous, especially when dealing with iffy footing, no water facilities and New Mexico’s intense sun.
Without delving too much into the details, I made arrangements with a local resident, who contacted one of Tucumcari Mountain’s owners to give us permission to hike the mountain, and gave us a ride in his pickup truck to the mountain’s base, sparing us a lot of additional walking.
Emily and I decided to hike up Tucumcari Mountain to see what’s there. We also wanted to share our experience with Route 66ers who would be unable to do this themselves.
The trail going up the mountain is a primitive dirt and gravel road only wide enough for one truck. The image above conveys a gentle grade, but that would change quickly.
Hiking up the mountain to its first “level” requires a few switchbacks.
We obviously weren’t the first sightseers. This chiseled graffiti looks quite old.
When hiking up Tucumcari Mountain, there is another hazard that becomes apparent — erosion. Here’s a huge boulder that eventually will tumble onto the trail.
On our way down, we encountered a few rocks that had come loose and tumbled onto the trail less than an hour before. One of the rocks was the size of a basketball.
On the first level of the mountain are several radio and cell towers.
Nearby is the big “T,” for Tucumcari, halfway up the mountainside. The rocks and boulders that form the letter are whitewashed each year by the local high-schoolers.
In fact, the mops and buckets that were used for the whitewashing were left near a big bush. I guess they’ll use them again next year.
And here’s what the rest of Tucumcari Mountain looks like, from near the first level.
Hiking to Tucumcari Mountain’s uppermost peak was particularly strenuous. The footing on the trail was looser, the grade steeper. We were really sucking air going up the last leg.
There’s a gate to keep unauthorized vehicles from going to the top, but it can be easily walked around.
The hike to the top is the toughest. This gap between the rocks appears natural, but it may have been partly blasted through, too.
The peak of Tucumcari Mountain is about 125 yards wide and flat, just like a mesa. And, of course, there are radio and cell-phone towers, too.
And here’s a view from the top of Tucumcari Mountain, overlooking Tucumcari.
And here’s a 360-degree video from the peak.
One of the most enjoyable parts of the hike was observing the foliage and insects. You wouldn’t think such a rocky environment would support much. But we saw lots of colorful cacti, scrub brush and succulents — many of them in bloom after recent monsoon rains.
Many of the insects were colorful as well. We saw a shiny-blue fly on a flower, and plenty of locusts with bright orange or vivid blue wings. Fortunately, we didn’t see (or hear) any rattlesnakes.
(More photos from Tucumcari Mountain can be seen here.)