Three Rivers is unique since the village site is near the petroglyphs, which archaeologists see as evidence that the inhabitants created the petroglyphs. The imagery is also consistent with the Jornada Mogollon rock art style, and the village site is Jornada Mogollon.
~Trinity Miller, Archaeologist, Las Cruces BLM

Three Rivers Petroglyph Site

Three Rivers Petroglyph Site is a hidden gem, often overlooked by visitors traveling to White Sands or Ruidoso. It is located off US-54 at the end of a winding country road, 17 miles north of the Village of Tularosa. People in the area named the site based on three streams that converge there: Indian Creek, Golondrina Creek, and Three Rivers.

Archaeologists credit the Mogollon with leaving thousands of images in the area: humans, birds, fish, insects, plants, geometric and abstract designs. The plethora of petroglyphs adorn the basalt boulders lining a low ridge at the north end of the Tularosa Basin, dispersed across 50+ acres. The villagers who created these images used primitive stone tools to remove the dark patina that covers the rounded, weathered surfaces. The dark patina is called “desert varnish”.  It is a thin layer of manganese oxide, iron oxide, and clay deposited by bacteria living on the surface of the rock. It only forms on physically stable rock surfaces that are no longer subject to precipitation, fracturing, or sandblasting. Older petroglyphs, and lightly pecked images, “fade” as new layers of desert varnish cover them.

The Mogollon

The western tip of Texas, southern New Mexico, and northern Mexico have a distinct archeological tradition associated with the Mogollon. The Mogollon were one of several large civilizations that dominated the cultural evolution of the Southwest, particularly between 800 to 1300 AD. Their area of influence spanned 400 miles east-west and as much as 500 miles north-south.

The Mimbres Mogollon lived in the mountains of western New Mexico. For example, they are associated them with the Gila Cliff Dwellings north of Silver City. Based on the distribution of the Mimbres black on white pottery, the Mimbres inhabited southwestern New Mexico, portions of southeastern Arizona, northern Chihuahua and east of the Rio Grande.

Archaeologists associate the Jornada Mogollon with southeastern New Mexico, though the borders of their territory is unclear. The name “Jornada” is a reference to the Jornado del Muerto (journey of death); which is a dry, desolate stretch of the Camino Real traversed by early Spanish conquistadors, as well as settlers traveling between El Paso and Santa Fe. The Jornada Mogollon village site at Three Rivers is on the eastern perimeter of their territory.

Naming Conventions

The reality is no one knows what these people called themselves. As is often the case in archaeology, the names we use to discuss what little we do know were applied by strangers who arrived centuries after the Mogollon migrated elsewhere. For example, archaeologist Emil W. Haury excavated sites at the Harris Village in Mimbres and the Mogollon Village on the upper San Francisco River in 1931, 1933, and 1934. He named the Mogollon after a Spanish Governor of New Spain, Don Juan Ignacio Flores Mogollón. Don Juan was a Governor of the territory that includes New Mexico from 1712-1715, obviously no relation to people who migrated centuries before the Spanish arrived in the New World. Often naming conventions reflect the cultural bias of early archaeologists exploring the southwest.

Who were the Mogollon?

Three Rivers petroglyphsThere are numerous theories about the origin of the Mogollon. Most archaeologists believe that the Mogollon and Ancestral Puebloans are the ancestors of today’s Puebloan people. Most. Not all. Archaeology seems to be a field of study with many perspectives and many disagreements. Some archaeologists believe they were the descendants of the Desert Archaic people that arrived in the area around 9000 BC. Others believe they migrated into the area from central Mexico around 3500 BC, displacing whoever lived here before that. Like other cultures in this region, there are many unknowns. However, the unknown provides the curious with ample opportunity to learn more about the indigenous cultures of the southwest.

The Jornada Mogollon, a book by Donald Lehmer, provides a more visceral, three-dimensional picture of the people and the culture, describing village farmers with symbolic tattoos, sleeping in kivas, going to town plazas, burying their dead, reshaping their heads, and painting beautiful, ornate motifs on their pots. They wore necklaces, pinned their hair with knives, carried around a woven form of the water bottle, and smoked tobacco. They used harpoons to fish and ate out of carved wooden bowls. Through the words of the author, it is easy to imagine the individuals who pecked the thousands of images at Three Rivers and to contemplate what those images express about their history, their beliefs, their stories, their experiences as individuals, and their world.

