Etched In Stone
The volcanic mesa looms high above Albuquerque's west side. One of the canyons of the mesa, Rinconada, meaning "narrow" in Spanish is part of Petroglyph National Monument. Today we can walk the same paths trod hundreds of years ago by the Pueblo Indians that came here to peck their works of art on the basalt boulders that line the edge of the mesa. They lived in pueblos that lined the Rio Grande River just east of the mesa. Over the course of a couple of thousand years they came to leave their mark on the rocks of the mesa. They were celebrating religious events, cultural milestones and other important events in their lives. Rinconada Canyon is one of three major areas of Petroglyph National Monument were visitors can view hundreds of petroglyphs that are now protected by the National Park Service for the enjoyment of future generations of visitors seeking a tangible connection with the ancient people who walked the southwest before us.
Area Geology & The Native People: Along the west side of the valley, a mesa of volcanic basalt and cinders looks down on Albuquerque. Approximately 150,000 to 200,000 years ago extensive faults in the Rio Grande rift zone located here, spewed lava at least six times over the course of about a year. The first two of these eruptions poured huge volumes of very fluid magma that flowed through and filled arroyos and flowed around hills covering 50 square miles of the sandy Santa Fe Formation that forms the valley floor. These first two eruptions were followed by progressively thicker eruptions with less and less fluid movement, to finally form the volcanic cinder peaks that that line the western edge of the mesa. Since the mesa was formed, constant erosion of the sandy underlying soil along the eastern edge of the mesa has created peninsulas of basalt that now jut eastward where the lava originally had filled an arroyo and canyons have formed where the lava had skirted ridges and higher sections of the sandy valley floor. This reversal of features is a classic example of what is called reverse topography.
The eastern edge of the mesa or the escarpment is retreating today to the west as erosion slowly pulls the sand out from under the layer of basalt and it collapses chunk by chunk to roll down to the base of the valley floor. The surface of these boulders of basalt have oxidized to a dark brown / black finish that when chipped or scratched reveals the lighter color of the volcanic rock underneath. This natural desert varnish or patina became the canvas for the people that journeyed from one of the 40 pueblos that lined the Rio Grande River nearby. They came to tend crops, hunt, celebrate religious ceremonies, practice healing rituals and record their thoughts, visions, experiences, and important subjects in their lives in the form of the petroglyphs we reverently admire today on the boulders of the escarpment.
As early as 12,000 years ago Paleo-Indians began roaming the valley floor and the west mesa, hunting and gathering food as they followed the herds and the seasons. The landscape that these early valley residents lived in would not be recognized today. Abundant rain filled many shallow lakes and lush vegetation grew everywhere. Many of the animals that we see there today were absent and those that were there were joined by many small birds and mammals as well as camels, mastodons, mammoths and bison, long extinct from the area. Gradually the rains slowed and the area became more and more arid, shifting the valleys environment to what we recognize there today.
The early inhabitants of the valley and mesa were gradually replaced by less nomadic, archaic people. Remnants of their culture have been found on the mesa and lower areas of the valley where they ground grain and other foods in well worn metates. A severe drought struck the southwest between the years of 1275 and 1300 A.D. This lack of water forced many of the tribes throughout the southwest to relocate to areas where perennial sources of water were located. The Rio Grande River valley was one such area. During this time frame the size of the pueblos grew as the people shifted away from the small family size dwellings, to adobe pueblos that contained between 100 and 800 rooms. Many of them were as high as 3 stories with a central plaza. Between the years of 1300 and about 1540, 40 of these pueblos were built along the Rio Grande between Bernalillo and Belen (40 miles) and as many as 1,000 people lived in some of these pueblos.
