Petroglyph National Monument.
©National Park Service
Petroglyph National Monument carvings
range from simple to complex.

Ancient depictions of humpbacked flute players and humanlike "star beings" decorate the volcanic cliffs of New Mexico's Petroglyph National Monument. Established in 1990 on the edge of Albuquerque, the site is owned and managed jointly by the National Park Service, the City of Albuquerque, and the State of New Mexico. The 7,236-acre park preserves an estimated 25,000 historic and prehistoric images along the West Mesa escarpment, making it one of the world's largest collections of rock carvings.

From prehistoric times, people have recorded the world around them -- as well as their myths and beliefs -- on stone. Images carved into the rock are called petroglyphs; painted images are called pictographs. Petroglyphs are the most common type of rock art in North America, occurring by the thousands in the Southwest.

Pueblo artists may have begun carving images into the rocks as far back as 12,000 years ago. Several trails that wind through the site provide a good sampling of their work. A trail guide helps visitors identify the images.

Geometric patterns found along the Canyon Trail are thought to be the oldest petroglyphs in the area. Other common images include human figures, masks, animals, and insects.

After thousands of years of exposure to the elements, the boulder ridge, created by volcanic eruptions some 150,000 years ago, developed a dark layer of clays, minerals, and organic material called "rock varnish." Artists pecked through the dark outer layer with a sharpened stone, exposing the lighter interior and giving contrast to the images. Rock artists also created petroglyphs by holding a sharpened stone against the rock surface and hitting it with another stone, piece of bone, or sturdy hunk of wood. In addition to providing the perfect canvas for rock art, the escarpment is a rich habitat for desert plants, grasses, and wildflowers. Hawks, roadrunners, coyotes, foxes, and lizards can be found among the plants.

Petroglyph National Monument Information

Address: 123 Fourth Street, NW, Albuquerque, NM
Telephone: 505/766-8375
Hours of Operation:
8 a.m. - 5 p.m. 7 days a week
Admission: Free

Learn about these other national monuments:

­Agate Fossil Beds National Monument

Colorado National Monument

George Washington Birthplace National Monument

Natural Bridges National Monument

Scotts Bluff National Monument

Alibates Flint Quarries National Monument

Devils Postpile National Monument

George Washington Carver National Monument

Ocmulgee National Monument

Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument

Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve

Dinosaur National Monument

Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument

Oregon Caves National Monument

Timpanogos Cave National Monument

Booker T. Washington National Monument

Effigy Mounds National Monument

Grand Portage National Monument

Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument

Tonto National Monument

Buck Island Reef National Monument

El Malpais National Monument

Hohokam Pima National Monument

Petroglyph National Monument

Tuzigoot National Monument

Cape Krusenstern National Monument

El Morro National Monument

Homestead National Monument

Pinnacles National Monument

Walnut Canyon National Monument

Capulin Volcano National Monument

Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument

Hovenweep National Monument

Pipe Spring National Monument

Wupatki National Monument

Casa Grande Ruins National Monument

Fort Frederica National Monument

Jewel Cave National Monument

Pipestone National Monument


Castle Clinton National Monument

Fort Matanzas National Monument

John Day Fossil Beds National Monument

Poverty Point National Monument


Cedar Breaks National Monument

Fort Stanwix National Monument

Lava Beds National Monument

Rainbow Bridge National Monument


Chiricahua National Monument

Fossil Butte National Monument

Montezuma Castle National Monument

Russell Cave National Monument


To learn more about national monuments, memorials, and historic sites, and other travel destinations in North America, visit:

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Eric Peterson is a Denver-based author who has contributed to numerous guidebooks about the Western United States.