Unbelievable: 20,000 Petroglyphs in Albuquerque

By Richard White, April 15, 2014

The petroglyphs at Petroglyphs National Monument (PNM) on the western edge of Albuquerque (ABQ) are unbelievable - in quantity, quality and accessibility.  Though we had read that there are 20,000+ petroglyphs, but being the skeptics we are, we didn’t expect to see hundreds of them in a matter of minutes.  In fact, Brenda spotted one just a few steps onto the first trail that most people were just walking by. While there are 20,000+ petroglyphs in the park, only about 500+ are available to the public via the designated walking trails.

Not only were the petroglyphs everywhere, but you can walk right up to them (look but don’t touch) and take as many photos as you wish from any angle you like. No security here!

PNM is billed as an outdoor gallery and it definitely lives up to that billing with lots of interpretive panels re: history, geology and vegetation.  You can spend 30 minutes, one hour, or more than 3 hours depending on your interest. 

The quality of the images is also amazing. Some look as if they were just done yesterday, only a few have faded or become worn over time. Its hard to believe Archeologists estimate that most of these images were done 400 to 700 years ago, some may even be as old as 2,000 to 3,000 years. Petroglyphs are rock carvings (rock paintings are called pictographs) made by pecking directly on the rock surface using a stone chisel. When the "desert varnish" on the surface of the rock was pecked off, the lighter rock underneath was exposed, creating the petroglyph. It is estimated 90% of the petroglyphs in PNM were created by the ancestors of today's Pueblo Indians. Puebloans have lived in the Rio Grande Valley since before 500 A.D.

Beginning in the 1600s Hispanic heirs of the Atrisco Land Grant carved crosses and livestock brands into the rocks. Other explorers in the 1800s chiseled their names and dates into the boulders. Walking the trails and studying these petroglyphs gives you a chance to contemplate the cultural continuity of human history.

There are three petroglyph sites in PNM – Boca Negra Canyon, Piedras Marcadas Canyon and Rinconda Canyon (the latter is currently under renovation after trails were destroyed by a fall 2013 storm).  Strangely, the Visitor Centre is located at a separate site all be it near the Boca Negra Canyon site. It is recommended you stop there and pick up the brochures with maps however. 

Most people start their tour at Boca Negra Canyon (BNC) which has two trails, one that is more difficult as you climb to the top of the mesa on a trail full of rocks imbedded in the asphalt. It is not stroller or wheelchair accessible. The second trail is a short, 15-minute loop walk with not much elevation change. 

BNC is both a good climb for families and a history lesson about petroglyphs, geology and native vegetation. Kids relate to the child-like images and love to draw them so bring a sketchpad.  Also, wear running or hiking shoes (flip-flops and sandals not advised) as you will want to climb some of the rocks.  The volcanic rocks are easy to climb - not too large, flat-sided and don’t shift when you step on them. 

Also there is a fun 5-minute trail where you get to walk in the arroyos dry wash (sandy river bed) to a picnic area, then a boardwalk before reaching the next trail.

After about an hour at BNC, we headed to Piederas Marcadas Canyon (PMC) which is an 10-minute, well marked drive.  Don’t be surprised when you have to park behind a gas station and cupcake bakery!  PMC is very different from BNC as you are in a city park with lots of trails and you are free to go anywhere you want. There is a marked trail however with six stops where you will find a concentration of visible petroglyphs. Again, don't touch. The brochure challenges you to find one specific petroglyph as per the photo at each of the six stops - a fun activity for all ages. Or, you could play “I spy with my little eye, a petroglyph with….”

You could spend an hour or more exploring PMC. There are lots of rocks to climb and petroglyphs to find.

Here is our photo essay of Petroglyphs National Monument. 

Note the bullet holes that have damaged these petroglyphs. Given the area is open to the public it is surprising how clean it is, no graffiti, no litter or bottles.  

This is our path back to the 21st century.


On one level, there is an eerie surrealism about this sacred place of sand and black rocks.  On another level, it is bit like walking into a kindergarten classroom or maybe along a city sidewalk where children have been let loose with a box of sidewalk chalk. There is something primordial and familiar about the images and symbols; they are part of the human psyche.

For more information, click here for Petroglyphs National Monument's website.

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