The Pueblo Indians that lived in the valley planted crops along the mesa in terraced plots that utilized rock diversion dams to slow and channel water to these crops. They also planted crops along the Rio Grande and used irrigation channels to pull water from the river. They continued to hunt wild game as well and life in the valley flourished. Extensive trade networks were established to as far south as Central America and west to the Pacific Ocean. Sea shells, tropical birds such as the Macaw Parrot that became important in their religious ceremonies, Turquoise and other gem stones, copper bells from Mexico, cotton linens, baskets and pottery were all traded.
In 1540 Francisco Vazquez de Coronado marched north from Mexico with his army and made contact with the pueblos. While wintering at one of the pueblos, violence erupted and the Spaniards destroyed several of the pueblos. Many of the Pueblo Indians fled the area and did not return until the Spaniards departed the area in 1542. The Indians enjoyed many more years of peaceful living in the valley until the arrival of Juan de Onate who was leading colonists from Mexico to settle the area. Much of what had been Indian land in the valley was colonized and split into land grants by the Spanish crown and more and more colonists flowed up from Mexico between 1610 and 1680. Spanish ranches or Haciendas sprang up throughout the valley and many missions were built in the Indian pueblos.
Throughout the early to mid 1600s the Pueblo Indian population in the valley fell as sickness and disease brought in by the Spanish spread in the cramped confines of the pueblos. Brutal treatment of the Indians by the Spaniards and repeated crop failures also caused the Indian population to fall. In the year 1680 the first American Revolution took place. Indians across the southwest revolted against the Spanish and drove them out of the area and south to and area near where El Paso Texas now lies. This was the first time a Major European power had been defeated and forced out of an American territory. For 12 years the Indians again enjoyed freedom. But the Spanish pushed north again and reoccupied the southwest in 1692, this time to stay. One of the Spanish land grants encompassed what is now Petroglyph National Monument. Spanish sheep herders tending flocks on the Atrisco Land Grant have also contributed many petroglyphs to the monument. They can be seen alongside the Indian petroglyphs throughout the monument. These include Christian crosses unlike the Indian's crosses encased in a box as well as what are believed to be animal brands and ornate letters.
The Glyphs: What do the petroglyphs mean? This is the eternally unanswered questioned and the likelihood of a "Rosetta Stone" being found that would give meaning to the seemingly random drawings etched upon the face of a rock is beyond remote. The message is in the eye of the beholder today and any guess as to their meaning or reason for being created is as good as the next persons guess. It could be safely assumed that many of the images pertain to religious beliefs and ceremonies as well as important items from the people's surrounding environment such as various animals and plants. Their meaning could also be a product of placement in addition to subject matter. Is the image in an upright or different orientation? What direction does it face? Is it exposed to the sun or in perpetual shadows? Is it near a spring, a cave? What other petroglyphs are nearby? Is it near the worn surface of another boulder used to grind herbs, plants and minerals for healing ceremonies? We can only guess what the glyphs creators were thinking, trying to tell their gods or were trying to convey to those who would follow.
The petroglyphs were made primarily by using a stone or two stones like a hammer and a chisel to gently peck off the patina on the boulder's surface and creating the image the artist desired to create. Images started being created like this around the year 1300 and is known as the "Rio Grande Style". This style of petroglyph etching continued to be used for about 380 years until near 1680. This timeframe coincided with the large increase in the population in the valley and the construction of the 40 nearby pueblos and the Pueblo Revolt that forced the Spanish invaders back towards Mexico.
Dating of the petroglyphs is an inexact science however some pretty close estimations can be made using information that we have available to us. In the future more accurate age estimates will evolve as our knowledge base broadens with continuing research, improvements in technology and new discoveries. Comparisons between similar designs found on dated pottery, baskets, and painted murals can be used. The reestablishment of the desert varnish over top of the petroglyph indicates and older glyph. Etchings on top of an older etching will also show relative age. In general, the glyphs located throughout the Rio Grande valley are currently estimated to be somewhere between 3,000 and 300 years old with the majority of the glyphs at the monument being between 700 and 300 years old.
