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Sierra Magazine
Way to Go: Rocks of Ages

by Reed McManus

A trip to see the great petroglyphs of the Southwest typically requires a bone-jarring ride over dirt roads to a windblown site in the middle of nowhere. Unless you're in Albuquerque, New Mexico, that is, in which case you simply cross the Rio Grande on Interstate 40, take the first freeway exit, and head past suburban cul-de-sacs to Petroglyph National Monument.

Occasional discordant glimpses of backyard barbecues notwithstanding, this is no second-tier tourist attraction. The 7,200-acre park, established in 1990, protects the greatest single concentration of rock art in the United States near an urban area.

Along the 17 miles of winding cliff face known as the West Mesa Escarpment, predecessors of modern Pueblo Indians etched thousands of petroglyphs between 1000 B.C. and A.D. 1650. The images depict religious life in a pre-Taco Bell Rio Grande Valley: headdresses, masks, the flute player Kokopelli, macaws, mountain lions, horned serpents, human figures, bears, and sun symbols. Elsewhere in the monument are the ruins of a 1,000-room pueblo, hundreds of archaeological sites, and the five volcanic cones that produced the vast, inspiring canvas for early rock artists.

Trails in the monument are limited, which is understandable given that the park's main purpose is to "protect . . . cultural and natural resources . . . from urbanization and vandalism." Most visitors head to the three short, self-guided trails of Boca Negra Canyon, site of a former state park. At the north end of the mesa, amateur archaeologists can hike 1.5 miles through the more remote Piedras Marcadas Canyon, home to approximately a third of the park's rock carvings.

The Park Service's job is to manage the monument as a sacred landscape, not as a city park. That means exhorting guests to stay on established trails, remove no artifacts, and avoid the urge to one-up ancient symbols with paeans to adolescent romance. To the region's Pueblo Indians, the rocks at Petroglyph are directly connected to how they live today, "as sacrosanct as any cathedral," according to Bill Weahkee, executive director of the Five Sandoval Indian Pueblos. To anyone who pulls off the nearby interstate, Petroglyph National Monument is a roadside sanctuary.


NUTS & BOLTS

How to Prepare
Albuquerque is located at a relatively comfortable 5,000-foot elevation, so a walk along any of the monument's short hiking trails is bearable even in southwestern summer heat, if you've got plenty of water and wear a broad-brim hat. To avoid the glare of the midday sun, however, consider exploring the rocks in the cool of the morning.

For More Information
For trail maps and brochures, contact Petroglyph National Monument at 4735 Unser Blvd., N.W., Albuquerque, NM 87120; (505) 839-4429.

For Deeper Reading
The best background on petroglyphs in the middle Rio Grande Valley region is provided by two books published by the University of New Mexico Press: Rock Art in New Mexico by Polly Schaafsma (1992), and Signs From the Ancestors: Zuni Cultural Symbolism and Perceptions of Rock Art by Jane Young (1988).

The Politics of Place
Sitting in the path of Albuquerque's most intense growth, Petroglyph National Monument is one of the most endangered units in the National Park System. The most controversial of several development proposals would drive a six-lane highway through the park's northern arm.

The Paseo del Norte road extension plan has spawned an unprecedented effort by Pueblo Indians to save the petroglyph area. Local tribes have joined the National Park Service and conservationists, including the Sierra Club, in proposing alternative routes that bypass the monument.

A culture clash has ensued. Growth-oriented Albuquerque Mayor Martin Chavez has suggested that if the tribes truly care about the area's sacredness, they should help finance an overpass across it. The mayor has even proposed constructing overlooks along the six-lane highway to squeeze past a federal requirement that new park roads serve park purposes.

Early last year, Senator Pete Domenici (R-N.M.) reportedly forged a deal with the Interior Department that would have allowed Petroglyph roadbuilding legislation to roll quietly through the anti-environmental Congress. Road opponents deluged him with letters and the proposal was shelved--but is expected to resurface after this November's elections. A decision to allow encroachment on federal parkland to relieve local traffic problems will set a national precedent. To get involved, contact Ike Eastvold of the Albuquerque Group of the Sierra Club's Rio Grande Chapter at 207 San Pedro Ave., N.E., Albuquerque, NM 87108; or call (505) 255-7679.

Reed McManus is a senior editor at Sierra.


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