Secrets of Cerrillos Hills

- July 12, 2011

"Blink and you’ll miss it."

Blink and you’ll miss it. Many people driving from Santa Fe on the Turquoise Trail may never realize Cerrillos Hills exists just outside Madrid. It’s a modest old mining town nestled in on the banks of the Santa Fe River, but hidden from highway view. Motorists speed ahead to Madrid, while Cerrillos remains sleepy and neighborly accented by its dirt streets. Today, we arrive to experience history from the back of a horse.

Gold, copper, silver, lead, zinc, iron, and turquoise were mined in these hills. The first miners were Native Americans; long before the Spaniards and Europeans arrived. An area rich in history, this is the oldest recorded Western mining camp in the United States. Years ago, most of the 90 mine shafts and pits were closed. But more recently, several have been preserved for viewing. The platform atop the Plexiglas cover of each shaft is irresistible, so we peer down inside. Each mine has a display plaque to describe its history of activity and ownership allowing for our self-guided tour. Cerrillos Hills Park contains over 1000 acres with trails open to hikers, mountain bikers and horseback riders.

The terrain consists of rolling hills of grasses, cactus, juniper and Piñon trees, so we are in for a strenuous ride of ups and downs and sandy arroyo bottoms. It’s an ideal local choice for a short ride of one or two hours, even though the horses have to work in the hilly terrain. It's mid-August, the time of year when Cerrillos Hills are their greenest. The trails, from single track to wide jeep roads, are well marked and heavily traveled by the wranglers and horses from the popular rent-horse stable, Broken Saddle, (located near the entrance to the Park) who guide riders though the park every day. Though we have all ridden here before, we stop to take along the free trail map provided by the New Mexico State Parks Department that is available in the parking area.

Today we meet up with a Las Campanas Trail Tide with the club's Wrangler, Marty Miller. With over 30 years of outfitting and trail horse experience throughout New Mexico, we are in the best of hands with Marty. The horses are a combination of trail horses maintained by Las Campanas, and individually owned horses. Ron and I are riding with fellow horsemen and civic leaders Deborah and Earl Potter; long-time New Mexican residents. Though these are fairly technical trails, everyone is relaxed, trusting of each other’s skills and knowledge of our mounts, while enjoying the scenery and company of friends.

Less than 30 miles from Santa Fe, Cerrillos exists in a different eco-system. Today is bright and warm with a sunny, cloudless sky. As we ride along in short-sleeved shirts, we see that distant thundershowers are darkening Santa Fe. The hilltops provide magnificent 360 views. Up on a ridge, I stop to ponder how challenging life might have been in this desolate terrain 100 years ago.

As we near the end of our ride, the Elkins Canyon Trail sneaks up on us. It narrows so quickly there is no escape as it turns into a steep rock chute. Turning or backing out is impossible; it is already too deep. We give the horses their heads as they carefully pick their way down the boulders. We trust them to get us through. 50 feet later, I am relieved when the trail flattens out back to an arroyo bottom.

We make our way back to the trailers, load the horses and head for Mary’s Bar in Cerrillos; a popular set location for movies. The establishment was built 90 years ago by Mary’s family and is still run by Mary today at age 94. At Mary’s, we grab a Coke, relax and re-live our day; and plan our next great ride.