The Petroglyphs of Albuquerque, New Mexico
The Petroglyph National Monument is located just west of the city of Albuquerque, New Mexico and stretches almost 20 miles along New Mexico’s West Mesa. The large blocks of blackened volcanic basalt sit in the bluffs that line Albuquerque’s sunset horizon.
The historically significant site is a 7,236-acre monument, authorized on June 27, 1990, containing thousands of early Native American petroglyphs. Later the Spanish explorers added many of their own graphics to the sunbaked basalt. Archaeologists have estimated there may be over 25,000 petroglyph images along the 17 miles of escarpment within the monument boundary.
Within the Petroglyph National Monument lies one of the largest and most significant petroglyph sites in North America. The primitive sketches, shapes, and figures were put on the volcanic rocks by Native Americans and Spanish settlers 400 to 700 years ago and are a valuable cultural record of our ancestors.
Within the monument are four hiking trails, however at only three of these can you see petroglyphs: Boca Negra, Rinconada Canyon, and Piedras Marcadas Canyon. The fourth hiking trail is the Volcanoes Day Use Area.
What are Petroglyphs?
Petroglyphs are rock carvings made by striking directly on the surface of rocks using a stone chisel and a hammerstone. In Petroglyphs National Monument the basalt has a dark outer patina known as desert varnish. As the outer surface is chipped away the light-colored rock underneath is exposed, creating the petroglyph.
Who carved the Petroglyphs?
It is estimated 90% of the monument’s petroglyphs were created by the ancestors of today’s Pueblo people. Puebloans have lived in the Rio Grande Valley since before 500 A.D., but a population increase around 1300 A.D. resulted in numerous new settlements. It is believed that the majority of the petroglyphs were carved from about 1300 through the late 1680s.
The arrival of the Spanish people in 1540 had a dramatic impact on the lifestyle of the Pueblo people. In 1680 the Pueblo tribes rose up in revolt of Spanish rule, and drove the settlers out of the area and back to El Paso, Texas. In 1692 the Spanish resettled in the Albuquerque area. As a result of their return, there was a renewed influence of the Catholic religion, which discouraged participation by the Puebloans in many of their traditional ceremonial practices. As a consequence, many of these practices went underground, and much of the image making by the Puebloans decreased. A small percentage of the petroglyphs found within the park pre-date the Puebloan time period, perhaps reaching as far back as 2000 BC. Other images date from historic periods starting in the 1700s, with petroglyphs carved by early Spanish settlers.
Detail of the petroglyph just above shows signs of where vandals attempted to remove them by means of hammer and chisel.
Boca Negra Canyon is a 70-acre section of the 7,236 acres within the monument boundaries. Approximately 100 petroglyphs can be viewed within an hour of walking. This is the monument’s only fully developed area. Restroom facilities, shade, and a drinking fountain are provided for your convenience. A wheelchair-accessible view scope is available on the patio adjacent to the restroom facility. This unit of Petroglyph National Monument is owned, staffed, and managed by the City of Albuquerque Open Space Division.
Located off of Unser Boulevard, ¼ mile north of Montaño Road, this canyon provides quick and easy access to three self-guided trails, (Mesa Point, Macaw, and Cliff Base) where you can view approximately 100 petroglyphs. The combined walking time is approximately 1 hour.
Above, a petroglyph of a roadrunner, and below, a native roadrunner surveys the Petroglyphs National Monument landscape as the sun rises in the east.
Rinconada Canyon offers an insight into the geologic, cultural, and natural resources of this region. From the parking lot, a sandy path follows the northern escarpment, carrying you over sand dunes. As you walk into the canyon, the sounds and sights of the city fade away and you see prehistoric and historic petroglyphs, rock wall alignments and shelters, and wildlife living in the vegetation growing throughout the canyon.
The geology of the area shows the remnants of volcanic eruptions of 200,000 years ago. The basalt from these flows caps the sandstone of the Santa Fe Formation. As the softer sandstone erodes away, the basalt breaks off and tumbles down the hillside. This action provided the escarpment where the petroglyphs were carved.
The Rinconada Canyon trail follows the northern escarpment, allowing the hiker views of a variety of petroglyphs. The trail is 1.1 miles long to the back of the canyon (2.2 miles round trip) and is moderately strenuous.
