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Discover the gems along New Mexico's Turquoise Trail National Scenic Byway

Street scene in Madrid, New Mexico. Historic Turquoise Trail and Route 66, scenic byway between Santa Fe and Albuquerque, NM. Nestled in a canyon in the Ortiz Mountains, the small village of Madrid is a must-stop along the scenic Turquoise Trail. | Photo by STELLA MC/stock.adobe.com

Turquoise ornaments wrists, fingers, and earlobes all across New Mexico and the Southwest. As early as AD 900, American Indians were mining the sky-colored stones and donning them as sacred tokens thought to bring health and protection.

Once tourists discovered the area in the early 1880s, artisans quickly found that silver and turquoise could generate gold. In 1889, a noted Tiffany and Company gemologist named George F. Kunz discovered a light-blue variety from a mine that perfectly matched the company’s trademark hue. Tiffany’s jewelry made with Cerrillos turquoise garnered the stone international attention.

Shop for turquoise jewelry along the famed Turquoise Trail. | Photo by Steve Larese

Shop for turquoise jewelry along the famed Turquoise Trail. | Photo by Steve Larese

Most of the turquoise mines were clustered just southwest of Santa Fe, where the abundance of turquoise and other minerals spurred boomtowns, railroads, and other commerce. Many mines played out, but the towns that remain have found a new life along the Turquoise Trail National Scenic Byway, a roughly 60-mile stretch of New Mexico Route 14 between Albuquerque and Santa Fe.

The route celebrates the state’s turquoise heritage, traversing artsy towns and historic and kitschy attractions. And truth be told, you’ll find plenty to enjoy even if you have no interest in turquoise. Here are 10 essential stops on the trail.  

1. Start in Albuquerque

Built in 1912, the American Foursquare-style Bottger Mansion was designed by local architect Edward B. Christy. | Photo by Steve Larese

Built in 1912, the American Foursquare-style Bottger Mansion was designed by local architect Edward B. Christy. | Photo by Steve Larese

The historic Bottger Mansion of Old Town bed-and-breakfast, with easy access to the Turquoise Trail, will get you rested and well fed for your day of exploring. Rates start at $125. (505) 243-3639; bottger.com.

2. Get peak views

The aerial Sandia Peak Tramway stretches from the northeast edge of Albuquerque to Sandia Peak on the ridgeline of the Sandia Mountains. | Photo by Steve Larese

The aerial Sandia Peak Tramway stretches from the northeast edge of Albuquerque to Sandia Peak on the ridgeline of the Sandia Mountains. | Photo by Steve Larese

Before leaving Albuquerque, adventurous souls can hop aboard the Sandia Peak Aerial Tramway to get a topographic view of the Sandia Mountains and their piñon-studded hillsides. The 2.7-mile ride tops out at 10,378 feet. Tickets cost $25 for adults. (505) 856-7325; sandiapeak.com.

3. Visit the Turquoise Museum

Begin your turquoise training at the Turquoise Museum, a family-owned gem that recently moved from a strip mall near Old Town Albuquerque to a grand castle downtown. Choose from three tours: a guided tour, a director’s tour led by executive director Jacob Lowry, or a curator’s tour with museum curator Joe Dan Lowry. Or roam the 8,500-square-foot museum and 15 galleries on a self-guided tour to see the world’s largest collection of turquoise on display, and learn about mineralogy, mining, and history. $20–$40. (505) 433-3684; turquoisemuseum.com.

4. Explore Tijeras, New Mexico

Cibola National Forest is at the base of the Sandia Mountains. | Photo bonita/stock.adobe.com

Cibola National Forest is at the base of the Sandia Mountains. | Photo bonita/stock.adobe.com

From Albuquerque, it’s a quick 18-mile drive to the tiny town of Tijeras. Learn about the area at the Cibola National Forest’s Sandia Ranger District Office and explore the adjacent Tijeras Pueblo Archaeological Site interpretive trail, which reveals the history of the pueblo that was occupied between 1313 and 1425. A small museum is open on weekends, May–October. (505) 281-3304; friendsoftijeraspueblo.org.

