Gallup sits at 6,500 feet in elevation in the highlands of western New Mexico, just 20 miles from the Arizona border. The terrain is hilly with steep rocky ridges and many shallow canyons, and cedar trees are common. The city was built on the north facing slope of the canyon carved by the Puerco River (a dry wash). The railroad passes through the canyon, and the streets of the city were laid out to the south of the tracks, on the often steep slopes of the hills. The city has expanded out from there.
The Atlantic and Pacific Railroad was built paralleling the Puerco River in 1881, and Gallup was founded as a railhead. It was named after David Gallup, a paymaster for the railroad. At the 2010 census, it had a population of 21,678 people, making it one of the larger cities of New Mexico.
Historic Route 66 runs through Gallup, and travel-oriented businesses line the highway for several miles. The highway today has been replaced by Interstate 40, which passes through a short distance north of the train tracks. U.S. Highway 491 also serves Gallup, beginning here and heading northward into Colorado and Utah. State Highway 602 heads southward from Gallup, accessing a remote area with few towns.
Gallup has a large Native American population, and is close to the Navajo, Zuni and Acoma Indian Reservations. It has been called the “Indian Capital of the World” and the “Heart of Indian Country”.
The rugged terrain surrounding Gallup served as a setting for numerous movies, and the El Rancho Motel in Gallup is famous for having hosted many famous movie stars, including John Wayne and Ronald Reagan.