This is an example of the etchings you can see at Petroglyph National Monument in Albuquerque. The park includes over 20,000 petroglyphs, most of which are in excellent condition.



Throughout the Southwest---actually, the world---are images carved into rocks, what have come to be known as Petroglyphs. Petroglyphs are cousin to Pictographs (which are painted onto stone in a protected area with a paint that is a mineral or vegetal substance combined with a binder element such as fat residue or blood).


In New Mexico, there are a few parks devoted solely to the number of petroglyphs that can be found there. And these are abundant. At Petroglyph National Monument in Albuquerque, alone, there are over 20,000 images pecked in stone. Quite frankly, though, if you hike anywhere in New Mexico---in the mountains, the desert, or in some portions of the plains---you stand a good chance of finding more, if you look.


There are many theories to explain the meaning and purpose of petroglyphs, depending on their location, age, and the type of image. Some petroglyphs are thought to be astronomical markers, maps, and other forms of symbolic communication. Petroglyph maps may show trails, symbols communicating time and distances traveled, as well as the local terrain in the form of river, landforms, and other geographic features. Some petroglyph images probably have deep cultural and religious significance for the societies that created them. In general, Native people believe the true meaning of these images should not be shared.


In New Mexico, there are many parks where petroglyphs can be seen in abundance. Some are developed primarily to protect and showcase the petroglyphs, while others have broader purposes ... and just happen to include several petroglyphs. In some instances, you will be given a map, showing where the petroglyphs are located. At other places, you will need to ask the ranger, as they might be in more hidden or remote locations.



Three Rivers Petroglyph Site

Southern New Mexico


I first stumbled upon Three Rivers by accident. The site is not on a road typically traveled by tourists and it therefore takes some planning to get to this location. While touring New Mexico in the early 1990s, we saw the sign for the park and drove up the road. There was a dirt parking lot, no signs or restrooms, and no other visitors. A man sitting in a folding chair greeted us at the make-shift entrance and there was no fee.


In this park, you basically walk among the rocks. There are crude 'trails,' but not the kind you are used to in most parks. Because you're traversing natural terrain, this is not a spot for those in wheelchairs or with physical limitations. Also, you are deep into nature, so there are no concession stands, interpretive guides, or plumbed restrooms.


As you walk the trails at Three Rivers, the petroglyphs are everywhere. They are on the rocks at your feet, they are at eye level as you climb, and you can see them on the larger rocks overhead. In the distance is a vast valley, and you can picture the people who sat here, etching away and watching the world in the distance.


Three Rivers is located 17 miles north of Tularosa and 28 miles south of Carrizozo, on US Highway 54. Turn east to Three Rivers on County Road B30 and travel five miles (the road is now paved).



Abo Ruins

Salinas Pueblo Missions, Mountainair


Long before the Spanish arrived to this section of this state---building churches whose ruins can still be seen---there was an active pueblo in the Salinas Valley, a lttle more than an hour southeast of Albuquerque. The Salinas Valley became a major trade center and one of the most populous parts of the Pueblo world, with perhaps 10,000 or more inhabitants in the 1600s. The villagers traded maize, pinon nuts, beans, squash, salt, and cotton goods for dried buffalo meat, hides, flints, and shells.


In the 1670s, the Salinas villages were abandoned, and their peoples dispersed. But there is still a lot to see today, including remnants of the structures they built, and of course, amazing petroglyphs. The petroglyphs here include spirals, animals, and figures with six fingers or toes --- believed to represent Gods and healers.


While there are petroglyphs throughout the Salinas Valley, many of them are either on private land or you have to cross private land---escorted by a ranger---to see them. The largest collection of petroglyphs, however, are located at Abo', the first site you come to if you are entering the Valley from the west.


To view the petroglyphs at Abo' you have to be escorted by a ranger, something that must be arranged in advance. I don't believe there is a fee for the tour, but you need to phone the Salinas Pueblo headquarters (505-847-2585) to make your reservations. A ranger told me that the best tours are offered by Billy, but I'm sure all of the rangers will ensure a safe and educational experience for you.


To get to Abo' and the other Salinas Pueblo Missions, you will need to allow most of a day, though it is possible to leave Albuquerque in the morning and return well before dark. Abo' is 77 miles from Old Town. From Albuquerque, take I-25 south to Highway 60 in Bernardo. Head east on 60 toward Mountainair. There are no towns or service stations between Bernardo and Abo' and the entrance is on your left. Abo' is nine miles west of Mountainair.



La Cieneguilla Petroglyph Site

South of Santa Fe


I've never really feared rattlesnakes, but I sure did when I visited this site, a few miles southwest of Santa Fe. The petroglyphs are on a ridge, yet to get to them, you need to climb a steep, slate-covered hill, which at times can be slippery. Given that I was visiting the site in early summer, the rocks looked like perfect territory for snakes ... fortunately, I did not see any.


Hundreds of petroglyphs, dating from pre-contact time and the Spanish colonial era, can be found along this mesa above the Santa Fe River. Most of the petroglyphs were placed there by Keresan-speaking puebloan people living in the area between the 13th and 17th centuries. The descendents of these people now live down the Santa Fe River along the Rio Grande at the Cochiti and Santo Domingo Pueblos.


This area is known for the great number of hump-backed flute player images (think Kokopelli) and a great variety of bird figures. The site is also of interest to those tracing the route of El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro, as the ancient road passed along here as well.


The La Cineguilla Petroglyph Site is very close to Santa Fe. From the intersection of Airport Road and NM 599, continue west on Airport Road for 3.3 miles. There is a gravel parking area on the west side of the road and a BLM sign. Follow a trail marked by arrows for about five- to ten minutes to access the basalt cliffs, where the petroglyphs are located.



