The U.S. Department of Transportation combined the Sandia Crest Scenic Byway (NM 536) and the Turquoise Trail Scenic & Historic Byway (NM 14) into a single route on June 15, 2000. They named the merger the “Turquoise Trail National Scenic Byway.” It begins in Tijeras, New Mexico and travels 65 miles to the outskirts of Santa Fe. Sandia Peak is the highest peak at 10,600 feet above sea level.
The road begins high above the Chihuahuan Desert, overlooking Albuquerque and the Rio Grande Valley, surrounded by plateaus, hills and mountains. Tijeras is the first town of the route, located in the canyon by Interstate 40. The community is a launching point for recreation in the Cibola National Forest. There is camping and an RV park available in Cedar Crest, as well as a beautiful golf course just outside of Sandia Park, Paako Ridge. Parking for Sandia Ski Resort is on NM 536, on the way to Sandia Peak. There are lots of hiking, biking and horseback riding options on the way to the crest.
Every small town on the Turquoise Trail has museums, galleries, restaurants, shops, and many interesting tales to tell. Humans have lived in this area for thousands of years, from ancient pueblo settlements to rowdy mining towns in the American West. This route provides a smorgasbord of options, from galleries and museums, to trails and old mining towns. Though there has been a growth in the amount of traffic over the last couple of decades, the Turquoise Trail retains an eccentric, authentic western charm.
History of the Turquoise Trail
The Turquoise Trail is synonymous with Native American spirituality, Spanish explorers, mining towns, and brave pioneers. The name is based on centuries of turquoise mining in the area. The Puebloan people that settled on the Rio Grande extracted the greenish blue stone from the Ortiz Mountains and surrounding hills since roughly 900 AD. The early inhabitants were agrarian. They worked fields in the Rio Grande valley and hunted game in the bosque near the river, and on the plains east of the Sandia Mountains. Turquoise was a valuable trading commodity.
Rumors of wealth comparable to the Aztecs filtered south to Mexico City and the second wave of conquistadors traveled north, hoping to emulate or surpass the wealth seized by from the Aztecs. Francisco Vazquez de Coronado’s led an expedition of two thousand men into the region in 1540 looking for “Cibola and the Seven Cities of Gold.” His subsequent two year odyssey is a case study about unreliable information and being motivated by impulse and greed, but that is another article.
Coronado took over a pueblo on the Rio Grande near present day Bernalillo. His party spent two winters there, looking for gold from Kansas to the Grand Canyon during warmer months. Coronado never found any gold. He returned to Mexico City empty-handed in 1542. The irony is his winter camp is about 30 miles away from Golden, New Mexico, which was the site of the first gold rush west of the Mississippi in the 1820s. There was plenty of gold in New Mexico. Whereas Coronado focused on looking for gold in the hands of natives, the gold was still in the streams and in the ground. The native population prefers Turquoise.
Sandia Ranger Station provides a welcome center with maps, area information, restrooms, travel/road conditions, and tips regarding trails and sites to see in the area. They are located in Sandia Park (see map). (505) 281-3304
New Mexico Public Lands Information Center provides excellent resources for outdoor recreation on state or federal land. Maps, guide books, permits and LOTS of free information. This location is at the Santa Fe end of highway 14 (see map). Look for the dinosaurs…local peculiarity and a great photo opportunity. 301 Dinosaur Trail, Santa Fe, New Mexico, (877) 276-9404
- Sporadic cell phone reception depending on carrier. Verizon tends to be better than others. May lose signal briefly en route.
- Gas stations are available in Cedar Crest, Sandia Park and San Marcos, with nothing in between.
- The stretch of Route 66 that runs parallel to I-25 between Tijeras and Albuquerque is equipped with rumble strips that play America the Beautiful when you go 45 mph. If you plan to drive any speed other than 45 mph, the rumble strips are incredibly annoying. Take the highway.
