To Albuquerque and Back Again, Part 2: Petroglyphs National Monument

As I look with dismay upon the months elapsed since I last posted to this blog, I am reminded of French philosopher Jean Paul Sartre‘s insights on people’s relationships to the stories we tell about our lives. In his book Nausea Sartre writes,

This is what I thought: for the most banal even to become an adventure, you must (and this is enough) begin to recount it. This is what fools people: a man is always a teller of tales, he sees everything that happens to him through them; and he tries to live his own life as if he were telling a story.

But you have to choose: live or tell.

In my silence we find evidence that I have chosen to live.  In doing so, I left you, dear Reader, behind, and now it’s (long past) time to catch you up with all that has happened since our last visit together.

My travel last March to Albuquerque, New Mexico, focused on exploring the histories and cultures of the Puebloan peoples. The day after my tour of the Acoma Pueblo (near the town of Grant an hour or so west of ABQ), I hiked the Rinconada Canyon trail of Petroglyphs National Monument. This federally protected area, located along ABQ’s westward city limits, actually consists of four disconnected areas where petroglyphs may be found.  The Rinconada Canyon trail skirts a steep hillside strewn with large boulders and the cliffs from which they fell, before looping back across open desert to the parking area.  Examples of rock art may be seen all along the outbound side of the loop with the largest concentration of images, so we heard, situated just before the trail turns away from the hillside.  My friend and I made it nearly that far before needing to turn back, but despite missing this grand gallery we were still thrilled by all the glyphs we did find.  You can see some of what we saw in the slide show below.


Petroglyph National Monument – Images by Jennifer Nelson

Created by Pueblo people over the centuries, these petroglyphs served various functions. Some marked water sources along established trade routes; others warned of dangerous creatures, like rattlesnakes, lurking among the trail-side rocks; still others promoted the clan affiliations of those who traveled along a route that extended deep into the land we now call Mexico. Many glyphs served ritual purposes and now provide windows into the spiritual beliefs of Puebloan cultures. As reminders of communal practices lived closer to the land than our modern, urbanized way of life, perhaps these rock art images challenge us to imagine how we might reform our society to restore the planet we have damaged and how we might once again attune ourselves to receive the Creator’s many gifts.

3 thoughts on “To Albuquerque and Back Again, Part 2: Petroglyphs National Monument”

  1. VOLCANIC HISTORY & BASALT 150,000 years ago, the Albuquerque area was rife with volcanic activity. It was at this time that the West Mesa, a 17-mile long land table emerged from hardening layers of continuously flowing lava. Over time, the softer sediment of the volcanic mesa’s eastern edge began to erode, leaving behind the 17-mile long escarpment that is Petroglyph National Monument. As stated above, an ‘escarpment’ is a long, precipitous, clifflike ridge of land or rock, commonly formed by faulting or fracturing of the earth’s crust. Along the escarpment are rocks and boulders made of basalt, formed by the hardening lava flows and volcanic spew. Basalt erodes slower than the sediment beneath it eventually releasing the rocks and boulders to tumble down the canyon walls, no longer supported by their ‘softer’ sandstone base. The rock that makes up the West Mesa escarpment is vesicular basalt. The basalt flow originated from fissures marked by five volcanic spatter cones that can be seen along the western horizon of Albuquerque. Located within the monument boundary, these cones are considered part of a sacred landscape by many Puebloan people today. While the last volcanic eruption occurred approximately 150,000 years ago, the area is still geologically active. Geologists, however, consider these spatter cones to be extinct. The basalt that makes up the boulders on which the petroglyphs are carved was originally a light gray color. Over time the surface of the rock was coated by a thin black or dark brown layer of oxidation scientists call “desert varnish.” When the surface of the boulder is pecked or abraded, the lighter rock underneath is exposed, displaying a stunning light gray-on-black contrast.

  2. My hiking friend will be happy to hear there’s a shorter trail with more petroglyphs. I’ll most likely be visiting ABQ again sometime in the fall, so I thank you for the El Malpais and Bandelier recommendations. If I visit these places, you’ll be able to read about my experiences here!

  3. The upside: the dark lava rock on which the petroglyphs are drawn really make them stand out clearly. The longer trail makes for an interesting hike But overall we thought it was somewhat overhyped. They are 400 to 700 years old, which does not justify calling them ‘ancient’ and ‘ageless’ We didn’t come away with too clear an idea of what purpose they served, what they meant etc. If you take the shorter trail, where you’re promised 100 petroglyphs in an hour 🙂 you get to the top and realize that the suburban sprawl of Albuquerque has inched up literally to the edge of the monument grounds. Not the best view. There’s a LOT better to see in this area: would choose El Malpais or Bandelier any day. The latter even has some Petroglyphs, though they’re carved on reddish rock and harder to see….but the overall hike and scenery are much better. Do this if you have extra time on your hands but don’t miss other sights for it.

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