Along the Turquoise Trail
Thanks to New Mexico Mountain Bike Adventures for shedding some light on the history of these mysterious blue stones.

The Turquoise Trail and the Sandia Crest Scenic Byway pass along a route rich in history. Coronado was the first white man to pass along the Trail, the backroad connecting Santa Fe and Albuquerque, New Mexico. Later explorers included New Mexico's most famous frontiersman, Kit Carson, French traders, and the thousands of pioneers that trekked the Santa Fe Trail.

Today the Turquoise Trail is a 52-mile route that connects the high country of Santa Fe with the desert of Albuquerque. Whether you're pedaling on two wheels or looking for a leisurely drive, get off the interstate and follow Route 14. The rewards are a passage back in time through old mining towns where the ghosts roam, plus thriving communities of artisans and craftsmen.

Don't miss the Sandia Crest. Head west at Sandia Park for a 12-mile run from the desert floor to the mountain crest along Scenic Byway 536. If you are biking, its a worthy climb—3,700 feet. Amateur botanists will enjoy watching the desert scrub transform to thick ponderosa forest. Bikers will appreciate the cool air as they approach the summit of the Sandia Crest at 10,678 feet, and daredevils will enjoy the plunge back down.

Ancient Turquoise Mines

South of Santa Fe, New Mexico, sits the Cerrillos Hills, where large deposits of turquoise have been worked by man for thirty centuries. This area contains what is probably the oldest mine in North America. It is a turquoise mine first worked by Native people at least 1000 years B.C. and later by Spanish, Mexican, and American miners. The Spanish explorers that named this area were looking for El Dorado, a mythic city of gold that did not exist. Their first visit to this area was in 1540 as don Francesco Vasquez de Coronado led the first full-scale expedition to see the seven cities of Cibola. Three days after he captured Zuni Pueblo, Indians brought him some turquoise and some "poor blankets." He was unimpressed as were the other scouting parties he sent to visit other pueblos. After recognizing lead ore used in decorating pottery, the Spanish set out to find the source of this lead in hopes of also finding gold and silver. This led them up the Rio Grande, then up the Rio Galisteo to Cerrillos.

The mines of the Cerrillos area were Native workings and included lead/silver ore, copper, and abundant turquoise. Lead and silver often run with gold, and the Spanish thought they were on the right track. Much to their dismay, although all the extensive mining and effort by the Natives was very impressive, it was not for gold. This troubled the Spanish because the Indian miners acted "as though they were digging for diamonds." When asked about gold, the Natives shrugged and said they knew nothing. After assaying samples of promising ore, the Spanish concluded that there were gold deposits very near the turquoise mines. Conquistadors like Coronado were conquerors, not miners. They had hoped to find an already functional mine and labor force as they had found in Mexico. Something ripe for a "hostile takeover." Hard rock mining is very difficult work and even with the advanced technology of the Spanish metal pick, they decided mining here was not profitable. Later, in the 1800's, American and Mexican miners would prove them wrong.

A guided tour of the entire pueblo kingdom as far north as Taos was still not enough to convince the Spanish that gold did not exist here as they had found in Mexico. El Dorado still eluded them, and turquoise did not interest them in the least. The only reason they accepted it as gifts was to trade it with other tribes if they fell short of supplies. Its value to the Natives was well known.

Cerrillos means "little hills." The mineral deposits in this area occur in very pure veins and actually, gold is among the deposits. The Natives were only working the ores that they were interested in and gold was not one of them. Working with stone hammers, chisles, and files, they would remove the rock from inside the mountain with reed baskets and hide buckets. The earliest Spanish report of these mines estimated that the Indian miners had removed 100,000 tons of rock. This was evidenced by the huge tailings pile and the 400-year-old pinon trees growing out of it. Numerous tunnels and chambers lie within the mountain that the Indians called "Chalchihuitl." This word had 16 different spellings and was used by Indians, Mexicans, Spanish, and Americans to indicate many different stone—sometimes for different colors of the same stone! This created quite a bit of confusion surrounding these pre-historic mines and the variety of colors that they have produced. Turquoise is usually sky blue to light greenish-blue, but also white, dark blue, jade-like green, reddish brown, and even violet. Mt. Chalchihuitl is known for having many shades that from one area.

At the turn of the century, Tiffany's of New York helped to homogenize the market by popularizing the shade known as "robins' egg blue," which is still the most fashionable color today. In 1885, in an effort to set the record straight, J.W. Powell collected a suite of stones from these mines and sent them to the Smithsonian for analysis. They were pronounced to be turquoise. It was now possible to make a perfectly matched necklace from American turquoise; Persian turquoise now had competition. This cleared up centuries of confusion surrounding the origin of the precious stone. Turquoise from these mines is thought to be the source of the great amounts found in the Mayan and Aztec empires. This turquoise has been discovered at Chichen Itza and Monte Alban in Mexico. It has found its way into the Crown Jewels of Spain, and there is also plenty sitting on the bottom of the ocean from overloaded and sunken Spanish ships. Mt. Chalchihuitl's fame is well earned.

Some legends insist that within the hollowed hill, pillars of turquoise up to ten feet thick were left intact in large "rooms" for ceremonial and structural reasons. Mining was not controlled in the manner we would think of for such a commodity. Work parties from other tribes were also allowed to work the veins, some coming from as far away as California and even passing other mines on the way! The importance of turquoise in the Native culture cannot be overstated. An interesting fact was the need for FRESH turquoise for each year's rituals, last year's being "spent" and of less power. It was used in rituals of fertility, crop planting, new building, marriage, decorating everything, and trading for what they may not have. There is evidence of trade in sea shells, coral, and parrot feathers. Parrot skeletons have been found at Chaco Canyon and suggest that it became worthwhile to raise them here to ensure a steady supply of colorful feathers. Also found at Chaco Canyon were offerings of turquoise under pillars and structurally important places, even at the base of sagging walls. Among the finds were thousands of beads, fetishes, mosaics, and necklaces, all from Cerrillos turquoise.

Why turquoise? First, it occurs invariably near the surface. This made it possible to work with primitive tools. Second, it's soft, easily worked, and colorful in its natural state. Its color contrasted with the landscape they lived in while imitating the things they admired most: SKY and WATER. Third and most profound and persistent is superstition. Turquoise has a natural habit of changing color by soaking up body oils, fading, or crumbling to powder for no apparent reason. All this added to lively imaginations and explanations. At any rate, turquoise was never taken lightly. It was always a POSITIVE influence for GOOD. Its name protected, turquoise still enjoys widespread use today.

Special thanks to the folks at New Mexico Mountain Bike Adventures for sponsoring this article on GORP!

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


Sign up to Away's Travel Insider

Preview newsletter »