Pit House at Salmon RuinsPithouses to Pueblos

The evolution from hunting and gathering to agriculture varied among the branches of Mogollon, but largely paralleled the development of their neighbors, the Ancestral Puebloans to the north and the Hohokam to the west.

Early Mogollon villages, established between 400-800 AD, consisted of small pit houses. Pit houses were circular or oval dwellings dug into the ground, covered with a roof. The pit houses became larger and more elaborate after 800 AD, which correlates to an increased focus on agriculture. By 1150 AD, agricultural success and food storage provided resources to support larger populations. They started building adobe pueblos; rectangular, multi-room living compounds made of adobe bricks, similar in style to the Ancestral Puebloans to the north. These became the multi-family residential housing of the ancient southwest.

Extensive trade networks were developed, centering on the large community of Paquimé (Casas Grandes) in northwestern Chihuahua, which was the Mogollon equivalent of Chaco Canyon. For the next 250 years the Mogollon civilization thrived. However, they migrated from the area by 1400 AD. The timing coincides with migrations throughout the region. Most archaeologists, historians, and anthropologists attribute the migration to prolonged drought and violence associated with resource scarcity.

Cliff-dwellings became common during the 13th and 14th centuries, which suggests raids intensified during that period. The Apache, migrating into the area from the north, supplanted the Mogollon by the late 1400s. They successfully discouraged others from settling in the region until the 1800s.

Three Rivers petroglyphsOral History & Lore

Many of the stories depicted visually at the Three Rivers Petroglyph Site appear to be religious in nature, often coinciding with the oral history of Puebloans, particularly the Hopi. Much like the Last Supper, The Crucifixion, and The Resurrection, the petroglyph panels, when read in linear sequence and the proper order, utilize iconographic elements to narrate small scenes within a larger story. Interpretation of these ancient images is inherently controversial. I am happy to leave that conflict to archaeologists, anthropologists, and historians. I consider all of the theories compelling, though I realize that the people who understood the meaning of these ancient images abandoned the area long ago.

If it weren’t for the Rosetta Stone providing a known language to serve as a key, how would we interpret the Egyptian hieroglyphics? Pictures? Images? The Rosetta Stone provided the key to understanding the ancient images of the Egyptians. Perhaps the petroglyphs etched across the southwest are a version of hieroglyphics that we have been unable to translate. There’s a cowboy in Tularosa who has spent a lifetime trying to decipher the images.

Three Rivers Petroglyphs

Joe Ben Sanders

Joe Ben Sanders has spent 41 years studying the petroglyphs at Three Rivers. A historian and archaeologist, Sanders believes that the Mogollon are the ancestors of the Hopi. He makes a compelling case that the petroglyphs at Three Rivers confirm the migration from Casas Grandes, a UNESCO site in northern Mexico attributed to the Mogollon, to the three sacred mesas in eastern Arizona. Furthermore, he believes Casas Grandes is Palatkwapi, the red earth place referenced in Hopi lore, and that the images in Three Rivers establish that link.

Hopi oral tradition cites three world cataclysms. They say fire destroyed the First World, which may be a reference to a comet, an asteroid strike, or a dramatic increase in volcanic activity. An ice age destroyed the Second World. Flood destroyed the Third World, an event referenced by many cultures worldwide. We currently live in the Fourth World.

The Hopi attribute prior cataclysmic events to human disregard for Mother Earth, volating the spiritual covenants with the Creator. There are two Hopi stories about the destruction of Palatkwapi. One story attributes the destruction of the city to the Spider Clan and the other version attributes the destruction to the wrath of the Snake.

