The Turquoise Trail has long been a favorite drive for visitors to New Mexico. Spanning 50 miles from Albuquerque to Santa Fe, the road traverses the east side of the Sandia Mountains. Travelers along this route will be exposed to diverse terrain, to include high desert scrub, juniper trees, and spectacular mountain and panoramic views.
Equally important, key parts of New Mexico history---from the distant past, as well as more recent---will be experienced in a very tangible manner.
To start the drive from Albuquerque, take the Cedar Crest exit [Exit 175 off Interstate 40], 14 North. Simply head north, enjoy the views, and appreciate all that you see around you.
Take the time to visit the small towns along the way. 2 hours is enough; more if you plan on having lunch or dinner in Madrid. As a comparison, it will take 45 - 60 minutes to reach Santa Fe from Albuquerque via I-25.
State Road 14 is a two-lane highway. It is popular with motorcyclists, and in spots, bicyclists. If you are driving early in the morning or late in the day, watch for coyotes and other wildlife. Enjoy the views, but drive carefully.
While there are a few small towns along the Turquoise Trail, you will most likely spend most of your time in Madrid.
A Spainard named Francisco de Madrid arrived in New Mexico in 1603. His descendants took an interest in this region of the state because of the numerous lead mines. Members of his family began mining coal by 1835, and by 1869, the community took the family name. It is possible that the name recalls the capital city of Spain.
Pronunciation of the town's name is controversial. Spanish speakers will accent the second syllable, whereas English speakers move the accent to the first syllable and flatten the vowels. Curiously---given our history---the English version is predominant in the state.
In Madrid, New Mexico, art takes on all forms
Madrid has several art galleries and coffee shops. At best, the town is one-half mile, end to end, so all of these venues are in close proximity to one another. Many of the people you will see are 'colorful,' with a mix of hippies, bikers, tourists, and artisans.
The Mine Shaft Tavern claims to have the longest bar in New Mexico.
A few miles north of Madrid is the town of Cerrillos. Translated to mean, Little Hills, it was minerals in these and other nearby hills that twice engendered a settlement here.
It is known that the Indians mined turquoise here. When the Spanish arrived, they continued to work the mines. Turquoise from Cerrillos found its way into the crown jewels of Spain.
Cerrillos experienced a second mining boom in 1879, when two prospectors from Colorado found promising gold and ore in the little hills. Cerrillos flourished at the time, and the mining camps of Bonanza and Carbonateville sprang up nearby.
The latter two died soon after the metal veins petered out, but Cerrillos still had coal deposits needed by the local railroad, which reached Cerrillos in 1880.
Today, Cerrillos is a sleepy town just off the highway. There is a pretty nice rock/gem/curio shop on the western edge of town. Adjacent to it is a small---albeit funky---petting zoo. The kids can feed the goats.
If you follow the signs to Cerrillos State Park, you will pass a small cemetery on the right. The gravesites span several decades, with markers ranging from the ornate to the primitive. It is still in active use, as one section of land had a handwritten sign, Reserved, on the day I visited.
In many instances, the grave is marked only by a decaying stick or a rock. Even so, someone obviously tends the cemetery, as you can see plastic flowers placed by some of them ... more than 100 years after the person's death.
If you look at the birth- and death dates, you see that many of these---exclusively men---died quite young; between 20 and 30 years of age. While the cause of death is not mentioned, your imagination will run wild, here in the old west.
When you drive State Road 40, you will see Descansos along the side of the road. These are very common in New Mexico, signifying that someone died on or near the spot of the memorial.
This website has a page dedicated to Descansos in New Mexico:
Descansos are protected by law in New Mexico and cannot be moved without first notifying the families who placed them there.
As you drive by, appreciate them; nod with respect; or even stop by to admire them.
As you drive, art will pop out of nowhere. That's New Mexico for you. This state loves art and creativity; it surrounds you wherever you go.
Right before you come to Santa Fe, you will see the Penitentiary of New Mexico on your left. It isn't easy to discern, but in the complex of buildings is the North Facility, which is the Maximum Security Unit for New Mexico, currently still in use.
More noticeable is the eerie-looking Main Facility, which was home to one of the most brutal prison riots in US corrections history, which took place on February 2, 1980.
33 inmates died and more than 200 were treated for injuries. None of the 12 officers were killed, but seven were treated for beatings and rapes.
This year, tours will be offered of the Prison, but only for people over the age of 16, given the content. These tours are being centered around the theme, Respecting Our Past to Create a Better Future.
Although there are many to be told, there will be no ghost stories or related topics discussed on these tours.
So what is the take-away message?
Within a span of 50 miles, you will be exposed to hundreds of years worth of New Mexico history. The land surrounding you on the Turquoise Trail was once populated by Native Americans. Later, the Spanish came, looking for gold, silver, and treasures.
Today, the landscape and towns look and feel as primitive as they did in the past.
This region of the state pulls for respect, acknowledgement, and awe for all that happened before we came to see it. It's an amazing portion of New Mexico, all tucked around this little back-road between Albuquerque and Santa Fe.