Messages from the Ancients

Whispers from the past echo through the basalt boulders on Albuquerque’s west side. The stones served as notepads for ancestors long passed, carrying thousands of messages in the form of designs, animal depictions and symbols.

Petroglyph National Monument

Based on archaeological evidence, humans have lived in the Rio Grande Valley for over 10,000 years. Nomadic tribes arrived first. They relied on hunting and gathering along the banks of the river and in the mountain forests. By 500 AD, the inhabitants of this region established agricultural villages, with small, underground dwellings called pit houses. By 1000 AD, architectural designs evolved considerably, with the construction of large, sturdy, above ground, multi-storied structures called pueblos, with enough rooms to accommodate large populations within the same building. Pueblos were essentially the ancient world’s first condos.

Unfortunately, a severe, prolonged drought devastated the population between 1275-1300 AD, causing upheaval that toppled the Ancestral Puebloan strongholds in Chaco Canyon and Mesa Verde. People migrated to areas with reliable water sources and viable farmland, like the Rio Grande Valley. They built numerous pueblos on both sides of the river, many of them were several stories tall. They planted crops and domesticated animals, like turkeys and wolves, and developed new types of pottery. Many of their descendants still live in New Mexico and Arizona.

Petroglyph message from the ancients

Each of these rocks is alive, keeper of a message left by the ancestors. There are spirits, guardians; there is medicine…’ ~ William Weahkee, a Pueblo elder.


A petroglyph is an image on stone, created by removing part of the surface of the rock by pecking, carving, etching, or abrading with a tool or harder stone. Basalt was a popular choice for petroglyphs. It contains high concentrations of iron, manganese and calcium. Normally this combination of minerals creates gray stone. However, thousands of years of exposure to the high desert’s arid environment creates a patina called “desert varnish” on the surface of the stone. Desert varnish is composed primarily of clay mixed with manganese and iron oxides. The dark, almost black, varnish forms when the manganese and iron comes into contact with oxygen in air and water.

Native Americans and Spanish settlers realized that vivid images could be created by chipping away the surface layer. They responded with enthusiasm, leaving thousands of depictions of animals, shields, people, stars, spirals, geometric shapes, and other abstract images on boulders throughout the southwest.

Petroglyph National Monument

Petroglyph National Monument protects a variety of cultural and natural resources, including five extinct volcanic cones, hundreds of archeological sites (including the Piedras Marcadas Pueblo Ruin), approximately 24,000 images created by Puebloans, Navajos, and early Spanish settlers over the last 200-700 years, and two detached parcels of land that retain significant geologic formations. It is one of the largest petroglyph sites in North America. The western boundary of the monument features the chain of dormant fissure volcanoes that created the west mesa; Butte volcano on the northwest corner is followed by Bond, Vulcan, Black and JA volcanoes to the south.

The 7,236-acre monument was established on June 27, 1990. It encompasses four small, separate parks; Boca Negra Canyon, Rinconada Canyon, Piedras Marcadas Canyon, and the Volcano Day Use trails. All four parks are close to one another, collectively covering approximately 17-miles along Albuquerque’s west mesa. Two of the parks can be accessed via Unser Blvd (Exit 154 off I-40), Volcanoes Park is located on Atrisco Vista Blvd., and Piedras Marcadas Canyon Park is located off of Paradise Blvd. It takes 1-2 hours to see the petroglyphs in each park.

The area is fairly rugged. If you are clambering over boulders, wear appropriate shoes and watch for snakes from spring through fall. Additionally, the monument is a day park, which means it closes at 5:00 (or sunset in the summer). There is no overnight camping available. However, there are basic restroom facilities and picnic tables at each park, other than Piedras Marcadas Canyon.

Albuquerque suburbs from Petroglyph National Monument

Urban Sprawl

The monument is jointly managed by the National Park Service and the City of Albuquerque. Neither have the funding or manpower to maintain the site as the suburbs continue to encroach.

Years ago, the monument was on the edge of town, protected by an undeveloped swath of land. It felt quiet and remote, despite the twinkling lights of Albuquerque in the distance. However, today, the monument is encircled by subdivisions, the past merging with the modern. The ancient messages etched in stone stand in stark contrast to the creeping urban sprawl, characterized by messages broadcast around the world via radio towers and satellites. Fast, impermanent.

