The Turquoise Trail

You can travel between Albuquerque and Santa Fe on I-25, a straight shot that takes about an hour. But if you have time and like the quirky side of the street, consider giving the 54-mile stretch of NM 14 known as the Turquoise Trail National Scenic Byway a go. Plan for a leisurely half-day trip. That will give you plenty of time to take in the stops and the scenery along the way as well as to have lunch and do a little shopping.

The Turquoise Trail is a well-maintained, paved two-lane highway that winds through the eastern foothills of the Sandia Mountains, which form Albuquerque’s eastern wall, and the Ortiz Mountains where the old west mining towns of Golden, Madrid and Cerrillos are located, before descending into Santa Fe. As you crest the hills and dip into the valleys, you’ll catch glimpses of buttes, mesas and other fantastic land formations in the distance as well as the peaks of the Sangre de Christos, snowy much of the year.

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NM14 was an anonymous backroad until 1953 when the Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce held a contest to find it a suitably appealing name. Rita Simmons won a matched set of luggage for her winning entry and the Turquoise Trail was born.

The mining history of the Ortiz Mountains and the area’s connection to turquoise goes back to prehistoric times. Pueblo Indians were mining the stones now known as Cerrillos turquoise by 900 and probably much, much earlier. Although the colors of Cerrillos turquoise run the full gamut of blues from pale robin’s egg to deep teal, it is the green stones flecked with gold pyrite that are world famous.

Cerrillos turquoise has been found in archeological sites throughout the Southwest as well as in Mexico in Aztec and Mayan royal tombs. It captivated Conquistador Francisco Coronado so much that he sent several large nuggets back to Spain in 1541. They are still part of the Spanish monarchy’s collection of crown jewels.

The Tall Tale of Madrid

Welcome to Madrd.

Welcome to Madrd.

Madrid, the main town along the Turquoise Trail, is about 45 miles north of Albuquerque and about 30 miles south of Santa Fe. NM14 runs through the center of town.  If you’re traveling on the Turquoise Trail, in other words, you can’t miss Madrid. And the minute you catch site of the bigger than life metallic sculptures and brightly painted cottages, you’ll know it’s not a typical mountain outpost.

The speed limit in Madrid is 20mph. Most people go even slower as they drive through about 2 miles of art galleries and shops offering antiques, wind chimes, stained glass sun catchers, vintage clothing, minerals, fossils and amazing pieces of handmade silver and turquoise jewelry. There are also a mining museum, a couple of restaurants, bars and coffee shops and an outdoor photo park with wooden cutouts you can stick your head through. The shops and businesses occupy little frame houses that used to be coal miners’ homes.

Coal was discovered in the Ortiz Mountains in the mid-1800s and mining quickly became big business. Madrid started life during the coal boom as a squatters camp known as Coal Gulch. In 1895 the Cerrillos Coal Company began transforming the camp into a town.

There were no carpenters in the area. No construction companies, no building supply establishments.  There wasn’t even a place to buy a bag of nails. So the Cerrillos Coal Company imported everything they needed to get their town established including housing.

The houses came from Kansas where they had been built for another mining community. They were taken apart, put on railroad cars and reassembled when they reached Madrid. Cerrillos Coal didn’t stop there. They built a school, a community center and a hospital. The coal company owned the entire town, all the buildings, the streets and the land on which it all sat.

Madrid coal plant about 1935   

Madrid coal plant about 1935

 

Before too long Madrid was a thriving community with a green public park for children to play in. Even though there was no water source nearby, every house had a lush front lawn. Cerrillos Coal had hundreds of thousands of gallons of water brought in daily on railroad cars. The water was provided to the residents free. So was the unlimited electricity that was generated by the town’s coal burning power plant. In 1936, deep in the heart of the Great Depression, there wasn’t a single unemployed person in Madrid, not a soul on public assistance.

The residents of Madrid worked together to develop an unlikely tourist attraction in the form of a community-wide Christmas decorating extravaganza. The exterior of every house was decked out with colorful lights. Each home had a glittering Christmas tree at the front window. There were lights on every public building and every lamp post. Every tree and shrub was decorated. The residents even strung lights up the mountainsides surrounding the town. The kilowatts needed to power the Christmas wonderland were donated by the Cerrillos Coal Company. People came from all over New Mexico and even from neighboring states to marvel at the amazing display.

The Madrid Miners

The Madrid Miners

Madrid attracted a fair share of visitors during the summer too. The town had a minor league baseball team called the Madrid Miners made up of coal company employees. The Miners were good, really good. And thanks to the Cerrillos Company’s power plant, they played on the first lighted baseball diamond west of the Mississippi. At its peak Madrid’s population was around 3000 people. On warm summer nights 6000 plus regularly turned out to watch the Miners play ball.

In the 1940s as natural gas took bigger and bigger bites of coal’s market share, Madrid’s fortunes began to decline. The Christmas display was suspended during World War II. It was never revived. The coal mines closed in the 1950s and the miners and their families moved away. Madrid became a ghost town.

