Detour: Petroglyph National Monument

Established in 1990 and co-administered by the National Park Service and the City of Albuquerque, Petroglyph National Monument protects 7,236 acres of West Mesa west of Albuquerque, New Mexico and the Rio Grande. One of the largest concentrations of petroglyphs in North America, more than 20,000 petroglyphs dating as far back as 5,000 years are found in the Monument.

On Tuesday, November 16 [2021], Sean and I visited the Monument’s Boca Negra Canyon area for a morning of exploration before he flew home to Chicago.

I would be staying one more night in Santa Fe before driving up to Taos to work remotely from there for a few days. And I was definitely working remotely. I was up, dressed, and on three Zoom meetings before it was time to head out for Petroglyph.

We stopped and picked up breakfast burritos, coffees, and pastries from Chocolate Maven to eat on the one hour drive southwest to Albuquerque and the Visitor Center for Petroglyph. We listened to Radiolab‘s excellent “Mixed Tape” series on the way.

Image: Sean M. Santos

Almost all of the petroglyphs in the monument are on the southern and eastern facing slopes of the West Mesa, a seventeen-mile-long lava flow from 200,000 years ago.

Albuquerque’s sprawl is advancing up to an onto West Mesa, making Petroglyph a very urban NPS unit.

Partly because of COVID-19 protocols, the information desk and passport stamp sation were outside. The Ranger even insisted that she had to do the stamping, which was overdoing it, particularly with what we know about how COVID-19 is transmitted.

We then went inside to peruse the bookshop. Like all NPS units where the Western National Parks Association functions as the Park’s non-profit partner/friends group, the selection was excellent. I’d be bringing a lot of new books home from this second major road trip of 2021.

Cane Cholla

As we wrapped up at the Visitor Center, it was already 11am, so we opted for nearby Boca Negra Canyon for our exploration. Other areas of the Monument offer longer, more remote hikes with hundreds of petroglyphs. Boca Negra is contained and easily doable in about an hour and a half with dozens of petroglyphs to see. This would be perfect timing for getting Sean to the airport for his 2:15pm flight to Chicago.

From the main parking area, a boardwalk led to the area’s three short trails.

The first “trail,” Macaw Trail, is really just a little path and a few steps over to some wonderful petroglyphs at the base of the escarpment.

Here, pecked into the dark desert varnish, were renderings of two macaws, one in a container. Obviously not native to the high desert of New Mexico, macaws were traded through wide ranging networks that tied Ancestral Puebloans to the Sea of Cortes and deep into Mesoamerica.

Macaws were valued for their colorful feathers, which are still used in contemporary Pueblo ceremonies.

Near the macaws are a couple of petroglyphs that appear to be seed pods. The signage interpreted them as potentially yucca, an intensely important plant throughout the Southwest.

As at almost every other site involving ancient rock art that Sean and I have visited, contemporary graffiti is present at Petroglyph.

The dark basalt at Boca Negra canyon is the hard rock laid down in the lava flow. It has shattered and fallen down the slope as the softer rock underneath erodes away.

Next up, Cliff Base Trail, a short loop along, well, the cliff base.

Darker petroglyphs are likely older while brighter ones are newer, although still hundreds of years old. In the image above, the upper petroglyph appears to have been chipped into the rock over part of an older image.

Handprints and footprints, like the pale petroglyphs in the above image, likely date from the period fro 900-1300, which saw the rise and fall of the great city at Chaco Canyon to the west, the building of the cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde to the northwest, and the building of Taos Pueblo to the northeast.

Most of the petroglyphs in the National Monument, fully 95% of them, are from a period of rapid population growth in the communities near and along the Rio Grande. Chaco had fallen, and a severe drought may have contributed to the emptying of the Mesa Verde region of Ancestral Puebloan peoples. Many emigrated and were absorbed into the Pueblo communities along the Rio Grande, where there was ample water, in the literal shadow of West Mesa. These petroglyphs, created between roughly 1300 and 1680 (the year of the Pueblo Revolt), are known as “Rio Grande Style.”

After Cliff Base Trail, we took the boardwalk back to where we’d left the car near Mesa Point Trail, a path up to the top of the escarpment and past dozens of petroglyphs.

This one boulder near the start of the trail is just covered with petroglyphs.

Mesa Point Trail

Mesa Point Trail

There are also some petroglyphs from the Spanish period when the area was used for grazing. This mark is likely the brand for a particular ranch.

There are also Christian crosses, some historic, some contemporary graffiti.

And looking carefully it’s easy to begin to notice grinding stones used by Ancestral Puebloan people.

Sandia Mountains

Residential neighborhoods of Albuquerque are literally across the street from the escarpment and trail.

Downtown Albuquerque

And downtown is easily visible, even on a somewhat hazy day like when we were there. It’s also fairly obvious to pick out the trees along the Rio Grande as it snakes through the city.

The circular motif of this petroglyph means it could be much older than many of the others, perhaps 2,000 years old.

Perhaps these are a dog and a turkey? Both were important to Acestral Puebloan people.

This petroglyph is clearly a dragonfly.

Sandia Mountains


The outlined cross in the image above is an Ancestral Puebloan petroglyph. The double-hatched one just below it is likely from the Spanish era.

We reached the top of the mesa and gazed around us in all directions.

Image: Sean M. Santos

Sandia Mountains

A mesa-top development was right there too.

Spanish-era Christian cross

Turkeys as a connected motif

It was…obvious…to guess the gender of some of the figures.

Back at the base of the escarpment, Sean did a little final sorting of his bags before we headed to the airport, only twenty minutes away.

I felt surprisingly emotional as I dropped him off at American Airlines Departures.

I was now on my own with a plan to get back to Chicago a week later, in time for Thanksgiving.

Alone, I drove back up I-25 to Santa Fe and arrived on time for an afternoon call with a favorite graphic designer. I ate a sandwich between Zoom calls. Later on I had my dinner of leftover Mexican food and started a cozy fire before hopping onto Zoom for an evening board meeting for Chicago Artists for Action.

After the meeting, I had a glass of wine and began packing up. Tomorrow I’d be saying goodbye to Santa Fe and heading north to Taos.

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