5. Check out tiny things

Marvel at the handmade dioramas of Old West scenes at the Tinkertown Museum. | Photo by Steve Larese

Marvel at the handmade dioramas of Old West scenes at the Tinkertown Museum. | Photo by Steve Larese

Take a short detour up New Mexico 536 to scope out the miniatures at the quirky Tinkertown Museum, where the late folk artist Ross J. Ward’s hobby of carving, collecting, and building dioramas got beautifully out of hand. Twenty-two small rooms are crammed with more than your eyes can take in. Reservations required. Admission is $4. (505) 281-5233; tinkertown.com.

6. Mine for artwork in Madrid, New Mexico

Madrid got its start in coal mining, which peaked in the 1890s when a railroad spur connected the town to Santa Fe. Today’s Madrid is more about funky shops and eye-catching galleries.

The rustic, quirky town filled with mining shacks and Western storefronts had a starring role in the 2007 film Wild Hogs. Not much from that Hollywood moment remains, but the vibe is lively and the folks are genuine.

It takes a massive storefront in the center of town to house the Jezebel Gallery, home to Santa Fe artist Jezebel’s eye-popping light fixtures made of metal and glass. You’ll also find clothing, paintings, and a 1920s soda fountain. (505) 471-3795; jezebelgallery.com.

Weasel and Fitz features whimsical upcycled art, such as sculptures made from old kitchen implements and lampshades fashioned from vintage signs. (505) 474-4893; weaselandfitz.com.

Ready for refreshments? The Hollar’s Southern-influenced menu includes a fried green tomato po’boy that’s best enjoyed under the massive trees sheltering the outdoor tables. (505) 471-4821; thehollar.com.

7. Dine and dance

The Mine Shaft Tavern is the town hot spot, with its profusion of live music and one of the state’s juiciest green-chile cheeseburgers. The tavern hosts local variety shows and other events in its Engine House Theater. Walk off your meal on a self-guided tour of the tavern’s Madrid Old Coal Town Museum. (505) 473-0743; themineshafttavern.com.

8. Satisfy your sweet tooth

Chocolatier Harvey Shugarman has been handcrafting chocolate bark and turtles in Madrid since 2012.  | Photo by Steve Larese

Chocolatier Harvey Shugarman has been handcrafting chocolate bark and turtles in Madrid since 2012. | Photo by Steve Larese

At the southern end of town, finish with a sweet treat: Shugarman’s Little Chocolate Shop. Chocolatier Harvey Shugarman handcrafts his bark with fair-trade and exotic ingredients. (505) 474-9041; shugarmanschocolate.com.

Read more: Here are 6 more New Mexico chocolate shops to check out.

9. Shop for turquoise in Cerrillos, New Mexico

While the St. Joseph Catholic Church in Cerrillos is only open to the public for mass, visitors can still wander through the courtyard garden in the back. | Photo by Steve Larese

While the St. Joseph Catholic Church in Cerrillos is only open to the public for mass, visitors can still wander through the courtyard garden in the back. | Photo by Steve Larese

Whereas Madrid has a lively tourist vibe, Cerrillos has a laid-back ghost town atmosphere. That might be why scenes from 1988’s Young Guns were filmed in this formerly bustling mining town. The signature Tiffany turquoise, as well as silver, lead, and other minerals, were pulled from some 2,000 mines that dotted the area. By the time mining peaked in the 1880s, the town had more than 20 saloons. Today, you’ll find the picturesque St. Joseph Catholic Church, the popular watering hole Mary’s Bar, and the Cerrillos Hills State Park visitors center among other small storefronts.

Turquoise shoppers should head for the hacienda that’s home to Casa Grande Trading Post, Petting Zoo, and Cerrillos Turquoise Mining Museum. Todd and Patricia Brown settled here in the 1970s and raised six children while they mined and sold turquoise. They transformed their home into this 28-room hacienda filled with rocks, pottery, and collectibles of every shape and form. (505) 438-3008; casagrandetradingpost.com.

10. Find a room at the inn

The Inn at Santa Fe near the top of NM 14 has a boutique-hotel feel but is both reasonably priced and packed with amenities such as a free New Mexican–style breakfast. Rates start at $75. (505) 474-9500.

Find more information about where to stay, dine, and play at turquoisetrail.org.

Carolyn Graham is a writer based in Santa Fe. 

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