The Turquoise Trail National Scenic Byway
Plan your day trip on the Turquoise Trail National Scenic Byway
A full day of western adventure lies just a few miles south of Santa Fe on the Turquoise Trail National Scenic Byway. Also known as New Mexico Highway 14, the Turquoise Trail will carry you through scenic landscapes ranging from wide-open prairies to rugged mountain tops, and through ten thousand years of human history from an early “cave man” site to a modern movie set.
Start your trip in Santa Fe
To begin your trip from Santa Fe, take either St. Francis Drive (US 84/285) or Old Santa Fe Trail/Old Pecos Trail to I-25 southbound (toward Albuquerque) and exit at NM 14 southbound (toward Madrid.) Do not take Cerrillos Road (also called NM 14) from downtown, as it is Santa Fe’s commercial strip and is very slow going.
Start your day early enough to have breakfast at San Marcos Café, located a few miles south of the freeway on NM 14 at milepost 39. There is no sign by the road but look on the right for the old farm windmill and the candy-apple red sculpture. The café features both New Mexican and American-style dishes, and the cinnamon rolls are justly famous. San Marcos is local favorite and you may experience a wait on the weekends.
Fueled with a good breakfast, you can now begin your sightseeing tour with a little bit of faux history at the J. W. Eaves Movie Ranch. Built in 1969, the Ranch is an active movie set featuring an Old West town where movies such as The Cheyenne Social Club, Billy Jack, and Silverado have been filmed. Between movie shoots, the sets are open for tours by appointment, 505-474-3045. To find the Ranch, continue south on NM 14 and turn right on Bonanza Creek Road (NM 45). Proceed one mile and turn left on Rancho Alegre Road. The ranch is another seven-tenths of a mile on the left.
San Marcos Pueblo
Continue your tour by heading south on NM 14, and watch for milepost 37. As you descend into the arroyo look through the trees to the left (east) for a series of irregular, grassy mounds. They are the buried remains of one of the largest prehistoric villages in the southwest, San Marcos Pueblo.
Settled in the early 1300s, the Pueblo quickly grew to more than 2000 rooms set in 38 separate room blocks covering almost 60 acres along San Marcos Creek. Puebloans called San Marcos the “corn village” because, in years of good rain, its residents grew a large crop which not only gave them relative prosperity, but made their pueblo the most powerful in the region. San Marcos’ occupants also distinguished themselves by developing unusual lead glaze-decorated pottery and by making turquoise ornaments, both of which they traded to surrounding pueblos and beyond.
San Marcos played an important role in the Pueblo Revolt of 1680 which temporarily drove the Spanish out of New Mexico. Although successful in the short term, the revolt caused tremendous upheaval in pueblo life and many families left San Marcos for other villages to the north and west.
The return of the Spanish in 1692 ignited inter-pueblo warfare as well as further hostilities with the Europeans. As a result, San Marcos was permanently abandoned by the early 1700s. The site is now owned and protected by the Archaeological Conservancy which offers group tours by appointment, 505-266-1540.
Allan Houser Sculpture Garden
Your next stop is a magical experience in contemporary Native American life and art: the sculpture garden of renowned Apache artist, Allan Houser. Considered the most influential Native American artist of the 20th century, Houser produced 450 limited edition bronze sculptures and over 500 unique works in wood, stone and fabricated metal.
About 85 of these sculptures can be viewed in the 12-acre garden by appointment, 505-471-1528. The hilltop site also affords a spectacular 360-degree view of the Galisteo Basin and the Sangre de Cristo, Jemez, Sandia and Ortiz Mountains.
To find the Houser compound, turn left on NM 42 and proceed 1.4 miles to Haozous Road, turn left and look for the sign on the left.
The Village of Cerrillos
Continue on Highway 14 South to the right-hand turn-off at County Road 57 and on into the village of Cerrillos. This dusty, little mining berg was nearly a ghost town a few decades ago, but has been undergoing a slow revival, polishing some of its architectural gems without losing a bit of its old west character.
Park the car and wander on foot: you will easily find the galleries and antique shops scattered about the tiny village. Be sure to seek out the Casa Grande Trading Post, Petting Zoo, and Mining Museum on Waldo and Third Streets, one block south of Main.
Back in the car, take First Street north, across the Santa Fe railroad tracks and follow the signs to the Cerrillos Hills Historic Park on Route 59.
The park was established in 2003 to preserve the local ecosystem and the 1100-year history of mining in Los Cerrillos. (The name Cerrillos Hills is actually redundant as Cerrillos means “little hills” in Spanish). Several miles of trails in this “hiking only” park take you past several abandoned mine sites and interpretive signs describe the geology, flora and fauna of the hills.
