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The Turquoise Trail National Scenic Byway connects ancient mines and ghost towns reborn as artist communities. With stunning blue skies, hundred-mile views, and high desert hills, it’s easy to see why the landscape along the New Mexico Turquoise Trail has 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, passing through a world in which mining and jewelry-making have changed little since Puebloan miners chiseled turquoise, the sacred blue stone, from shallow digs.
The Southwest Native Americans 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 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.
(4-8 hours, 120 miles round trip)
(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 Avenue, 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 a fourth-generation turquoise miner, will gladly give you an impromptu Turquoise 101 lesson.
(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 cafés line the winding corridor through the juniper-piñon-covered hills. Take time to chat with the establishment owners, and you’ll discover people who are inspired, independent, iconoclastic and visionary — but most of all, who have an ardent passion for life.
At the crossroads at San Antonito, NM 536 spurs off to Sandia Crest. On the way up, stop at 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 is a spectacle like no other. Tinkertown has been featured on Good Morning America and visited by the Dalai Lama.
From 10,678 feet at the Sandia Crest, the view stretches across Albuquerque and the Rio Grande Valley to Mount 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, a 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).
The New Mexico Turquoise Trail leaves Madrid and enters the fabled Cerrillos Hills, where Puebloans 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. The boomtown Cerrillos sprung up when gold was discovered in the 1870s. At its peak, it had 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 to check out the Casa Grande Trading Post and Mining Museum, with its petting zoo and thousands of artifacts.
The Turquoise Trail leaves the desert hills and continues past Lone Butte onto treeless sagebrush plains. Pronghorn antelope sometimes graze near the highway, and the Sangre de Cristo 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.