As with any hiking in the park, or the Southwest desert, you should carry plenty of water and drink often. Wear a hat, sunscreen, and sturdy walking shoes or boots. Watch out for rattlesnakes that inhabit the canyon.
A rattlesnake petroglyph with a close-up detail photo below.
Details about the Piedras Marcadas Canyon:
(Day Use Area Only)
Trail length: 1.5 miles round-trip on an unpaved trail. See up to 400 petroglyphs.
The degree of difficulty: Easy to moderate
Open daily sunrise to sunset.
Leashed pets allowed. Owners must pick up after their pets.
Amenities: None. No water, no restrooms.
Located off Golf Course Rd. at Jill Patricia Street, a 6-mile drive from the visitor center, or use the following GPS coordinates:
GPS Lat: 35.1887 GPS Long: -106.6856
Limited parking facilities
Details about the Volcanoes Day Use Area:
Parking lot hours are 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. daily. May close early due to severe weather. This area is officially open to visitors daily from sunrise to sunset. Before or after-hours access is permitted by parking outside of gated parking lot.
GPS Lat: 35.1306 GPS Long: -106.7803
The degree of Difficulty: Easy to moderately strenuous.
Vault restroom facilities are available at the parking area.
There are no petroglyphs at this site.
Petroglyph National Monument has much more to offer than the cultural resources for which it is so well known. Various types of wildlife utilize this narrow corridor, some in transit during migration, others for their entire lifespan. Plants, birds, insects, animals, all are part of the ecosystem that Petroglyph National Monument holds in this section of New Mexico
Another less popular but well-known resident of the monument is the rattlesnake. This landscape is home for several varieties, so be careful when you are visiting the monument.
The remnants of erupting volcanoes, which produced the basalt that became the canvas for people for thousands of years, stand starkly against the western horizon. A moderate hike will take you partway up some of these volcanic cones. Be sure to stay on the trails. It takes decades for this fragile volcanic landscape to recover from a single footstep.
What is the future of the park? As you can see by looking at the above and below photos, you will notice that vandals have stolen or destroyed several of the unique petroglyphs. This is probably the biggest threat to these rare testaments of a long-ago era. It makes one wonder why humans can be so destructive.
As in all National Park and Monuments, it is prohibited to collect ANYTHING. Please leave all plants and flowers, rocks, artifacts and etc. for all our visitors to enjoy. When you visit this unique place, take only photos and good memories of this astonishing, historical place.
For more information:
Unser Blvd. NW at Western Trail
Albuquerque, NM 87120
GPS Lat: 35.139 GPS Long: -106.711
Established: June 27, 1990
Management: National Park Service
Phone: (505) 899-0205
NRHP Reference Number: 01000279
Guides to help interpret the meaning of certain petroglyphs:
Besides the wonderous petroglyphs that were left by our ancestors, Albuquerque has a lot to offer:
The city of Albuquerque can be seen off in the east and is very close to the petroglyphs sites. The city also offers great food and accommodations as well as a very lively art scene.
The Golden Hour at Albuquerque offers splendid opportunities to capture the sights of this historic city.
A lively art scene and a foodies delight await the traveler in Albuquerque.
Albuquerque, New Mexico’s largest city, sits in the high desert. Its modern Downtown core contrasts with Old Town Albuquerque, dating to the city’s 1706 founding as a Spanish colony. Old Town is filled with historic adobe buildings, such as San Felipe de Neri Church, 5 museums, and shops selling Native American handicrafts. Nearby, The Indian Pueblo Cultural Center traces the area’s tribal history.
Above, the San Felipe de Neri Church at the Golden Hour just before sunset.
It is an ongoing item on my personal bucket list to see as many of these Native American petroglyphs as I can. Some are slowly deteriorating from natural causes like the elements. Others are disappearing much more quickly due to human interference like vandalism and the effect of people actually walking on these precious works of art. When you make the Petroglyphs of Albuquerque a drop in the bucket, do so by being a responsible human being. Respect our ancestor’s work as much as Mother Natures’ work.
All photographs are the copyright of Jim Jackson Photography. Please contact me for authorization to use any photos or for hand-signed, high-resolution copies.