Petroglyph National Monument

Contributed by Ryan Wheeler

This summer included a family vacation to parts of Arizona and New Mexico. That meant a drive and some short hikes in Petrified Forest National Park and the Painted Desert, as well as time in Albuquerque and Santa Fe and points in between. Unfortunately, COVID preempted our attendance at the Santa Fe Indian Market, but we are already planning a short visit next summer!

Image of human hand petroglyphs carved on dark volcanic rock at Petroglyph National Monument, New Mexico.
Petroglyphs at Piedras Marcados Canyon, part of Petroglyph National Monument, Albuquerque, New Mexico. Photo by Ryan Wheeler, April 12, 2019.

Petroglyph National Monument is one of the places that I was looking forward to revisiting with my family. Most of the petroglyphs here were made by Native Americans, but there are some added by the Spanish, cowboys, or other visitors. I had a chance to make a visit during the Society for American Archaeology’s annual meeting in 2019, but at that time I had only went to the interpretive center (no actual petroglyphs there, but a great introductory film) and one of the canyons with petroglyphs—Piedras Marcadas, literally “marked stones.” According to the National Park Service, there are about 400 petroglyphs visible at Piedras Marcadas, but that’s only one of three separate locales within the monument. What struck me most during that 2019 visit was the proximity to suburban Albuquerque. The canyon is literally in the backyard of a residential neighborhood! What we learned during our recent visit was that community activism in the 1980s had helped save the petroglyphs and create the monument in 1990—not all that long ago.

View of Albuquerque from Boca Negra Canyon, August 2022.

This summer we decided to visit Rinconada Canyon, which is only about a mile from the Petroglyph National Monument interpretive center. The park service says you can see about 300 petroglyphs at Rinconada. Despite being right off Unser Boulevard, this site doesn’t have a residential development right next door, so it feels a little bit wilder. The loop trail took us past the canyon wall, which is littered with volcanic boulders. The boulders have a desert varnish of blacks and dark browns, making a good surface for the inscribed petroglyphs that expose the lighter colored rock below the surface. One of the most interesting parts of the monument is the decision not to interpret the meanings of the glyphs, though you can learn a little about this from Native Americans interviewed in the interpretive center film. We went early enough that we didn’t get baked.

Macaw and geometric petroglyphs, Boca Negra Canyon, August 2022.

On a bit of a whim, we decided to visit Boca Negra Canyon, the third petroglyph site in the monument. While apparently only having 100 or so petroglyphs that can be viewed by visitors, this was really the most spectacular of the three locales. At Boca Negra you climb up the mesa and really have an opportunity to get close to the petroglyphs. It’s a little more up and down of a hike, but worth it for the views and the chance to see the petroglyphs close up. The geology of the area is fascinating too. The inscribed boulders are the product of a volcanic eruption around 130,000 years ago. Magma poured out of vents and fissures in the area, creating a sheet of basaltic rock over the softer Santa Fe Formation. The softer sediments on which the volcanic rocks were deposited slowly eroded away, leaving the broken boulders.

Petroglyphs at Rinconada Canyon, August 2022.

The petroglyphs at all three monument locations were made by ancestors of the modern Pueblo people, dating between 400 and 700 years ago, though some are much older. The petroglyphs have been dated based on weathering, but also variations in style and content. There are birds, insects, animals, hands, humanoids, spirals, and other geometric forms. The petroglyphs remain culturally significant to Pueblo people and other Native Americans in the region.

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