Arting Around on the Turquoise Trail

Get your fill of New Mexico’s Old West charm alongside Native American art galleries and quirky kitsch on this scenic byway.


Highway 14 between Santa Fe and Albuquerque, N.M., dubbed the Turquoise Trail after the ancient Pueblo Native Americans who first mined the stone, is a 65-mile scenic byway that offers natural beauty, Old West charm, and a range of arts and entertainment venues. It also makes for an unusual, and eye-opening road trip. Local residents include artists and photographers, curiosity shop owners, iris farmers, llama ranchers and folks with more traditional occupations. Most were drawn here by the beautiful, but desolate landscape of strong colors, deep shadows, cragged mountains and odd rock formations. As a destination, the trail offers a compelling getaway for history, art and nature lovers alike.

Tijeras, Trams and Tinkertown

Starting at Albuquerque, drive for about 15 miles on Interstate 40 East, exiting at 175 to the old Highway 14. Stop at Tijeras. If you and your teenagers are mountain bikers, there are numerous trails, part of the “Tijeras Trot” up the Canyon between the Sandia and Manzano Mountains. If history and scenery are more in line with your interests, visit the Tijeras Pueblo Archaeological Site to see the remains of a 300-room pueblo abandoned in 1425 and a glimpse into a vanished culture. Try to time your visit with one of the Tijeras Pueblo’s monthly lectures.

To get a bird’s-eye view of the desert landscape, stop in Sandia Park, a few miles north of Tijeras for a spin on the Sandia Peak Tramway, the world’s longest tram ride—nearly three miles into the air. You’ll be lifted from the desert floor, above the canyons and pine forests to view a mountain panorama. On your journey, you can see grazing deer and raptors flying in the distance. 

After scaling mountain heights, it is time to descend into the world of the small with a visit to Tinkertown in Sandia Park. Best described as an artistic ensemble of oddities, the Tinkertown Museum is the life work of the late artist Ross Ward, now run by his daughter. On display is Ward’s animated miniature circus (he painted circus sets during his professional career), a small western town, 48,000 glass bottles and an antique boat in the backyard that sailed around the world. Part museum, part fantasy, part paean to folk art and a spiritual ensemble of junk, it is a jewel of a roadside museum. If your daughter is a dollhouse aficionado, this is the place for her.

The Old West of the Southwest

More artistic oddities await in Madrid a few miles farther north. Pronounced (MAD-rid) by locals, in a deliberate tongue-in-cheek mauling of the Spanish, the artists in this colony are all a bit mad, but tremendously fun. A former mining town, Madrid was a ghost town before being revitalized by a group of artists in the 1970s. Boutiques, galleries and gift shops line the main street, offering Tibetan carpets, native folk art and Oaxacan carvings. Mardi-Graz Gallery features pastels that look like a cross between black velvet paintings and the work of Georgia O’Keefe, while Johnson’s of Madrid has a comprehensive collection of contemporary New Mexican visual arts and the Engine House Theatre offers melodrama, Old West style. Classics like “Little Nell,” along with new pieces like “The Most Upright Buffalo in the West” are campy and a hoot to watch. You can boo and hiss, and the kids are allowed to throw marshmallows at the dastardly villain twirling his long moustache. The General Store also offers homemade licorice ice cream.

After all the worldly and otherworldly excitement, the last stop on the Turquoise Trail, Cerrillos, offers quieter pleasures. In the 1880s, 30,000 miners were in Los Cerrillos, mining the surrounding hills for gold and turquoise. Even today, Cerrillos turquoise is prized for its cloud-green color. In more recent history, the town was used as a movie set for the films The Nine Lives of Elfego Baca, and Young Guns, even though today no miners or Hollywood gunslingers roam the streets of this authentic Wild West town. The What-Not Shop is a treasure trove of rocks, clocks, cut glass and Native American pottery. The small historic church, St. Joseph’s, is also worth a visit, featuring adobe nichos, or religious altar boxes, holding devotional statues. The Cerrillos cemetery is another worthwhile stop to get a sense of New Mexico’s rich cultural heritage: its memorials are 200 to 300 hundred years old.

So, whether for adventure or relaxation, take a day trip on the Turquoise Trail for a true-blue cultural experience. 

Destinations: New Mexico, Albuquerque, Tijeras, Cerrillos, Santa Fe

Themes: Family Travel

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