- The highest point on the byway is Sandia Crest at 10,678 feet. Take NM 536 in Sandia Park, which is also the last opportunity to get gas when heading towards Santa Fe.
Towns on the Turquoise Trail
The area has a lengthy mining history involving gold, silver, copper, turquoise and coal. Whereas people often refer to Golden, Madrid and Cerrillos as ‘ghost towns,’ the current residents are very much alive and may not agree. Madrid does report a lot of ghosts seen in town, but those reporting may, or may not, have been at the Mineshaft Tavern for one too many rounds. However, there are numerous legitimate ghost towns in the area; many on inaccessible private land. Several are visible from the road, often appearing unexpectedly when taking random short cuts across the mesa.
Art and history in Tijeras
The name Tijeras means “scissors” in Spanish. It applies to the canyon passing through the Sandia mountains east to west, as well as to the village that lies within the canyon. The original name of the canyon was Cañon de Carnué, but that has been lost to time.
The original inhabitants of the canyon were Pueblo people, occupying Tijeras Pueblo near the present-day town of Tijeras. The site has been deserted since 1425, but there are paths available to view the site and learn more about the history.
In October 2014, Tijeras gained national notoriety for the nearby “musical road” on old Route 66. The rumble strip grooves in the roadway play “America the Beautiful” when motorists are traveling 45 mph. It is just annoying at other speeds so stay on I-25 if you aren’t in the mood.
Tijeras Archaeological Site
The Tijeras Pueblo Archaeological Site is a testament to how long humans have inhabited the canyons east of Albuquerque. Tijeras Pueblo was a thriving community of up to four hundred people, formed 1313 AD. During prosperous years, it was a great location, because the village had trading partners nearby and they had water to grow corn and other crops among the pinon and juniper. Unfortunately, water supply varies dramatically from season to season. Drought forced most of the villagers to migrate. The few that remained resurrected the pueblo briefly, though on a smaller scale. However, they were forced to abandon the site completely in the early 1400s. Today, the two hundred room pueblo is cloaked underneath a grass-covered mound. Archaeologists created a model based on exploration, but they back-filled the excavation site to prevent vandalism and erosion.
Tijeras is the southern gateway to The Turquoise Trail. There is a visitor center for the Cibola National Forest in town. They provide maps and information about the area. The Cibola National Forest encompasses two million acres across three states.
There are numerous trails available for hiking, biking, horseback riding, camping, skiing and snow shoeing (varies yearly). The forest is host to many Native American ceremonies, traditions that begun as early as 10,000 BC when the Clovis Paleo Indians started hunting in the area.
With about one thousand people, Cedar Crest is one of the larger communities along the Turquoise Trail. Check your gas tank if you are starting your adventure, because Cedar Crest and Sandia Park are the last opportunities to get gas and air until you are almost to Santa Fe. Camping is available for travlers exploring the Sandia mountains and there are numerous hiking trails on the way to the crest. The trail following the crest to the Kiwanis cabin and the tram is the most popular. The crest trail connects with several others. Two routes follow the top of the mountain. One goes through the forest and the other follows the face of the mountain, with lots of stairs. The one through the forest is leisurely.
The Museum of Archaeology and Material Culture is in Cedar Crest. Exhibits explore the 12,000 year story of North America’s earliest inhabitants from early migrations to the Battle of Wounded Knee in 1890. There are restaurants, lodging, camping and an RV Park available in Cedar Crest, with horse rental for trail riding in the Cibola National Forest.
Side Route to Sandia Peak
Sandia Park is up the road from Cedar Crest. If you want to head to Sandia Peak, catch NM 536. It is a beautiful area, rarely crowded despite being outside of New Mexico’s largest city. There are opportunities for biking hiking, horseback riding, rock climbing, skiing and birdwatching on the way to the peak.
Tinkertown Museum, which began as a hobby and passion of the late artist Ross J. Ward, is located on the Crest Road. It offers amazing animated miniature of Old West Town and circus relics, among thousands of hand-carved figures. The surrounding community hosts shops, eateries and other local services.
