Some of New Mexico’s most enchanting scenery and quirky old towns can be viewed along the route from Albuquerque to the capital city.
By Gerald C. Hammon, F275831
Santa Fe, New Mexico, with its history, architecture, and art, will likely be the most popular side trip for FMCA members who visit Albuquerque in March for the association’s 71st International Convention. You can travel from Albuquerque to Santa Fe in just less than an hour if you take pedal-to-the-metal Interstate 25. That’s fine, if you are a businessman on a tight schedule. But if you are a traveler who tries to avoid being stuck in white-knuckled concentration in the middle of a pack of 18-wheelers and road-rage veterans, relax. Make a day of it by reaching Santa Fe via the Turquoise Trail instead.
Called the “back road” to Santa Fe, the Turquoise Trail wanders up out of the high Chihuahuan Desert and at one point will allow you to stand on the crest of the Sandia Mountains, a point more than 10,600 feet above sea level, looking out over Albuquerque and the Rio Grande Valley. As you near the outskirts of Santa Fe, you will pass a village that looks as if it were caught in a time warp, and you will feel as though you have somehow been transported back to the days when the taxes were paid to Mexico City instead of Washington, D.C. It’s a place where Indians mined that blue-green gemstone, the Turquoise Trail’s namesake. At the end of the trail is Santa Fe itself, a deserving destination.
Your towed vehicle is a better choice than your motorhome for this trip. It’s not recommended that you take a motor coach up to Sandia Crest (too many steep grades and hairpin turns), and even if you do avoid that mountainous part of the journey, parking for large vehicles is very limited in many of the small towns along the way. So, crank up the “toad” instead and come along as we explore the Turquoise Trail.
Your journey from Albuquerque will begin on Interstate 40 heading east, but not for long. After a short 10-mile drive, you will turn north onto State Route 14, the Turquoise Trail. You will have been climbing since you left the Duke City (Albuquerque was named after a Spanish duke). Once on the Trail, you will pass through Cedar Crest, a growing but still rural suburb of Albuquerque. To your left (west) you will see the green slopes of the Sandia Mountains thrusting up into the blue sky. The Cibola National Forest on its slopes is one of Albuquerque’s great playgrounds. Lower slopes covered with pinon pine and juniper blend into dense stands of ponderosa pine; spruce and fir take over near the summit.
After approximately 6 miles, you will reach a junction with the Sandia Crest Highway, State Route 536. This is the route to the “top of the world.” You will pass through five different life zones on your way to the crest, with signs along the way to explain them. You will likely encounter snow, particularly near the top, but not on the road. It is kept clear even in winter, except during major storms. It’s a little more than a 13-mile drive from the turnoff to the crest. At the top, you can stand at the edge of the steep eastern face of the Sandias. Albuquerque lies below, and the Rio Grande winds south on its way to the Gulf of Mexico. To the west, more than 60 miles away, is Mount Taylor, sacred to many local Indian tribes. The view is out of this world, but you must be prepared for cold and wind. Walkways may be snowy and possibly icy in March. After all, you have traveled in a vertical fashion to a climate more like Canada than the desert Southwest.
A gift shop and a snack shop are located at Sandia Crest “” they’re good places to warm up. Folks who never leave home without binoculars and a bird guide should be advised that feeders are maintained at the crest during the winter, and if you are lucky, you will see all three species of the elusive rosy finch there.
As you descend from the crest on State Route 536, be sure to stop at Tinkertown Museum. This incredible collection of carved wooden scenes was the dream and labor of love of Ross J. Ward, who passed away in 2002. The scenarios, most of which involve moving figures, will leave you absolutely in awe of Ward’s genius for detail and humor.
Take your time. Each carefully crafted scene provides so much to look at. Bring a pocketful of quarters for the coin-operated musical boxes, fortune-tellers, and the like. They are definitely worth it. About a third of the way through the exhibits, you will see a sign Ward erected that states, “I did all this while you were watching television.” Yes, this was his passion.
Ward’s widow, Carla, continues to run the museum and may be the one to greet you when you enter. I know of no place remotely like this. As my wife commented, Ward must have been an incredible man to live with. The joy in Carla’s eyes, even as she still deals with his loss, says that, indeed, he was.
Although the museum usually does not open until April 1, Carla said it will be open for FMCA visitors, daily between 9:00 a.m. and 6:00 p.m. Entrance fees are $3 for adults, $2.50 for seniors, and $1 for children ages 6 to 14.
Rejoining State Route 14, our journey takes us lower into the pinon pine and juniper range. The beautiful homes to the west are testament to the belief of many that this is the best of all worlds. It’s not as hot as the Rio Grande Valley and not as cold as the heights of Sandia Crest. But as the distance to Wal-Mart increases, the subdivisions decline, as does the traffic.
Fifteen miles north of the Sandia Crest Highway is the quirky town of Golden. This place has as many crumbling ruins as occupied homes, so you likely won’t see a reason to stop. A country store, dating from the early days of the 20th century, is the center of activity.