As early as 900 AD early puebloan peoples mined turquoise at the base of the distinctively conical hill in the middle of Los Cerrillos, named Mount Chalchihuitl, the Aztec word for the blue stone. Highly valued by Native peoples, Cerrillos turquoise was traded extensively throughout the southwest and deep into Mexico.
The pueblo of San Marcos probably controlled the mines during its heyday, and miners from the nearby pueblos of Santo Domingo, Cochiti, and San Felipe continued to extract turquoise well into the 20th century.
The early Spanish settlers had very little interest in turquoise mining although they did find small amounts of silver in Los Cerrillos.
The big mining boom, however, came in the late 1870s when the combination of the Santa Fe Railroad, industrial mining technology, and east coast capital resulted in hundreds of mining claims seeking not only turquoise and silver, but also copper, lead, zinc, and manganese.
The most famous of the Cerrillos mines of the American Territorial era was the Tiffany turquoise mine, owned by the famous New York City jewelry and tableware company.
Spurred by a brief craze for “Indian-style” jewelry and silverwork, Tiffany removed two million dollars in turquoise from the north end of Los Cerrillos in the 1890s, before the bottom dropped out of the market and the mine was sold. The Great Depression ended commercial mining in the area, but many hobby miners still find small amounts of turquoise and silver.
Historic Madrid, New Mexico
Continue your tour by heading south on NM 14 to the coal mining town of Madrid (pronounced “MAD-rid.”) In the 1890s, Madrid was larger than Albuquerque, but the closing of the mines in 1954 turned it into a ghost town almost overnight. In that year the entire town was listed for sale for $250,000, but attracted no buyers.
Today, many of Madrid’s houses and commercial buildings have been restored and are home to dozens of artists and galleries. Park your car and stroll up and down the main street to browse a diverse selection of mostly New Mexico artwork. For a bit of Madrid lore, visit the Old Coal Mine Museum and its quirky collection of early mining and transportation equipment. If, by this time, you find your stomach growling, check out the celebrated Mine Shaft Tavern (adjacent to the museum) for good road food, or Tocororo Café for tasty Cuban dishes.
The Ortiz Mountains
As you drive south out of Madrid you will gain beautiful views of the rugged Ortiz Mountains on the left, and then the long, rounded Sandia Mountains on the right. Though very different in appearance, both mountain ranges have their origin in a rare geological process called a “rift.” About 30 million years ago, New Mexico began to pull apart along lines that now form either side of the Rio Grande Valley. As the geologic plates went opposite directions, the earth between them dropped down creating the valley, and the rocks on either side pushed up, forming mountains. The Sandias are a large chunk of the uplifted rock, while the Ortiz are the remnants of volcanoes that erupted through the moving and cracking rock.
Old, weathered volcanic ranges often produce precious minerals, and this was true of the Ortiz Mountains. Placer gold (loose gold often found in stream beds) was discovered there in 1825, setting off the first gold rush west of the Mississippi, more than two decades before the ‘49ers flocked to northern California. In 1879, a mining camp called Golden was chosen as the commercial center for the various mines in the area, and the town quickly accumulated homes, saloons, shops, a school, and a post office. Within ten years, however, most of the gold was played out and the town went into a slow decline.
The villages of Golden and San Antonito
The remains of Golden lie in a quiet valley about 15 miles south of Madrid. You know you’re arriving in town when the picturesque San Francisco Church comes into view on top of the hill on your left. Built in the 1830s, the church was restored in the 1960s by New Mexico’s beloved historian / priest, Fray Angelico Chavez, and is now a favorite of artists and photographers. In the valley, across the road from the church, are ruins of the old stone schoolhouse. The only business regularly open to the public is the Golden General Merchandise, built in 1918, and thus a relative newcomer to the town. Now, part museum and part store, the General Merchandise is stocked with very reasonably priced pueblo pottery and jewelry.
Continue south for eleven miles on NM 14 to the village of San Antonito and turn right on NM 536. One mile up on the left, turn in at the Tinkertown Museum. This amazing and maniacal 22-room museum contains tens of thousands of hand carved figures assembled into animated, miniature dioramas including a three-ring circus and a frontier town. The collection is housed in a structure comprised of 51,000 glass bottles and myriad western artifacts. Having assembled it over a period of 40 years, the museum’s creator, Ross Ward, said, “I did all this while you were watching TV.”
Drive through the Cibola National Forest
If you leave Tinkertown with your vision intact, continue on NM 536 for a side excursion on a section of the Turquoise Trail known as the Sandia Crest Scenic Byway. This winding, fourteen-mile drive through the Cibola National Forest takes you to the top of Sandia Peak, standing 10,678 feet above sea level and more than a mile above downtown Albuquerque which lies at the mountain’s southwestern edge.
