Graffiti for the ages: Northern New Mexico petroglyph sites

The post on Northern New Mexico petroglyph sites was first published in October 2012. It was updated 7/5/2016.

Think graffiti is a 20th century phenomena? Native Americans have been leaving messages on rocks, via petroglyphs, for hundreds, perhaps thousands of years. Petroglyphs are carvings on rocks or rock walls. Each symbol has a meaning and the native peoples knew what they were and could communicate through these carvings. Steve and I are fascinated by them. Here are some of the Northern New Mexico petroglyph sites we’ve visited on our travels around the area.

Petroglyph National Monument

petroglyphs National Monument, photo Steve Collins

Rock carvings at Petroglyph National Monument, photo/Steve Collins

Petroglyph National Monument, on the northwest side of Albuquerque, offers two sites to view the ancient messages left by both native peoples and the Spanish who arrived in the late 1600s. There are over 600 to be found here. The 100 petroglyphs in the developed Boca Negra Canyon are easily accessed though some climbing is required. If you want to explore a less developed area, take the 2.2 mile loop hike on the sandy trail into Rinconada Canyon There are an additional 500 petroglyphs here. There is an admission charge.

Chaco Canyon

petroglyphs at Chetro Ketl, Chaco Canyon, photo Steve Collins

Petroglyphs at Chetro Ketl at Chaco Canyon, photo/Steve Collins

Chaco Culture National Historic Park is another site with petroglyphs. Chaco Canyon was a major center from around the mid-800s A.D to the late 1100s. By 1050 A.D. it has become the major spiritual and economic center for the San Juan Basin. While it still puzzles archeologist and anthropologists a bit as to why, it is known that people came here and to what they call the “outlier” communities in droves. It was an advanced civilization with building techniques that were quite sophisticated for the time. It’s easy to view petroglyphs carved into the cliff face on the upper path between Pueblo Bonito and Chetro Ketl. Just look up. There is an admission charge.


petroglyphs in Taos photo Steve Collins

Petroglyph outside Ranchos de Taos, NM photo/Steve Collins

Taos has some hidden treasures. A local friend took us to see glyphs on a cliff-face outside Ranchos de Taos. They’re a bit hard to find, but worth the effort or call us and we’ll arrange a guide for you.

La Bajada Mesa

petroglyphs near the top of La Bajada photo Steve Collins

Petroglyphs at La Bajada south of Santa Fe, photo/Steve Collins

There are local legends about La Bajada Mesa, southwest of Santa Fe. It was famous in the early auto days when gas was gravity fed to the engine. Cars had to go up the steep hill backwards. Locals made money driving tourists’ vehicles up this treacherous incline. Our friends Sue and Georges of Santa Fe Walkabouts took us for a hike out on La Bajada, one day. We climbed down from the mesa to the Rio Grande River and discovered signs of an old pueblo. On the way, we saw these petroglyphs.

Petroglyph Hill

petroglyphs at Petroglyph Hill near Galisteo photo Steve Collins

Spiral petroglyph is on Petroglyph Hill in the Galisteo Basin, photo/Steve Collins

Petroglyph Hill is in the Galisteo Basin southeast of Santa Fe. The land, formerly part of the Thornton Ranch, belongs to Santa Fe County; access is limited. The county periodically offer tours of the area. Group sizes are limited so sign up early. We were on a waiting list for a while, but it was worth it. There are over 1,900 petroglyphs dating from 1325 to 1600 A.D. at the site. You will also find message left by sheepherders in the 19th century here. There are no tours offered in 2016. The Sana Fe County Land Use Office, who oversees the site is currently reevaluating tours as there has been erosion damage over the last few years. They hope to offer tours next year. For information and to get on their contact list, call Maria Lohmann at (505) 995-2774. She’ll notify you when they begin to offer the tours again.

While many Northern New Mexico petroglyph sites are on private land, there are sites open to the public around the state. In the Santa Fe area petroglyphs can be found at Bandelier National Monument, at its sister site, Tsankawi and at La Cieneguilla Petroglyph Site southwest of town. Further afield visit Three Rivers near Tularosa in the southern part of the state.