Golden was the site of a gold rush that began in 1825, when everything seen in the town today was under the red, white, and green Mexican flag. In fact, the rush began only four years after Mexico had won its independence and 23 years before the United States would gain this land in the Mexican-American War. The only Europeans interested in California at that time were missionaries, and the Colorado gold rush was still far in the future. Unfortunately, the gold here was shallow and not particularly profitable. Nonetheless, miners persisted. The ruins seen in Golden today date predominately from the late 1800s, when another group of wide-eyed, slack-jawed miners began panning out particles of gold from nearby washes.
Mining also gave birth to the next town along the Turquoise Trail, but the miners there were after coal rather than gold. Madrid (pronounced with the accent on the first syllable) sat atop 30 square miles of coal. Hard and soft coal, each with its own unique use, was found here. The Mexicans and the Americans both coveted the coal in the first half of the 19th century. But the railroads were what put Madrid on the map.
Until 1950, railroads were powered by steam locomotives, many of which were fired by coal. The Santa Fe Railroad’s transcontinental route was only a few miles north of Madrid. When railroad executives realized how much coal lay under the town, they must have thought they had died and gone to heaven. They bargained with the town to trade coal for water, a scarce commodity there, and a spur line was run to Madrid. The railroad brought the water in, and shipped the coal out for use throughout the West.
In the 1930s, Madrid was bigger than Albuquerque. The coal companies made life easy for miners, even going so far as to provide a place where they could brew illegal alcoholic beverages during Prohibition. Cheap electricity was furnished to every home, making it possible for Madrid to become one of the first towns to decorate with electric lights for Christmas. The displays were so lavish that Trans Continental Airlines, an early component of TWA, diverted flights during December so that passengers could look down and see the show.
When the railroads converted to diesel-powered locomotives, Madrid died. The mines closed and residents moved away. Buildings moldered until people we knew as “flower children” discovered the town. Today Madrid is anything but dead. On any day of the week, you may have to look hard for a parking place. Artists and craftsmen have taken over the old buildings and opened a cornucopia of retail offerings purveying clothes, jewelry, pottery, and art of every description.
Four bucks will get you into the Old Coal Mine Museum, located on the site of one of the mines. This eclectic collection showcases mining relics; some old cars (how about a 1934 Auburn?); and a steam engine in reasonably good condition. At the museum, too, are old company buildings where modern equipment (for the 1930s) kept the mine operating. The railroad engine repair house now serves as a home to local dramatic productions. A nearby tavern caters to the appetite with food and libations, while its walls boast paintings by Ross Ward of Tinkertown fame. The three-acre museum also sports an old-time working blacksmith shop and displays of vintage farm equipment, medical office equipment, and more.
Water is still a problem in Madrid, but a new well was built in hopes of making life easier for residents.
As you head north on the Turquoise Trail, presumably with a less weighty wallet or purse, you will next reach Cerrillos. This sleepy town has a long and honorable history. American Indians first discovered turquoise in this area and mined it long before the Europeans arrived. To 19th-century miners, turquoise did not hold the appeal that gold and coal did, and while Golden boomed for a short while and Madrid had its years in the sun, Cerrillos slumbered. The Santa Fe railroad that passed through the town offered some sustenance, but for the most part, people stayed here because their parents had.
Cerillos’ Spanish ambience is accented by giant cottonwood trees, adobe homes with Spanish-style courtyards, and stores whose first inventories were brought in by wagons during the 1800s. A stately Catholic church anchors one end of the business district. Mary’s Bar is at the other, near the train tracks.
At the far end of town is the Casa Grande Trading Post, Petting Zoo, and Mining Museum. Pay $2 and you can wander about a rich and rusting collection of stuff that some might unkindly call “junk.” The common denominator appears to be that everything is old (well, at least old for Westerners). We bypassed the petting zoo, but others might not. A variety of rocks and semiprecious gems are for sale at the trading post, too.
Moviemakers have used Cerrillos as the setting for a variety of films. In fact, one of the stores in town still bears painted signs on one side identifying it as the Murphy and Dolan Store and the Wortley Hotel. Both of those worthy establishments were located in Lincoln, New Mexico, approximately 150 miles southeast of Cerrillos. The buildings figured in the Lincoln County wars of 1878 where Billy the Kid earned much of his reputation as a gunslinger. Locals will be quick to tell you about the films made in the area, as well as the famous people who have walked the streets of Cerrillos.
From Cerrillos, it is a short 15- or 20-minute drive to the outskirts of Santa Fe. Your friends who took the interstate will already be there, trying to find a parking place around the plaza. But their extra time in Santa Fe won’t make up for what they missed along the Turquoise Trail.
Turquoise Trail Driving Directions
From Albuquerque, take Interstate 40 east to exit 175. Your route for the rest of the trip will be north on State Route 14, with the exception of the side trip to Sandia Crest, the Tinkertown Museum, and back. Turn west on State Route 536 and follow the signs to the top of the crest. Take the same route back down; turn left (north) on State Route 14; and continue to Golden, Madrid, and Cerrillos.
At the junction with Interstate 25 just south of Santa Fe, you can travel back south to Albuquerque via the interstate, or continue north on State Route 14, which becomes Cerrillos Road. Take Cerrillos Road north until signs direct you toward the plaza and the center of Santa Fe.