There are two ways to get to the top of the mountain. The thirteen mile drive to the Crest via NM 536 or a 15 minute ride up from Albuquerque on one of the world’s longest trams. Sandia Tram is 2.7 miles with an 11,000 square mile panoramic view. About 10% of the state of New Mexico is visible from the top on a clear day. It is normal to watch other parts of the state have a storm while remaining bone dry. During the summer, the chairlift at the ski resort ferries bikers to the top of the mountain to plummet down over fifteen miles of trails. When Mother Nature is generous with snow, Albuquerque skiers can take the tram to the top and enjoy a day of skiing.
Sandia Man Cave
The National Parks Service designated Sandia Man Cave a National Historic Landmark in 1961 based on its significance as a paleo-american site. Located on NM 165 off of NM 536 (heading to Placitas), the site represents one of the earliest known occupations of the Americas. Excavations have generated information on three distinct prehistoric groups.
Cedar Crest Lodging
Elaine’s Bed & Breakfast Comfort and hospitality in a three story log home. (505) 281-2467 or (800) 821-3092
Cedar Crest Inn & Hostel Large hacienda with passive solar features. Dormitory and private rooms available. (505) 281-4117
Cedar Crest Country Cottage Guest ranch and vacation rental with beautiful views of the Sandia’s sloping east side. (505) 281-5197
Turquoise Trail RV Park: Recreational facilities include hot tub, heated swimming pool, a community building, picnic areas and hiking trails. (505) 281-2005
The first gold rush west of the Mississippi was in Golden, New Mexico. Prospectors discovered placer gold in Tuerto Creek, on the southwest side of the Ortiz Mountains. Miners established two small camps in the late 1820’s; El Real de San Francisco and Placer del Tuerto. Large companies invested in the mines. They brought in an influx of workers.
The miners built the San Francisco Catholic Church around 1830, shortly after the boom began. The church catered to both camps. Eventually the men living in the camps migrated towards the town forming around the church. Mining was lucrative in the area for decades, attracting many fortune seekers to the area. The rowdy mining community that emerged was named Golden in 1879, with a post office opening the following year. The community was the center of the new gold-mining district. The mines supported several saloons, businesses, a school, and a stock exchange. However, the population dwindled with the ore coming out of the mines. The residents that remained turned to ranching.
The San Francisco church is one of the most photographed buildings on the Trail. It was restored in the 1960s by historian and author Fray Angelico Chavez during his tenure as priest of the San Jose church in Cerrillos. The ruins of the town’s stone schoolhouse are on the west side of Highway 14, opposite the church.
Madrid (pronounced MAD-rid) was established as a company town. Coal mining began around 1835. The community that emerged was named Coal Gulch. The coal extracted was the purest variety and the amount extracted was massive. For example, at its peak the town produced 250,000 tons of coal a year, boasting a population larger than Albuquerque. However, as the mines closed, the miners moved on and Madrid became a ghost town for about twenty years. Veterans and artists traveling through New Mexico after the Vietnam War moved into the cabins. They established businesses, galleries and shops. Today, Madrid is a haven for artists and a quirky stop on the Turquoise Trail for visitors. No gas station.
Longest Bar in the State
The Mineshaft tavern is the oldest continually run tavern in Santa Fe County. It is also one of my favorite saloons in the state. It has a past. I would not want to send a bacterial sample from those floors to a lab. The coal company built the original tavern around 1895, during Madrid’s boom. The original structure burned on Christmas Day in 1944. The town rebuilt. They completed the current incarnation of the Mineshaft Tavern in 1947. The forty foot pine and oak bar is the “longest bar in the state.” They designed the bar for miners, who wanted to stand at the bar after hunching all day in the mines. A lot of the interior is original.
