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Turquoise Trail of New Mexico
June 23, 2011
The Turquoise Trail National Scenic Byway connects ancient mines and ghost towns reborn as artist communities. With eye-ache blue skies and hundred-mile views, it’s easy to see why the high desert hills along the New Mexico Turquoise Trail have a history of inspiring both artists and mystics. From Albuquerque to Santa Fe, the 65-mile-long National Scenic Byway, NM 14, parallels I-25, but it passes through a world where the mining and jewelry-making have changed little since puebloan miners chiseled the sacred blue stone from shallow digs.
The Southwest Indians called turquoise “chalichihuiti,” or sky stone, and considered it a sacred talisman for health, happiness and protection. Archeologists unearthed 56,000 pieces of turquoise in a single burial at nearby Chaco Canyon. Mayan ruins as far away as Honduras contained jewelry with stones mined from the Cerrillos Hills along the New Mexico Turquoise Trail. The following is a suggested itinerary for those interested in a day trip to small New Mexico towns and artist communities. Traditional jewelry-making by ACVB - New Mexico Turquoise Trail
4-8 hours, 120 miles round trip
Old Town Albuquerque to Tijeras
Tijeras to Madrid
Madrid to Cerrillos
All stops accommodate tour buses and RVs
Old Town to Tijeras
(From Old Town, I-40 east to Tijeras, exit 175, 20 miles)
To learn more about the local history of turquoise, start at the Turquoise Museum at the corner of Rio Grande and Central Ave., across the street from Old Town. The museum displays turquoise from 30 mines across the Southwest, while the lapidary shop demonstrates how the mineral is cut, polished and set in jewelry. Joe Dan Lowry, the owner and fourth-generation turquoise miner, will gladly give you an impromptu Turquoise 101 lesson.
Tijeras to Madrid
(From Tijeras, NM 14 north, 30 miles)
Continue north through Cedar Crest. Little museums, bizarre roadside attractions, fine-art and craft galleries, trading posts, B&Bs, and mom-and-pop cafes line the winding corridor through the juniper-piñon covered hills. Take time to chat with the owners and you’ll discover people who are inspired, wacky and visionary, but most of all, who have an ardent passion for life.
Miniature checkers exhibit at Tinkertown in the East Mountains along the Turquoise Trail of New Mexico
At the crossroads at San Antonito, NM 536 spurs off to Sandia Crest. On the way up, stop at the Tinkertown Museum, the life work of folk artist Ross Ward. From miniature carved figures and animated dioramas to wacky western memorabilia, the 22-room collection was featured on Good Morning America and visited by the Dalai Lama.
From 10,678-feet on the Sandia Crest, the view stretches across Albuquerque and the Rio Grande valley to Mt. Taylor, 65 miles distant. Trails lead along the rim from the Crest House Gift Shop and Restaurant, which serves delicious green-chile cheeseburgers and chicken quesadillas. See the Nature Tour for more activities in the Sandia Mountains.
Back on NM 14, don’t blink twice or you’ll miss the ghost town of Golden, site of the first gold rush west of the Mississippi in 1825. The booming town supported saloons, businesses, a mercantile store, school, and a stock exchange. The small but ornate San Francisco Catholic Church, built in 1830, is still in use.
Approaching Madrid (pronounced MAD-rid), a sign warns “Congestion Ahead.” On weekends, pedestrians turn the village into one extended shopping mall as they crisscross the highway between galleries and shops. Park at any of the galleries and join the procession. Madrid is one of the few towns in the Southwest where most of the galleries are still artist-owned.
Madrid offers the best choices for lunch along the route. The Mine Shaft Tavern serves a locally inspired roadhouse breakfast, lunch and dinner menu. A small café, coffee shop and soda fountain-deli round out the options.
Down the street, “Maggie’s Main Street Diner” may look familiar if you saw the movie “Wild Hogs” (2007) starring John Travolta. The storefront was built as a prop for the film. The area’s stunning scenery has attracted dozens of films, including “All the Pretty Horses” (2000), “Young Guns” (1988) John Wayne’s “The Cowboys” (1973), and “Easy Rider” (1969).
Madrid to Cerrillos
The New Mexico Turquoise Trail leaves Madrid and enters the fabled Cerrillos Hills where the pueblo Indians mined the sacred blue mineral for jewelry and trade for thousands of years. The Spanish conquistadors sent Cerrillos turquoise back to Spain for the crown jewels. Boom-town Cerrillos sprung up when gold was discovered in the 1870s. At its peak, it sported 21 saloons, five brothels and four hotels.
Driving into the old mining town feels like entering a western movie set. The dirt streets, adobe houses and clapboard storefronts haven’t changed much since cars replaced horses. Only Saint Joseph’s Church, built in 1922, a bar and a few businesses remain. Be sure and check out the Casa Grande Trading Post and Mining Museum with its petting zoo and thousands of artifacts.
The Turquoise Trail in New Mexico leaves the desert hills and continues past Lone Butte onto the treeless sagebrush plains. Pronghorn antelope sometimes graze near the highway and the Sangre de Christo Mountains form a scenic backdrop. NM 14 crosses I-25 where you can return to Albuquerque or continue into Santa Fe.
For more detailed information about The Turquoise Trail National Scenic Byway, please visit www.turquoisetrail.org. Learn more about the cultures of Native Americans in New Mexico!