Petroglyph National Monument’s Boca Negra Canyon
After thousands of years of sun, rain, heat, freeze-thaw cycles, and action by microorganisms, a thin layer of desert varnish, or patina, formed on the basalt caprock along the face of the West Mesa escarpment near Albuquerque, NM. The region’s early Indian people found that they could produce high-contrast images on the rocks by carefully chipping off the desert varnish with a hand-held rock or chisel stone to expose the lighter color of the rock’s interior. These images are known as petroglyphs.
Petroglyphs are far more than just pictures and symbols on the rocks. For the Pueblo Indians of northern New Mexico and the rest of us, they are a valuable record of cultural expression that embodies deep spiritual significance. Those images represent many aspects of the Pueblo’s culture. Some of them have direct meaning to modern tribes while the meaning of others was known only to the creator or have been lost over the centuries.
Petroglyphs, images pecked or carved onto a boulder’s surface, should not be confused with pictographs which are images painted on a boulder’s surface with yucca fiber brushes or natural pigment made from native plants and animal blood. Since petroglyphs are carved into the stone, they have greater permanence. Some researchers estimate that many of the petroglyphs in the monument were created between the 12th and 15th century.
I saw many of these carved images during the hour or so that I spent meandering the Mesa Point and Macaw Trails in Boca Negra Canyon, one of three canyons in the Petroglyph National Monument Park. Only about 200 of the more than 25,000 carved images can be seen in Boca Negra Canyon, but they provide good examples of the variety of images seen throughout the monument.
The Mesa Point Trail is a moderately strenuous trek that tops out at about a mile above sea level, nearly 400 feet higher than downtown Albuquerque. From that point, you have a nice view of the surrounding mountains and Albuquerque’s recent residential developments.
Along the sometime narrow, rocky trail, the tan park service signs stamped with the macaw parrot provide information about images found in the nearby area. In addition to gracing the tan signs, images of the long-plumbed parrot are also carved on several boulders. The parrots were brought from their native rainforests to the desert southwest to the area and proved to be valuable trade items for the Pueblo people. Their colorful plumes decorated Pueblo Indian headdresses worn during ceremonial dances, a practice that continues with modern day Pueblo Indians. Other animal images include cats, possibly cougars, birds, dragon flies, serpents, and other small animals.
Spiral petroglyphs are associated with wind, water, spiritual emergence, and an individual’s journey through life. In recognition of the importance of the yucca plant in daily Pueblo life, they carved several images of yucca seed pods. Back then as they do now, Puebloans used all parts of the yucca plant - the root for making soap; flowers, fruits and seeds can be roasted in pits for food; and leaves are ideal for basket weaving and paint brushes, and the points of the leaves can be used as needles.
Hands were the most useful tool in the early culture so carvers used hand images to mark territory and sacred places. Hands were also the emblem left behind by medicine men. Human images also included the flute player Kokopelli, dancers with upraised arms, figures behind masks, and foot prints.
Boca Negra Canyon is equipped with self-guided trails that visitors can use to explore the area on their own. While enjoying the cultural and natural setting along the trail, visitors will see a variety of birds flying overhead and an occasional collared lizard sunning itself on the black basalt boulder. Instead of attacking, the collared lizard will dash under the nearest boulder if visitors get too close. More dangerous is the venomous diamondback rattlesnake. These snakes will not attack, but if disturbed or cornered, they will defend themselves. Even then they will give ample warning with a loud buzzing rattler sound coupled with a high rising and very threatening coil.
The Petroglyph National Monument protects one of the largest petroglyph sites in North America. Even though many of the images are still clearly identifiable, re-growth of the desert varnish has made some images less distinct. In addition to this repatination, human body oils may cause images to fade. Therefore, visitors are asked to look but not touch the images in order to preserve them for future generations. Today’s Pueblo people consider the entire monument a sacred place. Visitors should act responsibly and treat the area with respect and care.
So enjoy the petroglyphs. But leave nothing behind, not even your finger prints.
If you go
The Petroglyph National Monument is open from 8:00 AM to 5:00 PM every day except Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day.
A parking fee of $1 is imposed on weekdays and $2 on weekends. National Park Service passes are honored.
High desert conditions exist so dress appropriately, wear proper footwear, use sunscreen, and carry water to ensure proper hydration.
From Albuquerque, take I-40 to Unser Boulevard exit north then drive three miles to the visitor’s center. Proceed another five miles to the Boca Negra Canyon.