Friday, June 6, 2014

Piedras Marcadas, Petroglyphs National Monument, Albuquerque, NM

Distance: 1.5 miles round trip (2.4 km)
Elevation: 5,200 - 5,280 feet (1,585 - 1,610 m)
Difficulty: Easy
Time of Year: September - May (avoid heat of summer)

Piedras Maracas canyon is the northernmost section of Petroglyphs National Monument, located on the northwestern suburbs of Alburquerque, New Mexico. The national monument was created in 1990 to protect some 24,000 images carved into the volcanic rocks of a 200,000 year old lava flow by the ancestral Puebloan peoples of the Rio Grande Valley. The rapidly expanding suburbs of Albuquerque were threatening to these cultural treasures with vandalism, being demolished for subdivisions, and otherwise being tarnished without proper management. While some of the petroglyphs date back to more than 3000 years, the majority of them are considered of the Rio Grande Style of the 15th century, after many of the Puebloan groups of the southwest abandoned their cliff dwellings during a mega-drought and migrated to the Rio Grande Valley.

Sandia Mountain is visible across the Rio Grande Valley from the top of the mesa

Petroglyphs National Monument contains a number of different sites to visit. Piedras Marcadas is the furthest north site and can be tricky to find with the various housing developments of the area making for a maze of partially constructed roads and subdivisions. It is best to start at the National Park Service Visitor Center to get oriented and then ask for a map and directions to the site. To get to the visitor center, take the Unser Blvd Exit (#154) off of I-40 and drive north 3 miles to Western Trail. Turn left and follow it west until the road ends right at the visitor center.

Piedras Marcadas canyon starts at a small parking area right next to a housing development. The trail starts on a sidewalk paralleling the wall at the edge of the backyards of homes. But, soon it heads off into the undeveloped canyon, with volcanic walls rising about 100 feet above the sandy bottom. In spring, there will be fields of purple phacelia flowers, with white evening primroses mixed in. It won't take long to see the first petroglyphs on the rocks above. The main route is a wide sandy trail, but numerous side routes branch off to see large petroglyphs on the boulders above.

The view down Piedras Marcadas canyon with the "volcanoes" visible in the far distance

Follow the contour of the rocks. Virtually all petroglyphs are located on south or southwest facing slopes. No reason to search the north-facing slopes. The reason for this is hypothesized to be that during the summer most people were working on tending their fields of corn, squash, and beans along the banks of the Rio Grande. But, in winter, outside of cultivation season, they would have a lot of time available to work on other crafts, as well as, to work on the tedious task of carving images into the rocks. As it can be chilly in this region at 5,000 feet in winter, the south-facing slopes get more of the winter sun, thus melting any ice that may be present or otherwise just being a lot more comfortable working conditions.

Evening primrose in bloom

Continue contouring the rocks and then head through a gap into a large sandy expanse. As you continue toward the back of the canyon, there is a distinct side trail that branches right. At the end of this route is a cove in the rocks containing numerous interesting petroglyphs.

A kokopelli along with other symbols

After spending an hour or so exploring the petroglyphs, just return following the main route across the sandy bottom back to the parking area.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Boca Negra, Petroglyphs National Monument, Albuquerque, NM

Distance: 1 mile (1.5 km)
Elevation: 5,190 - 5,300 feet (1,582 - 1,616 m)
Difficulty: Easy
Time of Year: Anytime

View of Boca Negra canyon from the top of Mesa Point

Petroglyphs National Monument is a small unit of the National Park Service located just on the western outskirts of the city of Albuquerque. It is home to some 24,000+ images carved into the volcanic rocks of a 200,000 year old lava flow by the ancestral Puebloan peoples. It is the largest concentration of petroglyphs in the United States. Although petroglyphs have been found that date back as far as 3000 years old, the vast majority of them come from the "Rio Grande Style" dating to the 15th century. This was a period when Puebloan peoples across the southwest had abandoned their sites and migrated to the Rio Grande Valley for the consistent water sources.

A those seals? If so, how did they know about them in New Mexico?

While its convenience to Albuquerque makes it a cultural and ecological treasure for the residents of this largest city of New Mexico, as well as, an economic boost to the city through tourism, it is also highly threatened by the rapid expansion of Albuquerque's suburbs. The park is surrounded by housing developments and roads have even been carved right through the park approved by congressional action. Whether these cultural artifacts of the Rio Grande Puebloan peoples can be protected from vandalism, urbanization, and pollution over the long-term will remain to be seen.

View of the suburbs from Mesa Point, with Sandia Mountain in the distance

Petroglyphs National Monument is made up of several individual visitation sites. Any visit should begin at the National Park Service Visitor Center located at the end of Western Trail. To get there from I-40, take the Unser Blvd exit number 154, drive north 3 miles to Western Trail. Turn left and follow it west until you reach the visitor center. At the visitor center, you can get the specific directions to the various sites in the park, including Boca Negra, featured here.

Boca Negra, which means "black mouth" in Spanish, is an amphitheater of black volcanic rock surrounding a sandy bottom. It is where a large sand dune blocked the flow of lava from the eruptions about 200,000 years ago and forced the lava to curl around it. Later, the dune eroded away, leaving this bowl-shaped area. There are three main sites here, all within short walks from each other. The entrance fee is $1 on weekdays, $2 on weekends, and free with an Interagency Pass.

A flycatcher was nesting near the petroglyphs

Start by taking the short trail up the steep slope of Mesa Point. Immediately, there are dozens of petroglyphs on the route to the top. These include depictions of faces, people, animals, stars, and other geometric designs. From the top, you get an expansive view across the landscape, including the Rio Grande valley across to Sandia Mountain to the west and across the lava flows to the volcanoes to the east.

The variety of faces at these petroglyphs are amazing

After descending back down, follow the boardwalk past the picnic sites to the "Macaw site". There is a petroglyph just past the ramada of what appears to be a macaw, as well as, a yucca pod just above it. You might be thinking, what is a macaw doing here? Some tribes have claimed it is actually a mourning dove. But, archaeologists state that the Puebloan people's were trading with tribes from hundreds or thousands of miles away and macaw feathers from the tropical regions have been found in sites in the United States. Thus, it is plausible that this petroglyph reflects such a trading event.

The macaw (at lower left) and yucca pod (upper right)
One thing you will notice is that virtually all petroglyphs are found on south or southwest facing sites. It is hypothesized that they chose these sites because they would get the low winter sun (thus melting off the snow or being generally warmer) at a time of year when there were no crops to raise to stay busy with, so they had lots of time on their hands to work on these carving process.

Continuing around the amphitheater takes you to another site with numerous petroglyphs, most of these of people, stars, and geometric designs. This is called "cliff base". In total, there are more than 200 petroglyphs visible at this site. In my next post, I'll refer to another site within the 7700 acre national monument with hundreds of petroglyphs called Piedras Marcadas.

I liked to call this one of the "fat Italian".
I have never seen one with a long nose like this before

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