Petroglyph National Monument



When I first visited Petroglyph National Monument, it was on the periphery of western Albuquerque. Walking along the stone carvings, it was possible to see houses in the distance, but there was a boundary between residential and park space. That is no longer true. Instead, it is easy to lose awareness of the fact that you are in a park, when it can feel you are in someone's back yard. Because in actuality, you are in someone's back yard. Several houses and roads bump up against the park, making for an odd combination of past and present. In fact, when you enter the parking area for Boca Negra Canyon, off Unser, you are at first entering a housing development.


That stated, you should still try to see this park. You can pick up a map at the Visitor's Center on Unser Blvd, but each park also has them. Entry to each park is free, with the exception of Boca Negra Canyon, which charges $2.00 per car.


Petroglyph Monument in Albuquerque is actually four small parks, all close to one another. Two of them can be accessed via Unser Blvd, Exit 154 off I-40 (though the southernmost park, Rinconada Canyon, is currently closed due to storm damage). The Volcanoes Park is located on Atrisco Vista Blvd. and Piedras Marcadas Canyon Park is located off of Paradise Blvd.You only need about 30-45 minutes at each park to see the Petroglyphs, which means it can be a quick outing (the park is about 10 minutes from Old Town; 25 minutes from the Airport).


Do note that this is rugged territory. There are trails, but you are climbing among boulders, so wear appropriate shoes. 


The petroglyphs in this region were made by American Indians who either lived nearby or were passing through the area. Most of the petroglyphs at this monument were made by the Pueblo, Apache, and Navajo people. Later, early Spanish explorers and settlers made petroglyphs. The Native American petroglyphs were etched 300 to 700 years ago. The Spanish petroglyph images were etched 200 to 300 years ago.


Petroglyph National Monument is a day park, which means it closes at 5:00 (or sunset in the summer). There is no overnight camping, but there are (primitive) restrooms and picnic tables at each of the parks.



Puye Cliff Dwellings

Northwest of Santa Fe


This is an under-appreciated park for a lot of reasons, but it also has an ample number of petroglyphs to see. The Puye Cliffs (one hour northwest of Santa Fe) is the largest complex on the Pajarito Plateau, and includes two levels of cliff dwellings, as well as surface and cave dwellings. One level of cliff dwellings is over a mile long. These dwellings were carved out of soft volcanic turf.


This park is in a spectacular location and visitors can walk or hike the terrain. Petroglyphs are not clustered here the way they are in some of the other parks listed, but they are plentiful and well-preserved.


As you pull into park, you will see a view very similar to the one that visitors saw in the early part of the 20th century. Two buildings stand at the base of the mesa, both made from shaped volcanic tuff blocks found at the site. The building on the left is now an interpretive center, and the building on the right is a gift shop. Together they originally constituted a Harvey House, the only one built on an Indian reservation. In the 1920s, Fred Harvey made an agreement with the tribe: Tourists staying in the Harvey House hotels in Las Vegas, Lamy or Santa Fe could sign up for his Indian Detours to Puye and Santa Clara Pueblo to purchase pottery. His guests traveled via the “Chile Line,” the narrow-gauge Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad. Built in the late 1870s, it connected Española with Antonito, Colorado. From Santa Clara, guests were driven to Puye in a covered wagon, and in later years a Model T.


Today, to get to Puye, head southwest from Española on NM 30. Five miles south of the city you will see the Puye Cliffs Welcome Center [at the Valero gas station], where you must pick up your tickets for one of the guided tours.


Bandelier National Monument

Near Los Alamos


This national park is also located northwest of Santa Fe, near the road to Los Alamos. The area was inhabited by ancient Puebloans, the ancestors of modern-day Native American pueblos of northern New Mexico. For some unknown reason---probably related to drought and the decline in agriculture---the Puebloans abandoned this site, leaving behind ruins in a spectacular setting.


The monument's headquarters and visitor center are in Frijoles Canyon. The Tsankawi section of the park---located on State Highway 4, twelve miles from the main section of the park---is a great spot to see petroglyphs. At Tsankawi, you take a 1.5 mile walk along a mesa, where the petroglyphs are seen as you travel along.


To get to Bandelier Park, take US 84/285 north from Santa Fe, toward Pojoaque. In Pojoaque, you will merge onto NM 502 to Los Alamos. At the top of the hill, bear right to NM 4 towards White Rock. The entrance is on your left.



Gila Cliff Dwellings

North of Silver City


This archaeological site in southwestern New Mexico is in the Gila National Forest near the headwaters of the Gila River. The name Gila is derived from the Yuma Indian term hahquahssael, meaning “salty water running.” The monument lies in rugged country about 30 miles north of Silver City. It contains groups of small but well-preserved dwellings built of stone masonry in natural cavities of an overhanging cliff 150 feet high.The dwellings were inhabited from about AD 1280 to the early 14th century by peoples of the Mongollon culture. The ruins of earlier dwellings also have been found there, the oldest of these dating to about AD 100.


Compared to many parks in New Mexico, this one is rarely crowded. I've been there when no other visitors were around at all. It is somewhat of a walk from the visitors center to the dwellings, but it is mostly level. You'll see a few petroglyphs along the way, but if you ask at the Visitors Center, they will alert you to some that are more hidden. Frankly, the Gila Wilderness has quite a few petroglyphs, but the locations are shared word-of-mouth in order to preserve them.


Most of the parks referenced above have petroglyphs from northern peoples of New Mexico, while those in the Gila represent a different group altogether. Thus, if you're able to do a comparison, you'll find some striking differences.



These are photographs taken at Petroglyph Monument in Albuquerque, primarily at Boca Negra Canyon. There are two separate trails; the first you come upon is somewhat rugged, but the other is easier to walk on.