Three Rivers Petroglyph Site

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

Ancient inhabitants created thousands of images of humans, birds, fish, insects, plants, geometric and abstract designs, covering over fifty acres. The densest collection of petroglyphs are at the base of the Sacramento Mountains, along a basalt ridge rising from the upper Tularosa Basin.

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 formation of a basin during the Laramide compression, the eruption of the Sierra Blanca volcanic center, 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.

Early inhabitants in this area carved and pecked over 21,000 images and abstract designs into basalt boulders. They 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 up.

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 for about four hundred years. The inhabitants were probably responsible for the petroglyphs.

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 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 three large cultures that dominated the Southwest between 800 to 1300 AD. Their area of influence spanned 400 miles east-west and as much as 500 miles north-south. The site at Three Rivers is on the eastern boundary of their territory.

The Mimbres Mogollon lived in the mountains of western New Mexico. They are associated with the Gila Cliff Dwellings north of Silver City. The Jornada Mogollon resided on the banks of Three Rivers Creek. The name “jornada” is a reference to the Jornado del Muerto (journey of death); the dry, desolate stretch of the Camino Real traversed by early Spanish conquistadors and settlers traveling between El Paso and Santa Fe.

Ironically, Emil W. Haury named the Mogollon after Don Juan Ignacio Flores Mogollón, Spanish Governor of New Spain (including what is now New Mexico) from 1712-1715. He excavated sites at the Harris Village in Mimbres and the Mogollon Village on the upper San Francisco River in 1931, 1933, and 1934. Naming these ancient people after a Spanish Governor who arrived centuries after their departure may seem peculiar, but the naming convention reflects the cultural bias of early archaeologists exploring the southwest.

Who were the Mogollon?

There are numerous theories about the origin of the Mogollon. 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 the prior inhabitants. Like the other ancient cultures in this region, there are many unknowns, with ample opportunity to learn for those imbued with curiosity about the indigenous cultures of the southwest.

Most archaeologists believe that the Mogollon and Ancestral Puebloans are the ancestors of today’s Puebloan people. Most. Not all. Hard to write something up as fact when the experts can’t agree. A book by Donald Lehmer titled The Jornada Mogollon 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, but largely paralleled the development of their neighbors, the Ancestral Puebloans, aka Anasazi, to the north and the Hohokam to the west.

Early Mogollon villages, established between 400-800 AD, consisted of small pithouse villages. Pit houses were circular or oval dwellings dug into the ground, covered with a roof. The pithouses became larger and more elaborate after 800 AD, which correlates to an increased focus on agriculture. Agricultural success and food storage led to larger population centers by 1150 AD. 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 were essentially the apartment complexes of the ancient southwest.

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

Three Rivers PetroglyphsCliff-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 and successfully kept others from settling in the region until the 1800s.

I often wonder if the Apache arrived after the Mogollon left or if their arrival was one of the variables prompting migration. Based on pottery traditions and oral history, archaeologists believe that the Hopi and Zuni are related to the Mogollon, but that seems linguistically improbable. The languages are not related.

Oral 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, one that I am happy to defer to archaeologists, anthropologists, and historians. The theories are compelling, but 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. Random thought.

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.

The Hopi attribute these events to human disregard for Mother Earth and 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 at Three Rivers, as well as images that he perceives 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 they are clustered and how the images on one boulder or in one area lead to the next, chronologically following the story as you hike further 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

Masaw at Three Rivers PetroglyphsWhen 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 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 Petroglyphs trading post

Yenia Author Block

Leave a Reply