Colorful wind chime jingle gently in the breeze. The sky stretches across the horizon like a huge blue canvas. Rough rocks drag jagged shadows into the chipped asphalt. A road sweeps a length of some 65 miles. This is the scenic Turquoise Trail in New Mexico, which cuts through an enchanting landscape of red rocks and sandy shrub-steppe. Small historic towns hide behind the hills along this beautiful road running between Santa Fe and Albuquerque. Along the route you will find cute museums, amazing arts and crafts and tons of fascinating turquoise treasures! This is a true road trip, not some fast ride from one spot to another on the Interstate. On this road, your only clock will be: timelessness.
Your journey on the Turquoise Trail can begin from either end: Santa Fe, or Albuquerque. It doesn’t matter. The scenery will look different when you travel one direction or the other, but it will be beautiful either way.
I began my road trip in Sante Fe. This is a city more than 400 years old and it resembles a jewel sculpted from orange adobe. For me, Santa Fe is definitely one of the most unique places in the world. Although it is the state capital of New Mexico with a population of over 90,000 people, it seems like it is just a small town, like the whole town is just a charming historic district. This feeling is created in part as most of the houses were built in the warm, brown Pueblo Revival style. The city decreed in 1912 that all new buildings from that point were to be built in this style. Even in the 21st century, the city continues to demand compliance with the style in the central area of the city.
From Santa Fe the Turquoise Trail follows the small Highway 14 out of town. The trail is open year-round and you'll find road sings that tell you about the "Scenic Byway" everywhere.
I’ve always got trouble with following street signs by not crashing into them at the same time while I am driving. Whoever suffers from the same disease may just plug the city of Los Cerrillos into his GPS. This way your GPS will automatically get you started for you road trip on Turquois Trail. Shortly after you’ve left Santa Fe the plain steppe with its grey-green grassland is starting to burst out to the endless horizon. White clouds are laying on top of the landscape like cream on a cake.
For your first stop I recommend San Marcos Cafe & Feed Store. The cute wooden door is framed by colorful panited flowers. Sometimes small red dust devils are rising from the ground. If you haven’t been covered yet, you will find a nice map of the Turquoise Trail and some tasty cinnamon rolls inside. You can also find gas stations along the way. But it’s more relaxing and cheaper if you gas up in Santa Fe or Albuquerque. From here you may head on to Los Cerrillos. The mining area there is one of the oldest in the US.
When I think of the word, “mine” I begin to conjure up images of coal, darkness, dirt, and even danger. In this area, it was not coal the miners sought, but turquoise. The first minerals were mined by the early Pueblo people around 900 CE.
Today you can find many craft and jewelry shops along on your road trip on Turquoise Trail where they sell exquisite examples of turquoise art. You may be able to visit and talk to some of the actual artists in some of the shops. Los Cerrillos is also home to the Mining museum, where you can learn more about the history of the blue- and green-colored stones.
My personal highlight along the Turquoise trail is the stunning little town of Madrid, New Mexico. Not to be mixed up with the Spanish capital in Europe. After the collapse of the golden era of turquoise mining in the early 20th century, Madrid also declined to an abandoned and dusty ghost town. I knew this, but it was difficult to imagine Madrid as a dirty, neglected village as I pass colorful pottery, pretty wind chimes and mailboxes painted with rainbows. This current revitalization came about in the 1970s when hippies and artists discovered the town and began to move in.
Stop in at Jezebel Gallery and indulge in two huge, tasty scoops of ice cream. Or be blown away by the bronze sheep and orange landscapes at the Indigo Gallery. Almost all the people in Madrid are extremely friendly and are willing to talk about their art and their life on the Turquois Trail. I recommend that you plan to spend at least two hours in Madrid. It is only one short street, but it is a street filled with magical creations.
Going south on Turquoise Trail from Madrid to toward Albuquerque, you will follow the road into the mountains. The highway begins to wind up into red rocks and yellow hills. You will almost feel your breath being taken away from you and then caught by the thorns on the green cacti along the road. And don’t forget to look in your rearview mirror. As I noted early, the road and mountains are the same, but the view is totally different depending on which direction you drive.
Be sure to stop at one of the many turnouts along the road and just touch the rough asphalt and look out and enjoy the almost overwhelmingly colorful landscape that seems to extend virtually to infinity. This is a beauty you will only experience on a road trip in New Mexico and not forget in your lifetime.
A few minutes into your drive south on Highway 14, you will reach the small town of Golden, New Mexico. Or what is left of it. Named for the first gold rush west of the Mississippi River, Golden now is little more than the picturesque San Francisco Catholic Church.
When you reach the town of San Antonito, you should consider a sidestep from Highway 14 and turn onto Highway 536, and head toward Sandia Park and Sandia Crest. Here you will find lots of hiking trails in the summer or ski runs in the winter. But no matter what time of year you arrive, you can always enjoy the view from the top of the Sandia Mountains. From the parking lot you can easily access the highest point on the crest of eight Sandia Mountains, an elevation of 10,678 feet. You access the parking lot by driving a 12-mile, well-developed, but winding, road.
Quick tip: Go up to the top to see the sunset over the top of Albuquerque some 4,500 feet below. You will not be disappointed. Unless, of course, the sky is full of clouds which happened on my second road trip in New Mexico.
Down in the valley, near San Antonito on Highway 536, you will find a unique, and slightly weird, little museum waiting for you: The Tinkertown Museum. Old western cities appear in the form of midget wooden villages called dioramas. Throw a quarter in a slot and handmade wooden figures begin to move their limbs. It is a magical place filled with wonder and great fun- and not simply for kids!
Outside the building, I spotted a hummingbird. It was hovering at a hummingbird feeder close to the entrance of the museum. It was the first one I had ever seen. I was giddy with excitement!
The last stop on the Turquoise Trail is the town of Tijeras. Only about 500 people live here, but there is a visitor center where you will find information about hiking around Turquoise Trail in the nearby Cibola National Forest. Now as you head toward Albuquerque, you’ll once again start to cross parts of the Historic Route 66!
The Turquoise Trail is not long. Only 65 miles. You can drive it in one day, even if you stop several times to visit museums and galleries. I would recommend taking two days if you want time to visit all the shops. You could stay overnight in one of the towns along the way. There are Bed & Breakfast spots along the trail, but expect to pay $150 per night. There are also campgrounds on Turquoise Trail trail which are considerably less expensive.The entire route is easily navigated by RVs.
Personally I would much rather stay in Albuquerque or Santa Fe. Albuquerque is incredibly inexpensive place to stay. Santa Fe is not. Both cities are extremely interesting places to visit, and I would recommend that you plan to spend at least one, if not two, extra nights in both.
Road conditions on Turquoise Trail: In the summer, it can get very hot and dry on the road. Carry a lot of water. In the wintertime, the roads are frequently covered with snow and ice. I recommend visiting the area during either the spring or the fall.
Have you already paid a visit to the Turquoise Trail? Then let me know about your own experiences,
impressions and favorite stops! Also if you have any other comments, or especially questions about the trip, shoot me a message anytime. I will get back to you as soon as I
Find more New Mexico adventures in my reports about my solo road trip on Route 66 and my road trip from Wyoming to Colorado all the way down to New Mexico.