Thursday, February 28, 2013

Final Lap of the Turquoise Trail National Scenic Byway

Black Bear - New Mexico's State Animal
Before we take NM14 north out of Madrid on the final leg of our journey up the Turquoise trail, let’s examine the countryside we’re traveling. This scenic byway begins in the high Chihuahuan Desert, travels hills and mountains and valleys, bypassing 10,600-foot Sandia Peak, the more modest San Pedro and Ortiz Mountains, and ends up in the southern part of Santa Fe. Vegetation includes piñon, juniper, mountain mahogany, chamisa (or chamizo, if you prefer), various types of oak, Apache plume, ash, ponderosa pine, aspen, cottonwood, and white fir, among other fauna.
Mountain Lion

Wildlife includes bear, coyote, mountain lion, mule deer, antelope, fox, and a host of other smaller critters. I once had to stop my car on the road to Sandia Peak to allow a big black bear sow and her cub to cross the road. More than once, I’ve rounded a curve and come upon two or three mule deer browsing roadside. I recall scrambling for my car while the biggest coyote I’ve ever seen ran in the other direction to get away from the scary biped he’d happened upon. With a wide variety of bird life—including raptors such as owls, hawks, and eagles—this is a birdwatcher’s paradise.
Golden Eagle
Cerrillos (or more properly Los Cerrillos), which means “Little Hills” in Spanish, is the site of one of the oldest documented mining districts in the US. As early as 900 AD, Pueblo Indians mined the hills around Cerrillos—formed from ancient volcanoes—for blue-green turquoise. There is even a type of turquoise named after the town. Stones from this area have found their way to Chaco Canyon, the crown jewels of Spain, Chichen Itza, Mexico and, indeed, throughout the world.

Disdainng the beautiful chalchihuitl, or Sky Stone, the Spanish appropriated the natives as labor for their gold and silver mining activities. The El Real de Los Cerrillos camp was formed to support these activities, but lasted only about a year. The mining continued in the area until the Pueblo Revolt in 1680. Just as in Madrid to the south, activities began again when the Spaniards took control of the area once again.

Antonio Simoni Store
Cerrillos, NM
After New Mexico became a US territory, the area, now under Anglo control, experienced a resurgence of gold, silver, and lead mining. From its humble beginnings as a mining camp, Cerrillos blossomed into a town of over 2,000 souls and boasted 21 saloons, 5 brothels, 4 hotels, and more than one newspaper. The town was once under consideration to be the site of the capitol of New Mexico.

The railroad arrived in 1880. The notorious Billy the Kid was supposedly one of its passengers. In 1879 it brought a man named Major D. C. Hyde, who was president of a gold and silver mining company. Major Hyde began promoting turquoise, and even though he vanished from the area under mysterious circumstances the following year, Tiffany & Co. and other New York jewelry companies began marketing turquoise as a gemstone, Tiffany even acquired property at Turquoise Hill. The boom in mining the sky stone lasted until the 1900s.
Cerrillos Today
The town’s fortunes declined in tandem with the diminishing mining activity. Today, the community sits among large cottonwood trees, a quiet town with the charm and simplicity and washboard dirt streets of the 1800s. Because of this bucolic, Old West feel, the town is often used for filming movies and commercials, notably Young Guns and Young Guns II, portions of which were shot on Front Street. Today’s visitors can enjoy local art galleries, antique shops, a Turquoise mining museum, and a petting zoo. Horseback riding is available. You can visit Mary’s Bar, the hanging tree, or attend mass at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church on Sundays.

The Cerrillos Mining District is now the Cerrillos Hills State Park (only we Anglos would tack “Hills” onto a word that means hills) of about 1,100 acres marked with trails that tell the story of the mining along the Turquoise Trail.

Next, it’s North to Alaska—well to Santa Fe. On the way, we pass the Lone Butte/San Marcos area. Archaeologists say the Galisteo Basin had a very large Pueblo Indian population in the 14th and 15th Centuries. Yet when Don Diego de Vargas returned to New Mexico in 1692 after the Revolt, the basin was practically deserted. Galisteo village was founded 15 years later to take advantage of good grazing land. The formations around the area called the “Garden of the Gods" are easily seen from space. This is now a residential and service area for the Turquoise Trail. The San Marcos Café and Feed Store with its yard full of chickens and peacocks is a good place for a meal or a snack. Ranches in the area have been used as sites for numerous movies and seasonal music festivals.

Just north of here, the Trail ends in a meeting with historic Route 66 and Santa Fe.

Next week: Shall remain a mystery to you…as well as to me (at the present).

New posts are published at 6:00 a.m. each Thursday.


  1. Nice post, Don. Gives me a yen for a bit of travelin'.

  2. When the weather turns, we'll have to do a little of it!


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