Ownership of the town had passed through various coal companies over the years. By the early 1960s it was clear that it was time to sell. The town’s owner placed an ad in the New York Times listing Madrid as available for only $250,000.There were no offers.

Unrenovated miner's house.

Unrenovated miner's house.

Hippies anxious to escape to the mountains discovered the rundown, deserted village in the 1970s. They began to renovate the abandoned company houses, many of which were on their last legs. Lack of access to water was still a problem, but the town started to grow again, although slowly. According to the 2000 Census, Madrid’s population was 149. By 2010 it had grown to 204. As improbable as it would have seemed during the heady days of the coal boom, Madrid was on its way to becoming an artists’ colony.

Within the last decade, Madrid has become a popular destination for day-trippers from Albuquerque and Santa Fe and a fun place for tourists to shop and eat along the Turquoise Trail. The future looks bright. The good folks of Madrid have even inaugurated a community-wide Christmas parade.

The remains of two other mining towns, Golden and Cerrillos, although not as lively or interesting as Madrid, are easy additional stops along the Turquoise Trail. They are well worth the few minutes it takes to visit.   

All that Glitters

Golden is 11 miles south of Madrid. NM14 runs through the center of town, such as it is. Even though there are a handful of residents, Golden is considered a ghost town. It consists of a few houses, an old church, a cemetery, a general store and an astounding array of colored glass bottles.

The great western gold rush started in Golden in the 1830s, but the local gold deposits were quickly depleted and the miners moved on. The only remnant from the gold rush days is the simple adobe San Francisco Church. Built in the 1830s and restored in the 1960s, it is clearly visible on the east side of NM14. You run the risk of missing it, however, because of the bottles.

Leroy Gonzales, who is the Mayor of Golden and the church caretaker, has decorated his roadside home and property all the way to the edge of NM 14’s pavement with colored glass bottles, thousands of them. Pull off and take it all in.

When you’re done checking out the Gonzales display, turn around and look across the road. The people on the other side of NM14, directly across from Mr. Gonzales, have jumped on the colored glass bandwagon too. They’ve adopted a more restrained approach to bottle arrangement and so far have only covered their fence and a few tree branches.  

Golden is also home to the Henderson Store which has been in business since 1918. It’s on NM14 on the south side of town. Park there and walk to everything else. The bottle displays, the church and the store are all within the equivalent of about one city block.

Cerrillos - Déjà vu All Over Again

As you drive into the hamlet of Cerrillos you may experience déjà vu, the sense that you’ve visited this place before. Thanks to its dirt streets, one-story adobe houses and 19th century buildings on Main Street, it not only looks like a classic western movie set, it  was the backdrop for the 1958 Disney television mini-series The Nine Lives of Elfego Baca.

During its heyday as a mining boom town in the late 1800s, Cerrillos had 21 saloons and four hotels. Today Cerrillos is a quiet town of a few hundred people. Park and take a stroll down the two blocks of First Street, the main drag.

You’ll undoubtedly notice Mary’s Bar at the intersection of First and Main, the heart of town. It’s been in business since 1936, although the establishment’s namesake, Mary, is a recent addition in Cerrillos terms. She’s only been running the place since 1977.

The two-story Simoni Building with its covered walkway dates from 1892. The upper floor was once a hotel. The ground floor was a saloon. Further down First is Iglesia San Jose, or St Joseph Catholic Church, which was built in 1922.

There is also a petting zoo starring a couple of goats at the Casa Grande Trading Post where you can learn about the area’s mining history and the famous turquoise. The Trading Post sells rocks, minerals, lucky horseshoes, decorated hubcaps and other trinkets. They also have a selection of colored glass bottles in case your visit to Golden inspired you to add some sparkle to you own homestead.  

Cerrillos is 3.5 miles north of Madrid. NM 14 does not run through the center of town as it does with Madrid and Golden. There a Cerrillos Main Street turnoff from NM14. It’s a left if you’re northbound and a right for southbound travelers. There’s a sign. The village is only a few thousand feet away and is visible from the main road.  

 Plan Your Visit

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Sites with More information -

The Turquoise Trail

Visit Madrid

Cerillos

Places to eat and drink in Madrid. All are on NM14 -

Java Junction - For coffee and baked goods, also a B&B.

The Mine Shaft Tavern - In addition to a full menu and bar service, there is a coal mining museum on site.

Mama Lisas’s Ghost Town Kitchen and No Pity Cafe - I have not tried Mama Lisa's. There is no website, but there are several reviews on Trip Advisor. And the name is awesome :=) 

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The Hollar - I love this place. The food is a blend of southwestern favorites and down home southern style cooking. Their specialty is fried green tomatoes. The service is fast and friendly. They have a bar, lots of outdoor tables and strange - and I mean that in a good way - art.