Petroglyph National Monument protects more than 24,000 petroglyphs carved into the volcanic rock in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The drawings and symbols were created 400 to 700 years ago, mostly by ancestors of today’s Pueblo people, with some later additional art by Spanish settlers. The site is one of the largest in North America, run in coordination with the National Park Service and the City of Albuquerque.
What is a petroglyph, anyway?
A petroglyph is an image that is carved or “pecked” into the surface of a rock. Those at the Monument were done with stones, the same way sculptors use a hammer and chisel. (Note: Don’t confuse petroglyphs with pictographs, which are painted onto the rocks with fiber brushes and natural pigments.)
Archeologists labeled the art at Petroglyph National Park “Rio Grande” style. During a severe drought in the Southwest about 1275, people began to migrate to a dependable water source in the Rio Grande Valley. Once there, they were able to farm, using the terrace method, to plant corn, squash, and beans. They also hunted abundant wildlife and domesticated dogs and turkeys.
Life was good for the Pueblo Indians for over two hundred years; more than 40 pueblos were established, some with more than 1,000 residents. Some of the pueblos (made from adobe) were two or more stories tall, built around a town square. Along with creating art, making pottery, and painting murals, they carved permanent cultural images in the boulders. Rio Grande-style petroglyphs are dated between 1300 and 1680.
What are the meanings of the drawings?
That’s a great question. Archeologists always struggle to find meaning and purpose from their discoveries. Many of the petroglyphs at the Monument are human figures, often engaged in what seems to be celebration: playing flutes, dancing with upraised arms, and wearing masks. There are also animals like snakes, insects, and mountain lions. Experts think that carvings of dangerous animals–think poisonous snakes–might be warnings. Macaws–native to Mexican rainforests–are depicted and thought to demonstrate the trade between far-flung cultures.
Then there are symbols:
Spirals: Seen throughout the Southwest, they represent wind, water, and spiritual aspects such as the journey through life.
Hands: Possibly marking territory or sacred places. They can also be the healing mark of a Medicine Man.
Geometric designs: Thought to be the oldest of the petroglyphs, they are attributed to early nomadic tribes from 2,000-3,000 years ago.
Some meanings will never be known, or have different interpretations by tribe. But all represent a message and the heritage of the indigenous people who lived there.
What happened to the first Pueblo people?
The Pueblo culture was going strong until 1540, when Francisco Vazquez de Coronado found his way to the Rio Grande Valley. We all know what happens when explorers arrive. Coronado decided to keep his expedition in the valley for the winter. There were inevitable conflicts and the Spaniards destroyed some of the pueblos. Native people began to flee. Next, in 1598, Conquistador Juan de Oñate brought colonists to the area….along with greed, disease, and a massacre. Haciendas replaced pueblos. Missions were founded. The Pueblo people were driven from their own land. Only the petroglyphs remained.
Later, Spanish shepherds from the town of Atrisco (established 1692, in today’s South Valley of Albuquerque) added their own petroglyphs with crosses, lettering, and animal branding identification.
Ready to visit Petroglyph National Monument?
Petroglyph National Monument is a 17-mile-long escarpment along Albuquerque’s West Mesa. The escarpment was formed about 150,000 years ago by volcanic eruptions; the lava flowed around hills ad higher grounds to create cinder cone peaks. The thickness of the basalt rock from the lava is 5-50 feet thick. This would later become the perfect base for carving.
The Visitor Center is open every day 8:30 am to 4:30 pm, except Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year Day. (It closes at 3:00 pm the day before each of these holidays.) You should know that none of the trails can be accessed from the Visitor Center. Stop here for a map, information, and a nice gift shop with locally-made souvenirs.
There are three ways to see the petroglyphs–bring water and sunscreen:
*Boca Negra Canyon: 8:30 am to 4:30 pm. Last entry 4:00 pm, strictly enforced. Parking, per auto: $1 weekdays, $2 weekends.
One mile, so plan about an hour to see up to 100 petroglyphs. Some of the trail is partially paved. But it’s not level and the terrain can be rough, so don’t bring strollers or wheelchairs. Only 4% of the petroglyphs are here, but they are good ones, scattered on the steep hill beside the trail.
Mesa Point Trail: 8:30 am to 4:30 pm. Part of the Boca Negra Canyon. This is a short, but strenuous, climb up the lava flow to a mesa, the flat top that is one mile above sea level. As you huff your way up the zigzag trail, you’ll see the petroglyphs up close, as well as “grinding sites,” where tools were sharpened and corn or medicines were ground against the stone. At the top of the mesa, catch your breath and look out over Albuquerque, plus the Sandia and Manzana Mountains.
*Rinconada Canyon: Parking lot hours 8:00 am to 5:00 pm. Park access is sunrise to sunset, so if you’re gong-ho, park outside the gates. No parking fee.
This is a 2.2 mile loop: 1.5 hours is recommended to see up to 300 petroglyphs. It’s a natural trail, so wear appropriate shoes. Restrooms are in the parking lot; plan accordingly.
*Piedras Marcadas Canyon: Sunrise to sunset, the parking lot is not gated. Ready for up to 400 petroglyphs? This is a 1.5 mile round-trip hike on a level, sandy trail. It’s 6.5 miles from the Visitors Center, so make sure you have a map and directions. And water, of course!
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