The Secret National Monument Next Door
Mention Petroglyph National Monument to most people and they’ll ask, “What’s that?” Many long-time Albuquerque residents have never been to this park next door.
But there is one large, beautiful part of the Monument that sees very few people, even though it’s pretty accessible. Mesa Prieta has the Monument’s longest hiking trails at around 4.2 miles round trip. You can ascend to the top, follow the terrain through a right-angle turn, and walk out to the narrow southern tip of the 17-mile escarpment. There’s a 2-inch silver benchmark disk in the ground there at the center of a white painted X, and a bent fencepost. There’s also an outstanding view of Albuquerque’s eastern skyline. At the right-angle elbow, you can see the Volcanoes less than a mile away.
Volcanoes from Mesa Prieta ‘elbow’
Since Mesa Prieta lacks an NPS trail map, you’ll need to find the trailhead yourself. That’s pretty easy. Take exit 154 off Interstate 40 on Albuquerque’s west side. Head north to the stoplight at Tierra Pintado, and turn left. Look for the Petroglyphs development, and turn right just before the sign, on Watershed Drive. Head north on Watershed until the road ‘tees’ into Mesa Rain Road, turn left, and park. Then hike down from the street sign, cross the arroyo under the fence, and find the trail at the escarpment.
It’s Better With Clouds
I returned the next day with cloudy weather – one of my favorite conditions for photography. I passed the same ‘glyphs at the base of the escarpment, and a gaging station in the nearby arroyo. The depth of that gauge is marked to over five feet, so it’s a good idea to stay away when it’s raining. A trail spur climbs an obvious incline to the right, and that’s how I reached the mesa top.
Basalt columns on Mesa Prieta
I was completely unprepared for the close view of the Volcanoes. These cinder cones last erupted a mere 150,000 years ago – six times from the pattern of volcanic rock they left behind. Their basaltic rock flow capped the softer sandstone. That hardened rock would still be there today without the great East-West Putty Pull – the Rio Grande Rift. This tectonic event made the Rio Grande flow south from Colorado. In a classic domino tumble, the Rio Grande began eating away at the sandstone under the basaltic caprock. When the sandstone was gone, the caprock fell into pieces along the 17-mile escarpment we see today. The basaltic boulders grew darker desert varnish over their natural lighter brown. It’s that lighter rock you see in petroglyphs chipped through the dark varnish. Without those boulders and their varnish, there might not be any petroglyphs.
Visitors often ask what the petroglyphs mean. Even today’s Puebloan descendants of the petroglyph carvers disagree. PhD anthropologists say speculation is all we have, though they’ve made some guesses from Ancestral Puebloan lifeways.
‘Glyphs and the city
Views And Solitude
I once shouldered a 60-pound backpack over Colby Pass in Sequoia National Park. On the way down, I felt the freedom of having the entire wild range of mountains at my feet, and all to myself. Views from Mesa Prieta feel the same way – the tiny city and huge Sandia Mountains rising up to the east, and the rolling volcanic landscape to the west, punctuated by cinder cones and finally, distant Mount Taylor. These gorgeous views and near-solitude are rare near a major urban center. They’re what I live for.
East to the Sandias – a view you can walk into
Choose your weather if you can – clouds break up boring blue skies and diffuse the sun for reduced contrast. That makes the light less harsh if you get out there closer to midday. The rock looks different in early afternoon than it does at sunrise or sunset, so capturing ‘glyphs and landscapes at varying times gives you different light to choose from. I used to advise using a polarizing filter to enhance the petroglyphs against the rock, but dark sky corners started driving me nuts. You can still get away with a polarizer, but they’re best used with a longer focal length – 50mm or longer on a full-frame camera – or in scenes without sky.
More Information aka References
SW National Parks Trip, retrieved from