If you’d like to take a “cool” walk this winter, you might consider Albuquerque’s Petroglyph National Monument. Temperatures will be much lower than in July and, for certain, the kids or grandkids will think the park is extra chill.
Petroglyph National Monument consists of a 17-mile-long stretch of volcanic basalt escarpment comprising Albuquerque’s West Mesa. From the visitor center, there’s a mile-long trail through Rinconada Canyon along the base of the escarpment from which you can see many of the 24,000 petroglyphs etched in the desert varnish.
There are animal images: bighorn sheep, coyotes, bears, turtles, lizards, snakes, and birds — including macaws imported from Meso-America. There are faces and elaborate masks, handprints, full-body images of people in feather headdresses holding corn plants, bows and arrows, and other implements — even kachinas. Some are representative of religious or spiritual entities, and some tell stories of who came to the area and where they went.
Many of the glyphs are geometric — circles, spirals, squares, and other abstract designs. But they are not just rock art or graffiti. The context of each image is important and integral to its meaning, oriented to surrounding images and the landscape in which it sits. The placement was not casual nor random, although weathering has undoubtedly tumbled boulders down the escarpment, introducing a randomness.
What Do the Symbols Mean?
Petroglyphs are powerful, cultural symbols reflecting the complex societies and religions of Indigenous people who lived here long before the Spanish arrived.
Most of the rock art etched in the escarpment is from 400 to 700 years old, although scientists say some of the images may be as old as 3,000 years — about the time people were migrating away from Chaco Canyon in northeast New Mexico and creating pueblos such as Acoma. As you walk the trail, it’s common to ask who made these pictures and why. There is any number of interpretations, but the National Park Service, which manages the national monument with the City of Albuquerque, notes the meaning of each petroglyph is known only to its creator.
Some experts think animal images represent rituals to assure a successful hunt. Images involving plants may be part of ceremonies asking for a bountiful harvest. Some represent wind, water, rain, and lightning, while others made by holy people — or medicine men — might be calling upon spirits and gods to bring healing or protection or represent spiritual emergence or journeys. Others might have been carved as part of rite of passage ceremonies. There are even some crosses more recently carved by Spanish settlers.
The original artists are, of course, long gone, although descendants who are today’s Pueblo people may indeed know the meanings. But many of the images have supernatural, spiritual significance and are considered sacred by Pueblo people.
The Ground It Sits On
The site of the national monument has a history almost as interesting as the petroglyphs themselves. More than 200,000 years ago, five volcanic eruptions occurred west of the Rio Grande fault, through which the river now flows. The resulting lava erupting from the ground here is much older than the lava that makes up El Malpais farther west. Travel Interstate-25 just north of Los Lunas, at the Isleta Pueblo village, and you’ll pass through the layer of lava defining the escarpment.
On high ground east of Albuquerque, look west and you’ll see the cones resulting from the fissure. The dormant (not extinct) volcanoes are named Butte, Bond, Vulcan, Black, and JA — after the initials painted on its side by students from John Adams Middle School. Lava flowed from the fissure to a depth of up to 50 feet. The lava contains high concentrations of iron, manganese, and calcium, which combine to give the rock its gray color.
Rain, wind, and variable temperatures eroded underlying and overlying sediments, exposing the basalt layer. Then, over time, minerals in rock surfaces oxidized creating the glossy, almost-black desert varnish. Long ago, native people as well as Spanish settlers discovered images could be created on the faces of the boulders by chipping away this dark layer to expose the lighter rock below.
How to Get to Petroglyph National Monument
Petroglyph National Monument is a day-use park free to the public. Its headquarters and visitor center are off Unser Boulevard at Western Trail. Take I-40 to Unser Boulevard, head north, and follow the signs about three miles before turning on Unser. The visitor center has restroom facilities, water, and a gift shop (open from 9 a.m. until 4 p.m.). The visitor center is open from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. daily except for New Year’s Day, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. You can pick up a brochure with maps of the three petroglyph sites but note that no petroglyph trails start at the visitor center.
You don’t have to go to the visitor center to hike the trails, however. Volcanoes Day Use Area, the mile-long Rinconada Canyon trail, and the slightly longer Piedras Marcadas Canyons trail can be hiked from sunrise to sunset by simply parking outside of the gated parking lots.
Boca Negra Canyon, which is operated by the City of Albuquerque, is a mile or so north of the visitor center. It has three paved trails for viewing up to 100 petroglyphs on self-guided tours. It has restrooms and water, shaded seating areas, and picnic tables. The parking fee is $1 on weekdays and $2 on weekends. Open 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. daily.
Seven miles north of the visitor center is Piedras Marcadas Canyon. Open from sunrise to sunset daily, it has an undeveloped 1.5-mile trail with some of the largest concentrations of petroglyphs in the monument. Water, restrooms, and other amenities are unavailable at this site.
Tips for Safely Visiting the Petroglyphs in Albuquerque
• Stay on the trails. Petroglyphs may be cut into the rock, but they are fragile.
• Watch out for sudden storms. Lightning in the open is dangerous.
• Watch for rattlesnakes. It’s their home. Report sightings to rangers.
• Wear protective footwear, sunscreen, and a hat.
• Carry plenty of water. You may be near the city, but it’s still the desert.
Tips for Bringing Your Dog
• Dogs must be kept on a leash six feet or shorter. They are allowed on the trails at Piedras Marcadas Canyon and only in the petroglyph or middle section of Rinconada Canyon. Dogs are not allowed at Boca Negra Canyon.
• Bring dog booties to protect your pet’s paws from hot asphalt and sandy surfaces.
• Don’t forget to bring water for your dog.
• Clean up your dog’s waste.
• Dogs are not allowed to chase wildlife or dig holes.
• Dogs are not allowed inside public buildings such as the visitor center, government offices, and public restrooms.
• Service dogs that assist people who have accessibility or medical needs, are welcome throughout Petroglyph National Monument, providing they are properly identified and on a leash or halter at all times.
Looking for someplace else to take your dog? Read this!