Hopi Origin Story at Three Rivers

Three Rivers PetroglyphsAccording to Hopi oral tradition, the Bear Clan, Coyote Clan, Parrot Clan and kachina people migrated south together after the Emergence into the Fourth World. Joe has found symbols associated with each of these clans in a small circle of rocks at Three Rivers. He also found images that he views as references to the destruction of Palatkwapi/Palotquopi/Paquime/Casas Grandes.

It isn’t simply the images that lead him to believe this. It is how the images are clustered, how images on one boulder or in one area lead to the next, chronologically illustrating the Hopi origin story as you hike into the canyon. For example, there are petroglyphs of a pueblo with ladders covered by a spiritual blanket. Those images lead to images of destruction. On one side the destruction is caused by snakes and on the other side by spiders.

Emergence Into the 4th World

When the people were preparing to emerge into the new world after the destruction of the Third World they were told by Masaw, the guardian spirit, that they could not settle into their new home until they completed a quest. They were instructed to travel north, south, east and west to the furthest corners of the land where it touched the sea. He provided information on how to accomplish this and how they would recognize their final destination.

Masaw at Three Rivers PetroglyphsMasaw inscribed instructions on four sacred tablets. One tablet was entrusted to the Fire Clan. The other three tablets were entrusted to the Bear Clan, the leader of the clans. Upon their emergence into the Fourth World, the Coyote and Parrot Clans, headed by the Bear Clan, migrated south. They were accompanied by kachina people. They traveled to where the land met the sea and then turned around to migrate north. The kachina people instructed them to stop at the red-earth place, Palatkwapi (Red House).

Palatkwapi, aka Paquime, aka Casas Grande

Villagers built Palatkwapi in three sections, with a river running underneath all three. They dedicated a section to food storage and another section to living quarters. The third section was a ceremonial structure, a four-story pyramid surrounded by a great wall.

The kachina people taught initiates history and the meaning of the previous three worlds on the first floor of the ceremonial pyramid. On the second floor initiates learned about the structure and form of the human body and how the great spirit resided within man. The third level focused on nature and the uses of plants. The fourth level was reserved for the select few who exhibited great conscience and who displayed deep knowledge of the laws of nature. They were taught the workings of planetary systems and the effects of the stars on climate, crops and man. They were taught about the “open door” on the top of their head, through which they could talk to the creator.

The two chief kachina were Eototo, who worked with the Bear Clan, and Aholi, who worked with the Corn and Side Corn Clans. Both of these clans had special missions in the great plan and required special instructions. The Coyote Clan was designated to always come last and “close the door.” There were two divisions within the Coyote Clan. The Water Coyote’s main duty was to scout the migration route to prepare the main group for the journey. They were given special powers to enable them to cross great rivers and lakes. When the clans settled at one place for a long period of time, a member of the Coyote Clan called a Qaletaqa (Guardian) acted as guard. A Qaletaqa also brought up the rear of every ceremonial procession to guard against evil.

Three Rivers Petroglyph site
Destruction of Paquime/Palatkwapi

Palatkwapi grew and prospered for centuries, but eventually the great city was undermined by evil. That may have been due to having forsaken their migration or it may have been due to the arrival of the evil Spider Clan. Regardless, the Spider Clan attacked Palatkwapi. Villagers convened a council meeting to plan an escape. The kachina leaders told everyone to leave, with the Bear Clan leading the exodus. They instructed the Corn and Parrot Clans to follow, with the Coyote Clan bringing up the rear, as was their duty. The kachina people instructed them to continue their migration once they crossed the river.

The kachina people remained behind to provide cover for the escape and to defend the city, telling the other clans that it was time for them to part ways, though it was not time for them to return to their home on far off stars and planets. They said, “we will go to certain high mountains (San Francisco Mountains near Flagstaff) that you will know, where we will wait for your messages of need. When you need us make your pahos (prayer stick). We are spirit people and will not be seen again by you or your people. But you must remember us by wearing our masks and our costumes at proper ceremonial times. Those who do so must be those persons who have acquired the knowledge and wisdom we have taught you. These persons of flesh and blood will bear our name and be known as Kachina Clan.”