History etched in stone

Petroglyphs reflect the cultural legacy of New Mexico’s ancestral inhabitants and the images are honored and revered by their descendants. Many of the images are recognizable as animals, humans, shields, and crosses. However, other glyphs, particularly older, archaic creations, are more abstract, with the meaning left to the imagination of the viewer. The monument preserves them so visitors from around the world have an opportunity to make a visceral connection to New Mexico’s past.

Rinconada Canyon

There are approximately 500 petroglyphs at this site. The parking lot is located at Unser Blvd NW at St. Joseph. The parking lot is open from 8 AM-5 PM daily and there is a vault toilet at the trail head. However, water is not available.

The loop trail is an easy to moderate 2.2 mile stroll, starting at the parking lot. It takes approximately 1.5-2 hours (if you aren’t in a rush). Binoculars are helpful. Leashed dogs/pets are not allowed on the petroglyph viewing section of this trail. If you are hiking with a dog, remain on the trail that runs in the center of the canyon or visit Piedras Marcadas Canyon where you can enjoy the petroglyphs while walking Fido. Furthermore, the park service does not allow biking on any section of this trail. Rinconada Canyon Trail Map.

Rinconada Canyon provides a glimpse of the geologic, cultural, and natural resources of this region. There are prehistoric and historic petroglyphs, rock wall alignments and shelters, as well as ample wildlife. As with any hiking in the park, or the desert Southwest, carry plenty of water and drink often. Wear a hat, sunscreen, and sturdy walking shoes or boots. Watch out for the canyon’s resident rattlesnakes from early spring- late fall.

Piedras Marcadas Canyon

This site includes approximately 400 petroglyphs. It is open from sunrise to sunset and the parking lot is located off Golf Course Road and Jill Patricia St, which is approximately 6 miles from the visitor center. There is an easy to moderate, 1.5-mile, undeveloped loop trail that starts at the parking lot. It takes about 1.5 to 2 hours for this site. Neither water nor restrooms are available. However, dogs are allowed (on leashes up to 6-feet long). Piedras Marcadas Trail Map.

Three sisters volcanos on Albuquerque west mesa

Volcanoes Day Use Area

This area is open to visitors daily from sunrise to sunset. The parking lot is located off Atrisco Vista Blvd. NW, approximately 4.8 miles north of I-40. Parking lot hours are 9 AM-5 PM daily. Before/After hours access is permitted by parking outside of the gated parking lot and walking in. Occasionally they close early due to severe weather.

There is a primitive trail system, with loops from 1-4 miles round trip. There is a vault restroom in the parking lot. Leashed pets/dogs are allowed, with a 6-feet leash limit. Owners must pick up all dog waste and carry it out to a trash can. However, water is not available and there is no shade. Additionally, the park service does not allow biking on any of the trails within the Volcanoes Day Use Area. Click for a map of the trails at the Volcanoes Day Use Area. Additional Information

Volcanic landscape at Petroglyph National Monument

Volcanoes Trail

An east to moderate 3 1/2-mile loop from the parking lot to the JA Volcano scenic overlook and around the Vulcan Volcano back to the parking lot.

JA Volcano and the Albuquerque Overlook

Easy 1-mile round trip loop from the parking lot to the scenic overlook, with a fantastic view of the Rio Grande Valley, Albuquerque, and the Sandia Mountains. Two shaded rest areas with benches available.

Vulcan Volcano Loop

Moderate 2-mile loop from the north side of the parking lot, around Vulcan volcano and back. A gradual incline up the east side of Vulcan leads to a level, mini-volcanic valley on the north side. Take a left (south) when you approach the fork in the trail on the northwest side of Vulcan. At the next fork, go left again to check out the cinder cone. Follow trail down to the dirt road, heading south back to the parking lot.


Dogs are permitted on most of the trails (other than Boca Negra Canyon); however, they need to be on a leash, no longer than 6-feet, at all times. Bring bags to pick-up after your canine cohort and dispose of it in the trash receptacle in the parking area. I will never understand folks who pick up poop with a plastic bag and leave it on the trail. Why bother?

Remember to bring plenty of water for your dog(s). The sand and asphalt get really hot during the summer. Dog booties may be necessary to avoid injuring their paws. Also, the park service does not allow dogs inside public buildings, like the visitor center, government offices, or public restrooms. Service dogs are exempted from the no dog zones.


The Albuquerque volcanic field is seven miles west of downtown Albuquerque. The volcanic field is on the western side of the Albuquerque Basin, which is part of the Rio Grande rift zone. The Albuquerque basin is one of five basins on the rift. The basins formed when the earth’s crust stretched in an east-west direction, which started about 36 million years ago. The basins provided a natural path for the water flowing south out of the Colorado Rockies. The Rio Grande began to cut through the deposits in the basin about 1.2 million-750,000 years ago.

