Standing amid a jumble of basalt boulders, I paused after pulling myself up a steep climb of coffee-colored rock.
We’re hiking appropriately named Boca Negra Canyon of the Petroglyph National Monument in Albuquerque, and so far the rock art hasn’t exactly been jumping out at me. But as I pause to rest and finally consider the beauty of the canyon, petroglyphs begin to emerge before me.
Round faces, turtles and birds, brands and crosses, and lightning bolt-like patterns appear plain as day where I was looking on the fly just moments before. Sometimes you cover more ground and observe more beauty when standing still.
These images are inseparable from the greater cultural landscape, from the spirits of the people who created them, and from all who appreciate them today.
While it may be tempting to reach out your hand, don’t touch! Oils from your skin can permanently damage the petroglyphs.
Jointly managed by the National Park Service and the City of Albuquerque, Petroglyph National Monument comprises 7,236 acres of a volcanic basalt escarpment created by ancient lava flows along 17 miles of Albuquerque’s west escarpment, known as the West Mesa. The monument protects a variety of cultural and natural resources, including five volcanic cones, hundreds of archeological sites, and an estimated 25,000 images carved into these dark rock outcroppings.
About 150,000 year ago lava seeped from an enormous fissure here, covering the landscape like a prehistoric parking lot. Over time, cooling and erosion cracked the hardened lava. In many areas the ripples of once-hot lava can be seen in rock fragments.
By pecking the flat basalt, ancient artists found they could chisel away the dark desert varnish that had coated the rock and expose lighter rock beneath, creating a contrast that is still striking today. Basalt has a high iron content, and the rocks’ dark interior is basically rust. Creating a petroglyph was no small undertaking, as it took considerable time to etch the rock.
The National Park Service Las Imagenes Visitor Center and book store is located off Unser Boulevard at Western Trail. We began our visit here with a brief orientation to the monument and checked the schedule for ranger guided tours and special events before lacing up our hiking boots and hitting the trail at Boca Negra Canyon, a 70-acre section of the monument. Each trail offers a diverse view of the cultural and natural landscape within the monument.
Located two miles north of the visitor center on Unser Boulevard, Boca Negra Canyon provides quick and easy access to three partly paved self-guiding trails where you can view 200 petroglyphs.
This is the most popular section of the monument, and is the only fully-developed area with restroom facilities, shade, and a drinking fountain. A nominal parking fee is charged by the City of Albuquerque.
Mostly, the national monument’s expanse of open space is undeveloped save for interpretative signs and facilities along the few developed trails at Boca Negra Canyon, Rinconada Canyon, and the volcano’s trails. Otherwise, silence and isolation are yours just minutes from New Mexico’s largest city.
Located one mile south of the visitor center on Unser Boulevard, Rinconada Canyon is one of the few places, where at the end of the trail you can be out of sight of the city.
A 2½-mile round-trip sandy trail follows the base of the escarpment where you can view more than 800 petroglyphs. This trail area has no water, so bring your own. You are advised to stop at the visitor center for an orientation and map before hiking this trail.
The northernmost area of the monument, Piedras Marcadas Canyon, means “canyon of marked rocks”. Piedras Marcadas is home to the densest concentration of petroglyphs along the monument’s 17-mile escarpment, with an estimated 5,000 images. This area may be entered from a small parking lot west of Golf Course Road.
This trail area has no water, so bring your own. You are advised to stop at the visitor center for an orientation and map before hiking this trail.
Each of these rocks is alive, keeper of a message left by the ancestors…There are spirits, guardians; there is medicine…
—William F. Weahkee, Pueblo Elder