Sanders has found several depictions of twin figures at Three Rivers, which may represent the Hopi Twins, Tawahongva and Tawiayisnima. There are also petroglyphs that appear to represent Balolookongs, the water serpent that destroyed Palatkwapi/Paquime.

The Hopi Twins

The flood that ended the Third World destroyed the city of Palatkwapi. Tiwahongva and his sister Tawiayisnima were left behind during the flood. They slept through it, waking up while the water was still high. They cried for their mother and father to no avail. As the water receded they came down to search for food and encountered a giant serpent swaying back and forth.

The children were terrified, expecting an attack. Instead, the serpent spoke to them, saying, “Come, be not afraid, I am not going to hurt you. It is sad to see that you two have been left behind, so be not afraid and come.” The serpent continued, “Please, don’t be afraid of me. I called you here to me to tell you where your parents and the rest of the people have gone. They left here many, many days ago, going toward the northeast, heading for a place called Situqui (Flower Butte). It is best for you to follow them.”

They followed the serpent’s advice, heading north to search for their parents. While camping one evening they heard a roar from above. A being, wearing a costume that glittered like ice, and a face shining like a star, descended from the sky. He introduced himself as the god So-tukeu-nangwi and offered to help them find their parents, inviting them to board his paatuwvota (flying shield). The children could see for miles as they flew across the sky. Finally, So-tukeu-nangwi descended outside of a village where the children’s parents had settled. He bid them farewell and told them to have faith in him. He promised to deliver his teachings in their dreams. The twins walked into the village and reunited with their parents.

Contemplating the Past

There is no way to verify that the petroglyphs at Three Rivers are related to the Hopi origin story, but the parallel to the legends provide food for thought and candy for the imagination. Regardless of interpretation, or who took the time to leave their story, the thousands of images adorning the boulders is tangible history, a visceral connection to the past, and a doorway to the people, legends and lessons of New Mexico’s past.

Three Rivers Petroglyphs sign

Three Rivers Petroglyph Site

Las Cruces Field Office
1800 Marquess Street
Las Cruces, NM 88005
(575) 525-4300

The site is located 17 miles north of Tularosa, NM, and 28 miles south of Carrizozo, NM on U.S. 54. Turn east from U.S. 54 at Three Rivers onto County Road B30 and travel five miles on paved road, following signs.


  • Day Use (per vehicle): $5
  • Camping (per campsite) $7
  • RV Hookup (per campsite): $18
  • Day Use (Bus): $15
  • Group Site (per group) $50
  • Las Cruces District Office Day Use Pass: $30


Open year-round. Non-campers must be out by 10:00 p.m.

From April to October, the entrance gate is open from 8:00 a.m. until 7:00 p.m. From October until April, it is open from 8:00 a.m. until 5:00 p.m.

Three Rivers, New Mexico

Hiking Three Rivers

Walking the trails and exploring the images at Three Rivers Petroglyph site is an opportunity to peer through the veil of time. A short interpretative trail south of the petroglyphs leads to the remains of a Mogollon village, occupied from 1800 B.C. – 300 A.D.

Archaeologists partially excavated the site in 1976, revealing the foundations of three types of prehistoric buildings. The 3-4 hours before sunset are magical. A thick silence envelops the basin, the temperature of the breeze drops slightly, and the smell changes subtly. The sun hits the petroglyphs on the side of the ridge, highlighting the images on the dark boulders, commanding attention.

Well-marked trails provide direct access to the abandoned village and the petroglyphs. Pack for the whole day if time allow and take water, a hat, good hiking shoes, sunscreen, and a walking stick. Please be careful with the images. That seems obvious, but vandalism is a problem, with significant irreparable damage.

The geologic history of the Three Rivers Petroglyph Site is complex. The rock formations in this area are a testament to the rise and fall of warm inland seas. The basin formed during the Laramide compression, with the eruption of the Sierra Blanca and the development of the Tularosa Basin as the Rio Grande rift formed. The sandstone contains marine fossils, deposited when the Western Interior Seaway covered the area 80-100 million years ago. There are coal deposits from the Cretaceous era, remnants of an ancient swamp that dried up long ago as the sea dried up.

Three Rivers Petroglyphs trading post


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