Exploring History at Petroglyph National Monument
In going to New Mexico, I wanted to experience two things: National Parks and really good food. So, upon my arrival in New Mexico, I went straight for the tacos, at Kelly’s Brew Pub, where I met a bartender who shared my name. I took meeting her as a good omen since she was only the second Terra I’d ever met and then I scampered to Petroglyph National Monument, to get my first taste of New Mexico’s national park scene.
Petroglyph National Monument is an urban park, with four units spread around the outskirts of Albuquerque. Of the four, three offer petroglyph viewing. There’s also the visitor center, where I stopped first. I asked the ranger on duty for a suggestion on where to go and she gave me a brief lesson on petroglyphs before giving me directions to Piedras Marcadas Canyon, one of the four sites. She said I’d be able to see between 300 and 500 petroglyphs along the 1.5 mile trail loop, told me to fill up my water bottle before I left and then sent me on my way.
Put simply, petroglyphs are rock carvings. They’re found all over the world and Petroglyph National Monument contains an estimated 24,000 petroglyphs spread along 17 miles. Most were made by the Ancestral Pueblo people who lived in the area between AD 1300 and 1680, but some were made by the Spanish in the 1700s and a few are estimated to pre-date the Pueblos by as much as 3,000 years.
Volcanic eruptions left basalt in the area and, turns out, basalt is pretty great rock for making petroglyphs. It’s light gray in color but develops a “desert varnish” over thousands of years of sitting in the sun that’s sort of glossy and almost-black. To make the petroglyphs, the Pueblos chipped away at the top surface of the rock, the desert varnish part, to uncover the light gray of the rock.
There’s no for sure reason why the petroglyphs were made, not exactly. They’re more than simple rock art and they aren’t like hieroglyphics, but they are culturally important symbols. Some of the petroglyphs show tribal or clan markers, others seem to show who came into the are and many are still a complete mystery, which is a good thing, according to the Pueblo people of today, who say sometimes it’s not even appropriate for us to interpret the meaning of these images. Regardless of their perceived or actual meaning, the petroglyphs site is still considered sacred by today’s Pueblo people.
At the visitor center, the ranger told me the Pueblos believe the petroglyphs only show themselves to those who are deserving or who have good intentions. Shadows also play a part in how many you can see at any given moment, as does the movement of the clouds. The glare of the sun will hide or highlight a few too.
I don’t know how many petroglyphs I saw while I was there. I wasn’t counting. Mostly I was in awe of how big and close the sky felt and how each and every petroglyph siting felt like finding hidden treasure.
NICE TO KNOWS FOR VISTING PETROGLYPH NATIONAL MONUMENT
- There are no petroglyphs at the visitor center. Still, I recommend stopping by to get directions to the other sites, use the bathroom and top off your water.
- Admission to the park is free, but the city charges a small parking fee at some of the sites.
- Piedras Marcadas Canyon is open daily from sunrise to sunset. All the other sites, to include the visitor center, are open 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.
- Binoculars are helpful in spotting off-trail petroglyphs.
- Trails at the various sites vary in length and you can spend anywhere from thirty minutes to four hours at the park. Most visitors spend around 1.5 hours exploring the petroglyphs.