On a clear day – that is, almost every day in New Mexico – the panoramic view from Sandia Crest encompasses 11,000 square miles of varied terrain including the middle Rio Grande valley, the western edge of the Great Plains, and six different mountain ranges. The crest includes a snack bar and gift shop with good indoor and outdoor viewing areas.
If you are game for a high altitude hike, pick up a trail map from the US Forest Service desk just inside the Sandia Crest House gift shop. Dozens of miles of trails invite you to explore the crest or even hike back down the mountain.
If you prefer not to drive all the way up to the crest, take the Summer Chair Lift from the base of Sandia Peak Ski Area, located past milepost 6 on NM 536. Rent mountain bikes at the Double Eagle II base facility and pedal (or brake) your way back down the mountain.
If lunchtime intervenes, enjoy the views from the top of the ski area at High Finance Restaurant and Tavern. At the ski crest (which is a 1.8-mile hike from auto access to the Crest) you also will see the Sandia Peak Tramway-the world’s longest aerial tram that ascends Sandia’s nearly vertical western face, carrying skiers to the top.
Coming back to Santa Fe
Now that you’ve reached the literal high point of your Turquoise Trail excursion, it’s time to plan your return trip to Santa Fe. Of course, you can backtrack north on NM 14, but if you have time to see a few more sites, there are three other scenic options: the City Route, the High Plains Route, and the Forest Canyon Route.
To return via the City Route, descend the mountain to NM 14 and head south to the village of Cedar Crest and the Museum of Archaeology and Material Culture. This compact and well-organized museum features a 12,000-year timeline of Native American history from the continent’s earliest human inhabitants to the Battle of Wounded Knee in 1890. The museum is on Snowline Road, a right turn from NM 14 just past milepost 5.
The southern end of the Turquoise Trail lies just a few miles south of Cedar Crest at the town of Tijeras and your last stop, the Tijeras Pueblo Archaeological Site. Buried here are the ruins of a 200-room pueblo built in the 1300s and abandoned about a century later.
Markers on the short interpretive trail describe the pueblo, its construction, and its builders, as well as the native plants and animals from which they made their livelihood. To find the site, follow NM 14 South past I-40 and turn left on NM 337. Access is through the Sandia Ranger Station on your left.
To return to Santa Fe, backtrack to I-40, head west through Tijeras Canyon and then, near downtown Albuquerque, take I-25 North. As you head out of the city, follow the crest of the Sandia Mountains until you find the communication antennae. You’ll see just how high you climbed earlier in the day. Travel time from Cedar Crest to Santa Fe via this route is about 1 hour and 30 minutes.
Take the High Plains route
If you are reluctant to break the spell of the New Mexico countryside and want to avoid the city, return to Santa Fe via the High Plains Route. From Sandia Peak, head back toward NM 14 South, stopping at the Museum of Archaeology and Material Culture as well as the Tijeras Pueblo Archaeological Site, which are on the City Route.
Instead of taking I-40 West, however, turn right on Historic Route 66 (now called NM 333) and head east to the town of Moriarty. It will be easy to spot surviving examples of the splashy roadside architecture that marked the heyday of Route 66 from the 1930s to the 1960s.
At the center of Moriarty, turn left on NM 41, cross over the freeway, and head out onto the Great Plains. This is the very western edge of what used to be called “The Great American Desert,” millions of square miles of high grassland too dry for farming but perfect for cattle. The southern plains became the birthplace of the American Cowboy.
The exquisite Galisteo Basin
A few miles north of the ranch town of Stanley, you will crest a ridge that affords the stunning view of a broad, grassy valley interrupted by rugged mesas and hogbacks. This is the Galisteo Basin. Although it seems quite empty now, around 500 – 600 years ago the Basin was one of the most populous areas in the southwest.
Nomadic Paleo-Indians hunted here at least 8000 years ago, but large-scale settlement began in the late 1100s as the Anasazi abandoned towns such as Mesa Verde and Chaco in the Four Corners area, and blended into the “Tanoan” or Southern Tewa tribe already living in the Basin.
Between the late 1200s and the early 1500s, the Southern Tewa built at least ten pueblos in the Galisteo Basin. San Marcos, at the west end of the valley, was the largest, but four other Basin villages also contained hundreds of rooms and sheltered a thousand or more residents.
Life in the pueblos was very difficult due to periodic drought and raids by surrounding nomadic tribes. These factors, plus inter-pueblo conflicts, caused the abandonment of five of the Basin pueblos even before the arrival of the Spanish. The Pueblo Revolt and subsequent reconquest of New Mexico by the Spanish finished off the others.
By 1700, the remaining Southern Tewa families had scattered in all directions. Some rejoined their close relatives, the Northern Tewa, at the pueblos of Tesuque, Pojoaque, San Ildefonso, Santa Clara, Ohkay Owingeh, and Nambe. Others joined Keres-speaking pueblos to the west or the Tewa-speaking Pecos Pueblo to the east.