If you want a guided visit to Northern New Mexico petroglyph sites or archeological sites, contact The Santa Fe Traveler. We can arrange one for you.

 Do you have favorite Northern New Mexico petroglyph sites?


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10 Responses to “Graffiti for the ages: Northern New Mexico petroglyph sites”

  1. Kathleen Winslow
    January 1, 2014 at 6:36 am #

    Long ago a friend took me to an arroyo off I-25 by either the Los Luna’s or Belen exit, east of the highway. Do you know about it? It had quite a few petroglyphs and was a beautiful arroyo. KW

    • Billie Frank
      January 1, 2014 at 2:29 pm #

      We really haven’t explored that area very much, I suggest calling the local tourism people in those areas. If they are too small for a CVB, try the Chamber of Commerce. They may know who to send you to for info. Also, try the NM Department of Tourism, they may know or be able to direct you to someone who does. Good luck with your quest.

      • Kathleen Winslow
        January 8, 2014 at 6:56 am #

        Thanks very much!!! KW

  2. Kirk Gittings
    March 4, 2015 at 9:46 pm #

    In an online search I ran across that wonderful picture you took of that spiral petroglyph on la Bajada Hill. I am very interested in that particular petroglyph and would like to photograph it myself for a project I am working on-it fits an idea I have perfectly. Is there any chance you could be more specific about its location? Matbe you could respond via my email. Thanks so much!

    • Steve Collins
      March 5, 2015 at 7:35 am #

      Sorry- we were taken by friends who know the area and could not describe how to get their other than they’re on the south side of the hill. Good luck!

  3. Laurie and Thomas Kavenaugh
    March 31, 2015 at 7:05 pm #

    We too travel the SW searching out ruins, pictographs, petroglyphs and geoglyphs. We finally moved to AZ from N California last year just to indulge our hobby. We haven’t been to NM as much as we’d like but we’ve been to Chaco twice now and will be headed to Bandelier in a couple weeks. If you like Pictographs, we believe the best are in Utah. Best petroglyphs clarity wise seem to be in AZ and Maturango near Ridgecrest.
    You do have some great ruins though. If there are any sites you are interested in from Especially NV, UT CA or AZ let email me, we’ve been to a lot of them.

    • Steve Collins
      April 1, 2015 at 7:52 am #

      We heard that the best petroglyphs are at Rock Art Ranch outside Winslow. Sadly when we went through the area, the weather didn’t allow for a visit. We’ll go back. Thanks for the offer to share your experiences with us.

  4. Thomas Kavenaugh
    July 4, 2016 at 4:58 pm #

    In the time since I last wrote we have been to dozens of sites in the Southwest.
    The Rock Art Ranch is fabulous and Brantly Baird is an incredible witness to the history of the area. But We found the petros at Cieneguilla to be at least as good. Another trip to Chaco and a couple to Hovenweep were also taken but most of our time was spent in the Bluff/Blanding/Cedar Mesa region. Numerous ruins lightly touched by tourists and incredible rock art.
    We are contemplating a trip up to Taos seeking cooler hiking this summer and I was wondering if you had any information on the status of Petroglyph Hill/Thornton Ranch. The last references I see are from 2014 and I read somewhere where even the tours were shut down. If you know the current state of access I’d really appreciate an email.
    Laurie and Thomas

    • Billie Frank
      July 5, 2016 at 10:56 am #

      Glad to hear you loved Rock Art Ranch. We’ve heard great things about it. We were supposed to visit tour it last March but the weather didn’t cooperate and the canyon was flooded. We did get to see some great glyohs in Petrified Forest and Painted Desert on that trip. Another site north of Santa Fe that we want to visit is Mesa Prieta near Espanola. The petroglyphs are supposed to be excellent and there are a lot of them. Re: touring Petroglyph Hill- because of your question I contacted the Santa Fe Land Use Office and asked about touring. They have suspended touring this year as they’re reassessing the site do to erosion damage. They hope to have the tours up and running by next year. To get on their contact list, call Maria Lohmann at (505) 995-2774. She’ll contact you when they have tour dates.

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