The Rio Grande Rift extends from southern Colorado south to El Paso, Texas. It is one of the world’s few active rift zones. Others include the East African Rift, the Rhine Graben in Germany, and the Lake Baikal Rift in Russia.

Rio Grande Basin

A rift valley is a zone of thinning in the Earth’s crust. Rift zones are associated with intense geologic activity, including earthquakes and volcanoes. As the crust pulls apart, large blocks of land drop, forming a valley. The process creates cracks and fissures in the earth’s crust, particularly on the edges of the rift. These cracks provide a path for magma to reach the surface. Additionally, the fault lines on the edges of rift zones tend to involve earthquakes. The Sandia Mountains, east of Albuquerque, were formed by uplift along one of the major fault lines on the eastern edge of the Rio Grande rift valley.

Activity along the Albuquerque part of the Rio Grande Rift intensified about 26 million years ago. The sediment that eroded from the edges of the rift accumulated in the basin, with fill deposits over 16,000 feet thick under Albuquerque.

Three sisters volcanoes

Albuquerque Volcanoes

Flash forward to about 155,000-210,000 years ago. Basaltic magma began to seep to the surface through the faults and fissures. There were six volcanic eruptions from the aligned spatter cones. Fissures emitted fountains of ash, cinders and lava up to 30 feet in the air, creating a 17-mile-long cliff of thick basalt. Molten lava ranging in depth from 5-50 feet flowed downhill towards the river through arroyos.

The lava from the second eruption was more fluid, covering a larger area than the first flow. Later, after a lengthy lull in activity, the lava associated with subsequent eruptions changed in consistency. It was more viscous, thick, gooey and sticky. Whereas it still flowed east and west, most of it remained localized around the vents. Geology of the Albuquerque volcanoes (PDF)

Three Sisters

Known locally as the Albuquerque Volcanoes or the Three Sisters, the volcanoes lining the west mesa are a classic example of a fissure eruption. In fissure eruptions magma rises to the surface through thin cracks in the Earth’s crust, unlike most volcanoes in which magma rises through a vertical central vent. In Albuquerque, the fissure is over 5 miles long, with a row of aligned eruption craters, all of which were active at the same time. This type of eruption creates “curtains of fire,” like the ones seen today at Kilauea in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.

In total, geologists have identified five large cones and at least 10 small volcanoes and spatter cones in the Albuquerque volcanic field. The largest of the cones is Vulcan, named after the Roman god of fire. Vulcan is a spatter cone that rises 200 feet above the mesa. The cone formed as blobs of molten lava spewed from a central vent, as well as smaller vents on the flank of the cone. As the blobs of lava fly through the air, they cool, splattering on the side of the cone, and welding together to form a hard crust. From the top of Vulcan, the alignment of the 5-mile-long chain of vents is readily visible.

Petroglyph National Monument

Petroglyph National Monument

Western Trail NW
Albuquerque, NM 87120
(505) 899-0205

Headquarters Administration Offices
6001 Unser Blvd. NW
Albuquerque, NM 87120
(505) 899-0205 x335

Petroglyph National Monument is about 10 minutes northwest of downtown Albuquerque, 10 minutes from Old Town, and 25 minutes from the Airport. However, there is no public transportation to the monument. You will need to drive or take a cab to get there. The petroglyph viewing trails are one to six and a half miles from the visitor center. If you take a cab, have the driver wait to take you from the visitor center to the trail heads. Alternately, the city bus will get you to Coors at St. Josephs. From there, it is about a 1.1 mile walk to the monument.

DO NOT leave valuables visible inside your vehicle. Lock your vehicle and set alarm. This is a good tip for Albuquerque in general.

The park welcomes visitors every day from 8:30 AM – 4:30 PM, other than Thanksgiving, Christmas & New Year.

The NPS does not charge an admission fee, but they do charge a small fee to leave your car at Boca Negra Canyon. $1 per vehicle on weekdays and $2 on weekends. For more information, check out the NPS website.

Dress appropriately and wear sturdy hiking boots with ankle support. Spring, fall, and winter winds are cold and biting. Layer clothing, wear a hat, and a windbreaker or jacket. Additionally, during spring and summer months, apply sunscreen generously, wear sunglasses and a hat, and watch for snakes. Always take plenty of water. Shade is minimal to non-existent.


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