Few places let you connect to southwestern history better than Petroglyph National Monument in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
When we lived in Hawaii, we visited the Big Island a couple of times each year, generally flying into Kona International Airport on the island’s western shore.
A few miles north of the airport, near the super-fancy Hilton Waikoloa Village, is the Waikoloa Petroglyph Preserve where visitors can walk through fields of ancient Native Hawaiian art carved directly into the rocky lava fields.
Why am I talking about Hawaii in an article about New Mexico? Because one of the reasons I was most excited to visit Petroglyph National Monument was to see how these petroglyphs differed from those we saw on the Big Island.
What did I learn? I’ll get to that at the end.
For now, let’s start at square one.
What is Petroglyph National Monument?
Established in 1990, Petroglyph National Monument is a 17-mile-long site in Albuquerque, New Mexico that’s home to an estimated 25,000 petroglyphs. Most were carved between 400-700 years ago but some date back to 2000 BC.
The geologic history of this region makes it the perfect place for historic peoples to record their experiences.
About 200,000 years ago a series of volcanic eruptions covered the area in basaltic lava fields. Over millennia, this basalt developed a dark, exterior desert varnish that covered the lighter rock underneath.
What is desert varnish? Basalt is made of a bunch of different minerals, notably iron, manganese, and calcium. When exposed to Mother Nature, the manganese in basalt oxidizes to become darker and shinier. This darker, shinier outer layer is called patina or desert varnish.
You can carve pictures and messages by chipping away the outer layer of desert varnish to expose the gray rock below.
First, what are petroglyphs?
Petroglyphs are rock carvings made by removing the outer, darker layer of rock to expose the lighter, sub-surface rock. Typically, they’re images of animals, faces, body parts, or other everyday objects.
Did You Know? Petroglyphs differ from pictograms in that pictograms are painted on the rock whereas petroglyphs are made by chipping away rock.
Who made the New Mexican petroglyphs?
The petroglyphs were carved by both the Pueblo people native to the region and Spanish explorers.
The Pueblo people are one of the oldest North American cultures with their history tracing back 7,000 years. The word “Pueblo” is Spanish for “stone masonry village dweller” and perfectly describes their style of settlement.
The nearby Mesa Verde National Park is a preserved Pueblo settlement that Dawn and I can’t wait to check out.
Can’t read the signpost above? Here’s what it says:
The majority of these petroglyphs were made by the ancestors of modern Pueblo people. The Ancestral Puebloans made petroglyphs by carefully removing the desert varnish with hand-held stone tools to expose the lighter color of the basalt’s interior. After centuries of weathering, older petroglyphs begin to oxidize and this darkening confirms their authenticity and great age.
Archaeologists refer to these images as being made in the Rio Grande style. This style developed rather suddenly around the year 1300, coinciding with a dramatic increase in the local population and the construction of many pueblo villages along the Rio Grande. Elements frequently seen in Rio Grande style images include human figures, animals, and geometric designs.Signpost at Piedras Marcadas Canyon
How old are the petroglyphs?
Most of the estimated 25,000 petroglyphs are between 400-700 years old, but some date back to 2000 BC.
The history of the petroglyphs is tied closely to the arrival of Spanish conquistadors in 1540, just 48 years after Columbus sailed the ocean blue.
After over a century of tense interactions between the Pueblo people and Spanish explorers, the 1680 Pueblo Revolt drove the Spanish back to what’s now El Paso, Texas.
The Spanish regrouped and resettled the Albuquerque, New Mexico area in 1692, bringing a new wave of strong Christian influences that pretty much wiped out traditional Puebloan cultural practices, such as carving petroglyphs. As a result, there are very few petroglyphs in the park carved after 1700.
Map of Petroglyph National Monument
Petroglyph National Monument is 17 miles long and situated west of the Rio Grande in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
There are three sites in the National Monument where hiking trails have been established so visitors can get up close to these important cultural relics:
- Boca Negra Canyon
- Rinconada Canyon
- Piedras Marcadas Canyon
A car is recommended to visit the sites as they’re all several miles from both each other and the Visitor Center.
