The Cerrillos Hills, a low but rugged cluster of arid hills about 25 miles south of Santa Fe, have such an anomalously rich natural and cultural history that it is impossible to write about them in a single serving. You would never credit this statement if you just drove by the lonely spot, giving these dry runts of mountains a disinterested glance as you zipped on north to Santa Fe on Highway 14, with the real Rockies glowing on the horizon ahead. And yet, just two facts, among many other, might clue you in to the significance of the Hills: the oldest turquoise mines on the North American continent are hidden here. . . and the capitol of New Mexico was very nearly seated in the village of Cerrillos at the southern edge of the hills.
This past Sunday was intensely sunny, and since it’s a relatively short drive from Santa Fe, and always a good place for a meditative walk, I decided to head down to the Cerrillos Hills Open Space for a stroll. I immediately got a surprise: a very nice ranger named Sarah Wood (and what was a ranger doing there?) greeted me and let me know that the county park had recently been taken into the State Park system and was now officially a New Mexico State Park. This is important to know, since the State Parks charge a small $5 fee for day use. Sarah told me about some of the plans she and the Parks have to enhance the interpretive aspects of a visit to the Hills, some of which will be in place as soon as February – so stay tuned.
The Cerrillos Hills are utterly fascinating for fans of the Old West, or of the history of mining in the American Southwest, or – if you’re like me – interested in rocks and geology, and delighted to find a place where you can literally walk through the frozen plumbing system of an ancient volcanic complex. The park is pockmarked with old prospect pits and mines:
Many of these are signed with intriguing historical information:
And if you’re like me, you can try to puzzle out just why the prospectors sunk these pits where they did:
(Notice that bleached and iron-stained zone in the rocks, slanting down just where the shadow of my hat strikes the wall. I suspect this was the promise of riches below)
The county has fenced, screened, and otherwise guarded these old mines so it is safe to bring the kids along. This was formerly NOT the case, but I do miss the thrill of peering down into the darkness on a slippery pile of tailings.
One of the best ways to enjoy the park, and recreate for yourself a bit of the Old West into the bargain, is to engage a trail ride with the Broken Saddle Riding Company and see the hills from a seat on a horse:
The company is located very close to the entrance of the park in the picturesque village of Cerrillos and it is very easy to set up a ride. Broken Saddle has access to trails which are not within the park itself, and your guide – probably as picturesque as the village – will give you a great overview of the history of mining in the area.
I plan to give an overview, myself, of the geology of the Cerrillos Hills in another entry soon. For now, I just want to remind everyone that this lonely and austerely beautiful place is always waiting for you when you need a quiet and head-clearing walk in the Old West.