Prehistoric Trackways National Monument, Las Cruces

On the north side of Las Cruces, the Prehistoric Trackways National Monument was established to conserve, protect, and enhance the unique paleontological, scientific, educational, and scenic resources of the Robledo Mountains in southern New Mexico.


The park contains the fossilized footprints of amphibians, reptiles, and even previously unknown insects dating back 280 million years -- before the existence of dinosaurs.


To date, more than 2,500 slabs of fossilized records--with detailed markings of plants and petrified wood, along with the amphibians and reptiles--have been discovered. The majority of these are the New Mexico Museum of Natural History & Sciences in Albuquerque, and some can be seen at the Las Cruces Museum of Nature and Science. 


Because of this, your visit to the Monument will be less about actually seeing fossils and animal tracks, though many are still around. Instead, a visit to the park will provide you with a first-hand look at the Chihuahuan Desert and all that it has to offer in terms of views, plant life, grasses, animals, and hiking opportunities. 


Here, you will see almost a mini forest of Ocotillo, agave, yucca, button cactus, pincushion cactus, bishop's cap cactus, creosote, claret cup cactus, prickly pear, honey mesquite, Mormon tea, acacia, and in the spring and fall, acres of wildflowers.

Created in March 2009, this area was designated a National Monument due to it being a major deposit of the Paleozoic Era and containing one of the most scientifically-significant early Permian track sites in the world.

Nearly 300 million years ago, what is now Las Cruces was located near the equator and it had a tropical environment, next to an inland sea. The red mud trapped tracks of large and small amphibians and reptiles. The area was also thick with trees and ferns, from which came layers of petrified wood.

Getting to the Monument is an easy drive from Picacho Drive (Highway 70) in Las Cruces. You do need to read the directions, however, which are detailed at the end of this article.

Once you get to the Monument, you are in rugged, desert territory. There is no Visitor Center, no (!!!) facilities, no brochures, not even a sign to let you know you have arrived. You can park in the lower lot and hike up the Ridgeline Trail, or drive further west, into the canyon. This should not be tried if it has been raining, and you will need a four-wheel drive vehicle.

Unless you're looking for off-road adventure, my suggestion is to hike the Ridgeline Trail (on the north end of the parking area; there is a sign). The trail can be a bit steep at times, and it goes for as long as you feel like hiking. The trail is well-marked and you will need hiking boots or sturdy shoes. It is open territory, so wear a hat; apply sunscreen; and take water. 

As you hike the Ridgeline Trail, you are surrounded by the beauty of the Chihuahuan Desert. You will see Ocotillo all along the route, but the cacti is more prolific as you climb. When you turn around, you see the Organ Mountains in the background and the Rio Grande in the foreground. The green fields below are a combination of pecan trees, chile, cotton, and alfalfa.  


When hiking this trail, keep in mind that you will start out at 3900 feet, but you will climb to over 4000 feet. If you are not used to this altitude, take it easy and drink lots of water. Otherwise, you will get lightheaded or experience a headache.  

This is snake territory. While you are more likely to encounter them early in the morning or in the evening, they can be present at any time. Rattlesnakes cannot stay in direct sunlight for long periods of time. Because of this, you will rarely see them on the trail in the heat of the day. Take care, however, when walking pass brush and shrubs. 

DIRECTIONS: From Picacho Avenue (Highway 70), take Shalem Colony Trail north 5.5 miles. Right before you reach the Rio Grande, there is a small street on the right called Rocky Acres Trail. Turn left on Permian Tracks Road. After you cross the cattle grate, you are in the parking area and the Ridgeline Trail is to your right. You can drive further up the canyon, but do not attempt if it has been raining. You will also need four-wheel drive. The Monument is open year-round and there is no fee. There is no visitors center or brochures/maps.