The community of Cerrillos exudes the rugged charm and rustic simplicity of the Old West. Cottonwoods line the dirt streets, with adobe homes surrounded by Spanish-style courtyards. Movie studios use the town for movies and commercials regularly due to the stepping back in time, “Old West” vibe. Several buildings on Main Street posted tributes to the movies filmed there, with Young Guns being the most frequently cited. Cerrillos is a very small community, with more parking available for horses than cars. Several of the store fronts on Main Street still have their hitching posts.
Cerrillos, Spanish for “the little hills,” was known for mining long before Europeans arrived. Humans settled in this area long ago, possibly as far back as 500 A.D., when the Basket Maker period was full swing. Puebloans from nearby settlements discovered the gold, lead and turquoise deposits. They used lead to glaze and decorate pottery and used turquoise and gold to produce trading commodities. In fact, Cerrillos has the longest historically intact record of pick and shovel mining in the Southwest.

Ancient Turquoise Mines

The hills around Cerrillos are volcanic, with a distinctive cone shape. They rise a thousand feet above the valley floor. The rich deposits of turquoise at twelve different sites impacted the awareness, uses and valuation of turquoise in the United States and around the world.
Mount Chalchihuitl is the site of the largest known prehistoric mining operation in the world and the largest single deposit of turquoise ever found in North America. The name of the hill with the most substantial deposits, “chalchihuitl,” derived its name from an Aztec word meaning “green.” Native American tribes mined the slopes of  Mount Chalchihuitl and Turquoise Hill since 500 A.D.
The Tano Indians were the first people to establish large villages in the Cerrillos area. They established pueblos, large and small, throughout the Galisteo Basin. Archaeologists believe these sites had populations of no more than a few thousand. Tribal members from San Marcos Pueblo mined and controlled the turquoise deposits around Cerrillos prior to 1300 A.D. From the surface pits, short tunnels and shallow shafts, they extracted large quantities of beautiful greenish blue turquoise. Archaeologists have discovered turquoise specimens they believe originated from Cerrillos in cultural sites as far away as Central America, Canada and the Southeastern U.S. The extent of the mining is impressive because the miners extracted enormous quantities of turquoise using rudimentary stone tools.
Drought cycles forced residents to abandon some pueblos, with evidence of farm land destroyed in battle preserved at Burnt Corn Ruin, five miles east of Cerrillos. Archaeologists found tumbled stones, broken potsherds and discarded stone tools, evidence of the communities that worked the soil and stone of these hills centuries ago.

Volcanic Turquoise in a Variety of Hues

Turquoise is not the only mineral in the Cerrillos Hills. Spanish explorers found gold, silver, and lead. Francisco Coronado sent specimens of Cerrillos turquoise to Spain in 1541 to add to the crown jewel collection according to local legend. Several decades later, a Spanish explorer, Antonio de Espejo, wrote about the treasures mined at a place of “little hills,” giving birth to the name Cerrillos.

After the Spanish discovered the wealth in the Cerrillos Hills, the Tano Indians were used as slave labor. Fifty years of difficult, often violent, co-existence came to an end in 1680 with the Pueblo Revolt. The Tano miners went on strike after several cave-ins. They refused to excavate, protested mining, and hid the mines. Their defiance coincided with the Pueblo Revolt, which drove the Spanish out of the region for twelve years. The Spanish reconquered New Mexico twelve years later, but they never found the mines. They were forgotten for 150 years.

Turquoise in the American West

The stretch between Tijeras and Santa Fe was known for mining in the 1800s. The area attracted a lot of miners in the 1800s. Two prospectors from Leadville, Colorado “rediscovered” the Cerrillos turquoise mines in 1879. They found one of the mines hidden by the Tano. Word traveled quickly, with miners swarming to the hills of Cerrillos. The settlement started as a tent city, but rapidly grew into a commercial hub for miners and ranchers. The railroad completed a spur in 1880, bringing an influx of people to the area, including some of the most notorious, like “Billy the Kid.”

The rapid growth of the town provided opportunity for people settling in the area. The miner’s good fortune trickled down to the businesses that provided for them. Newcomers built hotels, saloons, dance halls, shops and short-order houses. One of the town’s most successful businesses was the Cerrillos Supply Company, which stocked equipment that the miners needed; e.g. shovels, picks, tools, steel and fuses.

Tiffany & Co., and several other jewelry companies in New York, began marketing turquoise as a fashionable gem. Tiffany & Co. acquired mines on Turquoise Hill and mined turquoise for their jewelry. New Mexico’s production of turquoise was valued at $1,600,000 in 1899, with most of it coming from Cerrillos. However, the mines began to shut down by 1900. Like all of New Mexico’s mining towns, the people living there had to move when the mines closed. Cerrillos was considered the capital of New Mexico at its peak; home to more than two thousand people, with four hotels and twenty-one saloons.

The mine yields tapered after 1900, but a small, resilient population remained. The town preserved numerous buildings from the community’s heyday and the museum at the trading post has an impressive variety of artifacts from the American West.

Cerrillos Trading PostIn the Area…

The Casa Grande Trading Post is a great stop, with deals on jewelry, turquoise from the owner’s mine, a petting zoo, a scenic overlook, and the Cerrillos Turquoise Mining Museum.

The noteworthy tree on Main Street (when approaching the church) was the hanging tree. Every old west town needs a hanging tree, right?

Saint Joseph’s church still holds mass on Sundays and provides ambiance for photo opportunists.

The Cerrillos Hill State Park is just outside of town. 1100 acres, with 5 miles of multi-use trails and an ADA trail to the village overlook. Rangers market the trails and there are interpretive signs about mining on The Turquoise Trail. The State Park is located a half mile north of the village on CR 59. For a true “western” experience, spend the afternoon with a horse from Broken Saddle Riding Company.

Cerrillos Lodging

High Feather Ranch B & B
29 High Feather Ranch Rd
Los Cerrillos, NM 87010
(505) 424-1333

Hacienda Dona Andrea
78 Vista Del Oro
Los Cerrillos, NM 87010
(505) 424-8995

More Local Businesses to Check Out…

Origami sculpture garden north of Cerrillos

2 COMMENTS

  1. Great article. We’ve lived in the village of Cerrillos for 40 years and love it. We own the OperaHouse. Inside the Operhouse is a beautiful state-of-the-art recording studio. It opened in 1977. Engineer/co-owner Baird Banner, began building the studio in 1975. It was the first recording studio in New Mexico and is still is business, recording well-known and unknown musicians, bands and poets. Baird and his wife (and musician) Busy McCarroll manage the studio and property.

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