Ruin & Archeological Site Etiquette: All petroglyphs and other Native American artifacts in the monument and elsewhere across the southwest are protected by federal law. Do not deface, remove, add to or in any way damage the petroglyphs or other artifacts. Do not touch the petroglyphs, as the oil from your skin will have a negative effect on the glyph and its ability to remain visible for future generations of visitors. As we have all been told again and again, take only photographs and leave only footprints. Prior to the establishment of the monument in 1990 many of the glyphs were vandalized either by hand or gunfire. Many examples of this vandalism are visible in my photo set of this area. This vandalism has forever ruined some wonderful remnants of our early Native American heritage. Please help to protect these priceless treasures of time for future generations of visitors.
Hike: From the small parking area just off of Unser Blvd. The sandy trail follows the edge of the mesa as it winds back to the west for about 1 1/4 miles to the head of the canyon. Along the way you will pass hundreds of petroglyphs that are etched into the basalt boulders along the face of the escarpment. Many can be seen from the trail but most are visible only if you climb up among the boulders. When you reach the head of the canyon you will have 3 choices for a return route to the parking area and your vehicle. You can return along the face of the escarpment the way came, follow a trail that splits the canyon down the middle through sandy knolls, sage brush and yucca or you can follow the trail that winds along the south face of the canyon and then hike across the mouth of the canyon back to the parking area. The first two options will give you a round trip distance of about 2.5 miles and the latter will be about 3 miles.
A Word of Caution: The parking area closes at 5 pm. If you are going to be out in the canyon past 5 pm park your car outside the gates of the parking area. I knew that I would not be out by 5 so I parked just outside the gate. When I got back to my car at about 6 pm the park ranger was ticketing a car that was still in the parking area. I believe he said it was a $150 fine.
There is no water available on the trail or at the parking area and during the summer months the area can be very hot, as the almost black colored blocks of basalt soak up and radiate the heat of the summer sun. Use sunscreen and bring a hat or umbrella as there are no trees to provide shade. There is a pit toilet available at the parking area but no facilities along the trail. Also beware of rattlesnakes that live along the escarpment. The best time to visit the monument is during fall, spring and winter if the weather is pleasant.
Currently the monument does not actively restrict off trail access to the glyphs however they strongly discourage it. I estimate that about 80 percent of the glyphs can only be viewed if you walk up and down through the boulders closely looking on all sides of them. The Monument is however seeking to establish a use plan that would prohibit off trail travel to examine the glyphs. Enactment of this use plan will be double edged in that many glyphs again, are not visible from the trails and will not be available for viewing however site impact by visitors on vegetation, wildlife habitat, and the petroglyphs themselves will be greatly reduced by restricting visitors to the trails.
I have extensively photographed a large number of the glyphs, boulder to boulder throughout the monument and these photos will be posted for viewing should the glyphs become inaccessible in the near future. A set of binoculars will greatly assist you in seeing the glyph details should you choose to remain on the trail. Current Native Americans believe that the petroglyph chooses who and when it will reveal itself to. It is very easy to miss them and taking your time with a slow examination of the area will give more of them the opportunity to befriend you!
You may want to stop by the monument's visitor center located just west of Unser Blvd. on Western Trail, 3 miles north of Interstate 40 and 1 mile north of Rinconada Canyon. Turn left off of Unser Blvd to the west onto Western Trail and follow it to the visitor center. The visitor center has trail maps and a large selection of book on the area and other National Park Service areas across the Southwest.
Gate Policy: If a gate is closed upon arrival, leave it closed after you go through. If it is open, leave it open. Leaving a closed gate open may put cattle in danger. Closing an open gate may cut them off from water. Please be respectful, leave gates as found.
WARNING! Hiking and outdoor related sports can be dangerous. Be responsible and prepare for the trip. Study the area you are entering and plan accordingly. Dress for the current and unexpected weather changes. Take plenty of water. Never go alone. Make an itinerary with your plan(s), route(s), destination(s) and expected return time. Give your itinerary to trusted family and/or friends.