Located on the western edge of Albuquerque, New Mexico, hidden amongst the jumbled landscape, are more than 20,000 (not a typo!) historic rock carvings called petroglyphs. This area is part of the Rio Grande rift, formed over millions of years by the movement of tectonic plates. This rift stretches from central Colorado to central New Mexico, largely following the path of the Rio Grande River.
Here in Albuquerque, volcanic activity has further shaped the landscape. A line of six volcanoes is still visible today, sitting atop a mesa west of the city. When these volcanoes erupted around 130,000 years ago, the lava they expelled hardened into basalt cliffs. Beneath the basalt was a layer of soft, sandy soil that has progressively eroded over millions of years, causing the large chunks of basalt to topple over and break into smaller pieces. It’s these smaller pieces of basalt that historic people used as a canvas for their rock carvings.
The Albuquerque area has been inhabited for more than 13,000 years, initially by nomadic people and later the Ancestral Puebloans. More recently, the Puebloans were displaced by arriving Spanish and American settlers. While most of the petroglyphs here are attributed to the Ancestral Puebloans, a few are thought to have been created by the Spanish. The majority of the petroglyphs are about 500-900 years old, though some were created more than 3000 years ago. It’s pretty incredible that all of these carvings are still visible today. The dark color of the rocks helps, as the contrast between the carved and uncarved portions is stark.
Petroglyph National Monument was created in 1990 to preserve and protect these thousands of carvings. The center of the monument is mostly inaccessible but there are a handful of trails that can be accessed through four different entry points. Visiting Petroglyph, therefore, requires some planning. The first important thing to know is that there are no petroglyphs or trails at the visitor center. I do recommend stopping here first, though. We were able to pick up maps (image below) and trail guides for each of the four entrances and watch the informational video, from which we learned a lot about the history of the area and the petroglyphs.
Before I share photos and specific information about our hikes in the monument, I want to take a moment to acknowledge that these petroglyphs and the land they are on are held sacred by the descendants of the Ancestral Puebloans. Please respect the land and the rock art by staying on the established trails, not touching any of the petroglyphs, and not making fun of the drawings. They may not look like much to us, but each one holds meaning.
In fact, the meaning of individual petroglyphs is a common question asked by visitors. The answer, as it turns out, is complicated. Some of the meanings are unknown by present day Puebloans. Some meanings are dependent on context. Other meanings are known but cannot be shared with non-Puebloans. However, what is known is that each carving did have meaning at the time it was created, and that the locations and orientations of the petroglyphs are not random.
The ability to place petroglyphs at specific orientations is one of the most unique things about this area. I’ve seen petroglyphs in many other locations, but they’ve always been on giant cliff faces where there’s only one possible orientation. Here, the petroglyphs are carved into different facets of the individual boulders. Sometimes, the contours of the boulders were incorporated into the art.
We began our petroglyph tour at the Boca Negra Canyon entrance; as this is the busiest of the trailheads, we figured going here first would help us avoid some of the crowds. (It did.) There are three short trails here, totaling about 0.7 miles (1.1 km) and 100 feet (30 m) of elevation gain. It’s not a difficult walk, but our pace was slow because we rarely went more than a few feet without stopping to look at petroglyphs. The density of them is just incredible.
After Boca Negra, we continued to the northernmost entrance, called Piedras Marcadas Canyon. Getting here was confusing. The parking lot is in town, tucked between a subdivision and an oil change place, and we were fairly certain our GPS was leading us astray. She was not, as it turned out. From the parking lot, we followed the trail along the back side of the neighborhood and into the monument. Pay close attention here; there are a few other access points from the surrounding housing developments, and at one point on the way back we took the wrong fork. Fortunately we only had to backtrack a short distance.
Piedras Marcadas Canyon trail is about a 2.1 mile (3.4 km) loop with 170 feet (52 m) of elevation gain. Along the way, we saw hundreds more petroglyphs. You may have to zoom in on some of the photos below to find them; most of the petroglyphs here were only visible from a distance. However, there are at least a couple dozen in most of these photos.
Our final petroglyph viewing of the day was at the southeast entrance, called Rinconada Canyon. Here, a 2.25 mile (3.6 km) trail with about 100 feet (30 m) of elevation gain loops around through the boulders, with a few hundred petroglyphs to see along the way. While the most petroglyph rich areas on all these trails are denoted with signage, you have to be willing to take the time to look closely if you want to see them all.
The final entrance at Petroglyph is the only one leading into the monument from the west. There are no petroglyphs here at the Volcanoes Area, but there are – you guessed it – volcanoes! There are actually multiple trail options here; as it was our last stop of the day and we’d already done quite a bit of hiking, we opted to just hike 1.1 miles (1.9 km) out-and-back on the JA Volcano Trail. Although we weren’t able to ascend the volcano, the trail provided a nice vantage point of the basalt cliffs and the Rio Grande Valley.
If there’s one thing I would do differently, it would be to bring a real camera with a high quality zoom lens. Most of the petroglyphs are far enough from the trail that they’re difficult to photograph, and the zoomed in photos from my iPhone turned out pretty poorly. Definitely bring binoculars too; we used ours more than once. Think about the time of day you visit as well. Most of the carvings face southeast, and they’re especially difficult to see if the sun is shining right in your eyes, or if the petroglyphs are partially shadowed. We found visibility to be best when the sun was higher in the sky. A cloudy day would probably make for the best photos, though.
Either way, this place is definitely worth a visit. So many people seem to just pop into the Boca Negra area to see a few petroglyphs and then be done with it. Boca Negra has the shortest trails and gets you closest to the petroglyphs, so I understand why that’s the first choice. And yes, it was maybe a little repetitive to visit all three petroglyph viewing areas and see so many of them. But honestly, I didn’t have a problem with that. There were some duplicate designs, but there were also so many unique ones. We really enjoyed the challenge of spotting as many as we could and hypothesizing as to what each one might be depicting.
Even if you don’t have time to hike all the trails, I still recommend taking at least 1-2 hours to visit Petroglyph National Monument next time you’re in Albuquerque.
The Important Stuff:
- Getting there: the Visitor Center, Rinconada Canyon, and Boca Negra Canyon areas can all be reached from Unser Blvd; from I-40, take exit 154 and follow the brown signs north. Continue north of Unser Blvd onto Paseo del Norte and follow signs to reach Piedras Marcadas Canyon. The Volcanoes area is on the opposite side of the monument, on Atrisco Vista Blvd; from I-40 exit 149, follow the brown signs north. My iPhone GPS app successfully got us to all 5 locations.
- Fees and passes: there is a $2/car parking fee at Boca Negra only. All other locations are free.
- Where to stay: there is no lodging in the monument, but hotels, cabins, vacation rentals, and camping are all available in and around Albuquerque.
- Hiking: we hiked all the trails in the petroglyphs portions of the monument and a small part of the volcanoes trails, and our total for the day was about 6.2 miles (10 km) with 430 feet (130 m) of elevation gain.
- Other: there were multiple signs warning of vehicle break-ins, so properly secure your valuables out of sight and lock your car. We didn’t have any issues, but better safe than sorry.
- Petroglyph etiquette: to reiterate what I said above, please stay on the trails and don’t approach or touch the petroglyphs. Oils from our hands accelerate the erosion of the rock carvings.