The Old Coal Mine Museum is the final resting place for all sorts of “stuff” from years as a coal mining town – an eclectic and quirky mix of whatever seems to have been deemed worthy of saving when the mine shut down and the miners left. Visitors will find everything from an old Model T to one of the earliest X-ray machines in New Mexico. Additionally, the museum has numerous “ghost town buildings” from the 1890’s coal mining operation, including the unique “Engine House Theatre” that once housed Engine 769.
- Johnson’s of Madrid | (505) 471-1054
- Studio 14 | (505) 474-6360
- Indigo Gallery | (505) 438-6202
- Color & Light Arts | (505) 424-7877
- Mostly Madrid | (505) 474-6560
Java Junction B & B
Madrid, NM 87010
Ghost Town Trading Post Casitas
Madrid, NM 87010
More in Madrid
Cerrillos (the little hills) was known for mining long before the search for gold and silver lured the Spanish to the area. Mount Chalchihuitl is the site of the largest known prehistoric mining operation as well as the largest single deposit of turquoise ever found in North America. Native American cultures worked the slopes of Mount Chalchihuitl and Turquoise Hill extensively, as early as 500 A.D. Archaeologists have found turquoise from Mount Chalchihuitl from Canada to Mexico.
Humans settled in this area long ago, possibly as far back as 500 AD when Basket Maker Indians were in their prime. Gold, lead and turquoise deposits attracted inhabitants from the nearby pueblos. The lead ore was used to glaze and decorate traditional Rio Grande pottery and the turquoise and gold could be used to produce trading commodities. In fact, Cerrillos has the longest historically intact record of pick and shovel mining in the Southwest.
For more information on the mining history of 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 tree on Main Street near the church was the hanging tree. Every “Old West” town needs a hanging tree.
Saint Joseph’s church still holds mass on Sundays and provides ambiance for photo opportunists. The Cerrillos Hill State Park is outside of town, with 1100 acres, including five miles of multi-use trails, and an ADA trail to the village overlook. The trails are marked and tell the story of mining on The Turquoise Trail. The State Park is located 1/2 mile north of the village on CR 59. Horses can be rented at Broken Saddle Riding Company for a true ‘western’ experience.
High Feather Ranch B & B
29 High Feather Ranch Rd
Los Cerrillos, NM 87010
Hacienda Dona Andrea
78 Vista Del Oro
Los Cerrillos, NM 87010
More in Cerrillos
- Casa Grande Trading Post
- Sculpture Garden
- Ortiz Mtn Educ Preserve
- Astronomy Adventures
- Cerrillos Hills State Park
- Broken Saddle Riding
Things to See & Do
- Crest Trail | Download Trail Map
- La Luz Trail | Download Trail Map
- Pino Trail | Download Trail Map
- Los Duendes Trail | Download Trail Map
- Cerrillos Park | Download Trail Map
- Tijeras Pueblo Archaelogical Site | (505) 281-3304
- San Francisco de Asis Church | (505) 471-1562
- Madrid Old Coal Town Museum | (505) 473-0743
- Casa Grande Mining Museum | (505) 438-3008
- Cerrillos Hills State Park | (505) 474-0196
- Cedar Crest Stables | (505) 980-7429
- Broken Saddle Stables | (505) 424-7774
- Horse trails in Sandias
- Cerrillos State Park
Biking alternative: Several dirt roads connect Highway 14 to I-25, mostly with no traffic, a couple with ghost towns.
Turquoise Trail Campground: RV sites, tent sites and cabins. The RV sites include full hookups in grassy areas with picnic tables. RV sites with just water and electric connections are available. A dump station is available for those who stay on sites without sewer hookups. The tent sites are in a separate area with picnic tables, charcoal grills, restrooms, showers and a dish-washing station.
Hidden Valley RV Park: 104 camping sites, including 85 full hookups. Recreational facilities include hot tub, heated swimming pool, a community building, picnic areas and hiking trails. Molly’s Bar, which is located on the old Route 66 and features live musical entertainment, is a few minutes to the southwest of the resort.