The Cerrillos Hills in north-central New Mexico—a mere 20 miles from Santa Fe—is one of the oldest historically documented mining districts in the United States. Keres and Tano Puebloans from the nearby Rio Grande and Galisteo Basins began mining turquoise in 900 CE, which was used for medicinal and ritual purposes.
By the early 1300s, Pueblo potters from the central Río Grande area were mining galena (lead sulfide), which was the source of glaze paint used to decorate pottery. This ceased after 1700 when the Spanish inhabitants, who worked many of the mines in the Cerrillos Hills for their silver and lead content, cut off Puebloan access.
In early 1879, two intrepid miners from Leadville, Colorado discovered gold in the hills. The railroad arrived a year later. Before long, the area was overrun by miners and prospectors searching for gold, silver, lead, and turquoise. The town of Los Cerrillos, first established as a tent camp, sprung up virtually overnight.
By the end of 1880, there were several thousand prospectors, at least 21 saloons, five brothels, an opera house, and four hotels. More than 4,000 prospecting pits, holes and mine shafts were dug between 1879 and 1884. Regrettably, most of these did not produce sufficient minerals to generate a profit, and virtually none ended up having significant gold. After mineral production peaked in the mid-1880s, coal mining became the foundation of the area’s economy. Most mining operations ceased in the 1920s.
While not strictly a ghost town (there are several hundred locals in the area), Los Cerrillos is a quiet and charming little town with tree-lined and dusty dirt streets, many original buildings and numerous sleeping dogs, providing a picturesque nostalgia of the old west.
First Street, with scores of authentic structures, has served as the backdrop for numerous western movies. The Cerrillos Hills State Park, just 0.5 miles north of town, has five miles of hiking and biking trails through the rolling juniper and piñon hills. The trails bypass many of the old mining pits and shafts that dot the area and that have been fitted with safety netting and viewing platforms.
Know Before You Go
Los Cerrillos is easily accessed by a well-marked turnoff from NM State Road 14 (Turquoise Trail National Scenic Byway) approximately 20 miles south of Santa Fe. The Turquoise Mining Museum and Casa Grande Trading Post at the west end of Waldo Street are worth a stop. Many of the original 1880s-era buildings in town serve as local residences. The occupants' privacy should be respected. The Cerrillos Hills State Park is just 0.5 miles north of town along First Street and County Road 59.