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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.

Just 114,428 people visited Petroglyph National Monument in 2014. (Compare that to around five million annually for Grand Canyon, enough for a good-sized city.) Most of them hiked in one of four areas with developed trails. While Boca Negra Canyon, Piedras Marcadas, Rinconada Canyon and the Volcanoes all have their charms, they’re where everyone goes. As a seasonal ranger and volunteer at Petroglyph, that’s where I send them.

Mesa Prieta

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.

You can also see about 10,000 petroglyphs – if you’re inclined to count them.

Volcanoes from Mesa Prieta ‘elbow’

Find-It-Yourself Trailhead

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.

I walked in one afternoon to have intelligent answers about the place in case visitors ask. The bonus was great sunset light on petroglyphs with the city and the Sandia Mountains in the background.

But I arrived too late to reach the mesa top and walk all the way to the escarpment’s southern tip.

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.

You’ll see some vaguely columnar basalt sheared off near the escarpment’s south-turning ‘elbow’. This reminded me a little of Devil’s Postpile near Mammoth Lakes, California.

Basalt columns on Mesa Prieta

Basaltic Tumble

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.

Snakes, maybe?

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

Shot Notes

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.

You’ll also want to underexpose pictures with lots of dark rock to render them accurately. I start with 1/3 to one stop underexposure if there’s little or no bright sky in the picture. Here’s where digital cameras are very handy. You can rough-check your exposure on the LCD, either eyeballing it or checking more accurately with a histogram. Remember that if you overexpose (but not too much!), you can reduce it later in Lightroom or your digital editor of choice, decrease noise, and recover hot highlights. This will work best for pictures shot in RAW, where you have 64 times the contrast range to work with compared to JPEG.

I like to compose pictures the viewer feels invited to walk into. I do this with a prominent near-foreground feature, leading lines, and a majestic background. It helps to have no human figures in the picture, or small figures at a great distance.

More Information aka References

SW National Parks Trip, retrieved from

Grand Canyon National Park FAQS, retrieved from

Directions to Mesa Prieta at Petroglyph National Monument, retrieved from