Start your visit at the Visitor Center
The Petroglyph National Monument Visitor Center is located at 6001 Unser Blvd NW, Albuquerque, NM 87120 (Google Maps). It’s open every day from 8:30 am – 4:30 pm MST except Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day
Note: There are no trails or petroglyphs at the Visitor Center! If you’re arriving via Uber or Lyft, you’ll need your driver to take you elsewhere to see the petroglyphs.
The Visitor Center is where you can learn about the National Monument, the history of the region, and where to see the petroglyphs.
Why bother coming here if there’s nothing to see? There are still some worthy activities:
- Watch a 22-minute video about the petroglyphs
- Pick up a map of the various hiking trails and vistas
- Talk to one of the informative Park Rangers
- Look around the gift shop
- Stamp your US National Parks Passport!
Once you’re done here, it’s time to decide which area to explore first. Here’s some information on each.
Hiking Petroglyph National Monument
There are several short trails in three different nearby canyons. Here’s a rundown of each.
Boca Negra Canyon
The most trafficked trail system in the National Monument, Boca Negra Canyon is located just one-quarter of a mile north of the Visitor Center.
- Address: Atrisco Dr NW, Albuquerque, NM 87120 (Google Maps)
- Trail: 1.0 mile and well-maintained
- Time Required: 1 hour
- Petroglyphs: 100
- Last Entry: 4:00 pm
- Parking: $1 (weekdays) or $2 (weekends) in lot
- Facilities: Restrooms and water
The longest trail in the National Monument with more viewable petroglyphs than Boca Negra Canyon, Rinconada Canyon is a great option if you want to stretch your legs.
- Address: 7601 St Josephs Ave, Albuquerque, NM 87120 (Google Maps)
- Trail: 2.2 miles unpaved dirt trail
- Time Required: 2 hours
- Petroglyphs: 200-300
- Last Entry: Sunset
- Parking: Free lot open until 5:00 pm
- Facilities: Restrooms but no water
Piedras Marcadas Canyon
The most petroglyphs of any trail in the National Monument, Piedras Marcadas Canyon is located 4.5 miles north of the Visitor Center behind a residential neighborhood.
- Address: Jill Patricia St NW, Albuquerque, NM 87114 (Google Maps)
- Trail: 1.5 miles unpaved dirt
- Time Required: 1.5 hours
- Petroglyphs: 300-500
- Last Entry: Sunset
- Parking: Free lot next to trailhead
- Facilities: No restrooms or water
Quick note about snake safety
I’m petrified of snakes. I’m so afraid of them that I almost turned back just one-quarter-mile into our first southwestern hike out of fear of a rattlesnake encounter.
There are snakes in Petroglyph National Monument with the most common being the Western Diamondback Rattlesnake.
Don’t let this ruin your trip! If I made it, so can you. But there are some things to consider when exploring any area in the southwest:
- Snakes are cold-blooded and most active in the spring and summer.
- They do not want to strike so don’t agitate them.
- Always look before you step, especially if you venture off the trail.
- Be careful reaching into places you can’t see.
- Keep dogs on a leash.
- In the unlikely event of a bite, call 9-1-1 and follow these guidelines.
More pictures from our visit to Petroglyphs National Monument
Sit back and enjoy these photos we took when exploring Piedras Marcadas Canyon. What do you think each petroglyph is depicting?
Oh yeah. What makes Hawaiian and New Mexican petroglyphs different?
While both Hawaii and New Mexico’s petroglyph fields fall into the same category of ancient art, they still have striking differences.
Hawaii’s petroglyph carvings are much deeper. New Mexican petroglyphs can be made by scraping away the darker desert varnish, but Hawaiian rock doesn’t have such drastic discoloration. As a result, Hawaiian petroglyphs are made by carving deeper into the rock.
The influences are vastly different. New Mexico is a dry desert atmosphere. Hawaii is a lush, tropical paradise surrounded by water. Unsurprisingly, the natural elements that these ancient people documented differed greatly. For example, Hawaiian petroglyphs depict a lot of boats and sails.
Stone carving persisted longer in Hawaii than in New Mexico. When Spanish explorers finally settled Albuquerque in 1692, the practice of carving petroglyphs rapidly faded away. The same thing happened in Hawaii but much later–the 1870s.
If you have any questions about Petroglyph National Monument–or guesses as to what some of the unknown carvings above could be–let us know in a comment below!