One group of families from Pueblo San Cristobal fled to the Hopi First Mesa in Arizona where they established the village of Hano, and where their descendents speak Tewa to this day.
As early as the 1690s a few Hispanic families moved into the Galisteo Basin, but Comanche raids and lack of rain also made their lives tenuous, at best. Another hundred years went by before the Spanish successfully established long-term settlement in the Galisteo area. The village itself dates to 1816 when 19 families built adobe houses around a central plaza and began farming their new land grants.
At the center of Galisteo village is a sprawling adobe hacienda, the oldest parts of which date to about 1705. It is now a charming bed & breakfast called the Galisteo Inn.
If you decide to take the High Plains route, time your trip to have dinner at the Inn’s La Mancha Restaurant, named one of America’s “26 Hot Tables” by Conde Nast Traveler magazine in 2006.
Travel time from Tijeras to Galisteo is about 45 minutes so time your reservations accordingly. (505-466-4008) The trip from Galisteo to downtown Santa Fe will take another 30 minutes via NM 41, US 285, and I-25.
The Forest Canyon route
The shortest drive back to Santa Fe from Sandia Crest (other than NM 14) is the Forest Canyon Route. Driving down NM 536 from the Crest, look for the turnoff for NM 165. (It appears that you are entering a parking lot, but the road begins off to your left). The first few miles of NM 165 are a series of switchbacks which take you down the mountain and into beautiful Las Huertas Canyon (Spanish for “the gardens”).
The road is unpaved, narrow, and very rocky, so a high-clearance vehicle such as an SUV is recommended. When it reaches the bottom of the canyon, however, the road improves and straightens so you can enjoy the views of the creek and cliffs through the forest of ponderosa pines.
Don’t miss Sandia Cave
After the road straightens, keep an eye on the sheer cliff on your right for a view of a weirdly incongruous staircase leading to a hole in the cliff, 190 feet above the canyon floor. At this point look for a small sign pointing to the parking turnout for Sandia Cave.
You can climb the trail and the staircase to enter the cave (take a flashlight) and to gain a nice view of the canyon from above the trees, but the cave itself it is rather unremarkable. Its history, however, is quite interesting.
A University of New Mexico team excavated the cave in the late 1930s, finding wooly mammoth bones, stone tools, and other evidence of early human habitation.
The lead archaeologist, Frank Hibben, eventually concluded that people had used the cave more than 20,000 years ago. At twice the age of any other archaeological site in North America, this was a sensational discovery that received national publicity and made Hibben a celebrity.
It turned out, though, that he had made some serious errors in excavation and data collecting. Most scholars now agree that humans occupied the cave no earlier than 10,000 to 12,000 years ago. Nevertheless, Sandia Cave is nothing to scoff at since the revised date still places it among the earliest confirmed human habitation sites in the US, right up there with Folsom and Clovis in northeastern New Mexico.
From Sandia Cave, continue north on NM 165 through the town of Placitas. As you descend the long slope toward the Rio Grande, look off to the far horizon for a view of the solitary, flat-topped mountain, El Cabezon (the head.) Known as a “volcanic neck,” El Cabezon is the core of an extinct volcano that resulted from the Rio Grande Rift.
Over the millennia, the volcano’s lava and ash cone eroded away, leaving harder rock protruding above the plain. We’ll take you on a day trip to this and other sites west of the Rio Grande in our next issue. In the meantime, NM 165 will take you to the town of Bernalillo where you pick up I-25 north for your return to Santa Fe. Travel time from Sandia Crest to Santa Fe is about one hour and twenty minutes via the canyon.
To learn more
Here are phone numbers of attractions described in this article so you can verify dates, times, and availability:
- San Marcos Café-505-471-9298
- JW Eaves Movie Ranch-505-474-3045
- Allan Houser Foundation-505-471-1528
- The Archaeological Conservancy-505-266-1540
- Casa Grande Trading Post, Petting Zoo, and Mining Museum-505-438-3008
- Cerrillos Hills Historic Park-505-438-3008
- Old Coal Mine Museum-505-438-3780
- Mine Shaft Tavern-505-473-0743
- Tocororo Café-505-471-2285
- Golden General Merchandise-505-281-7136
- Tinkertown Museum-505-281-5233
- Sandia Peak Ski Area-505-242-9052
- Sandia Crest House-505-243-0605
- High Finance Restaurant and Tavern-505-243-9742
- Museum of Archaeology and Material Culture-505-281-2005
- Tijeras Pueblo Archaeological Site 505-281-3304
- Galisteo Inn/La Mancha Restaurant-866-404-8200 / 505-466-3663