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Petroglyph National Monument

Seven year old No. 1 and I got to visit Petroglyph National Monument last week.  The monument’s a short drive from Albuquerques airport, and having nothing better to do, a hike seemed like a great way to spend our late afternoon, so we headed straight there after picking up our rental car.  Having never been before, (even though I grew up in New Mexico), our first stop was the Visitor Center.

There are two things you should know about the visitor center.  First, it’s nowhere near any of the monuments hiking trails.  Second, while the rangers are ultimately very helpful, and truly very nice people, they do seem to enjoy talking some Park Service smack on the way to helping you.  1 and I inquired as to what would be the best trail for a short afternoon hike.

“Well, you could go to Rinconada Canyon… but are you prepared for a hike?”

The kid and I have literally been on hundreds of hikes. "I think so?" was my humble but confused reply.

"Do you have water?" The ranger wryly intoned.

“No!  Oh, that’s how we need to prepare!  Shyoo!  No, we have no water, but we’ll just step outside here and use your water fountain.”

“We’ve turned it off for the evening.”


“We turn it off every afternoon in preparation for closing the Visitor Center at 5.”

Note:  It freezes in New Mexico.  A lot.  Pipes burst.

“Oh, well, then I guess we have no water.  We’ll be fine though, if we get thirsty, we’ll turn back.”

Taking care to make meaningful eye contact, the ranger almost psychically mindlinked, “We have water for sale.  Three dollars.”  And so it was that 1 and I came to be in possession of our very own bottle of Petroglyph National Monument Drinking Water.”

The ranger continued, “what did you want to see?”

“Oh, we just wanted to go for a little hike, and maybe see some petroglyphs.”

The same elementary school glare seared over the top of the ranger’s glasses, “So, you haven’t researched your trip at all.”

I almost withered, then remembered we were on an impromptu jaunt, so of course we hadn’t researched, “Well, no.  We just got here you see, and this seemed like a nice stop to make, so…”

“It’s OK.  It’s alright.  I’ll help you.”  After that, the ranger delivered a brief set of driving and parking directions, and sent us on our way.

Here’s what you’ll need to know about Rinconada Canyon.  First, the parking lot, as advertised by the rangers, dos in fact lock up at 5 PM.  If your car’s in there at 5, it’ll be in there the next morning when they open back up.  There are however, three parking spots outside the gate.  (There’s actually four, in New Mexico, it’s more than OK to invent your own spot.  We wound up parking on the dirt patch to the side of the asphalt).

The hike was actually very nice.  A bit civilized by New Mexico standards, but in general very nice.  The trail is a 2.2 mile loop of hardpack dirt occasionally covered with soft sand.  The outward portion of the loop has a very gentle upwards incline that’s undone by the equally downhill return potion.  The’ve put up a steel wire divider between the path and the petroglyph bearing lava rocks so you can’t climb on them anymore.

You can however toodle out across the desert to the side of the loop away from the petroglyphs anytime you’d like.  1 and could feel the desert chill coming on as the sun went down and we approached the boxed edge of the canyon.  We elected to skp the last 100 or so yards into the (now very, very cold), canyon, by crossing the loop to the return side.

The petroglyphs can be hard to spot, but it’s great fun when you can find one.  One of the most prominent ones was made not by Native Americans, but by ranchers ninety-nine years to the day before our visit.  Score a point for impromptu planning!  I bet the Park Ranger never saw that one coming!

1 is slowly but surely learning Chinese characters.  One of the petroglyphs made here a quick believer in the Bering Strait theory

To 1 it looked just like the da character: 大 .

There were other theories bandied about as well.  In the midst of a childhood spent watching Ancient Aliens (it builds vocabulary and complex sentence structures, I swear!), 1 was certain that the petroglyphs that weren’t Chinese characters were left by aliens.

Also, there were jackrabbits!  We watched six jackrabbits—each of them about the size of a largeish Cocker Spaniel—cross the trail ahead of us.  We couldn’t get close to them , but we did manage to find jack rabbit tracks!

All in all, the experience was great!  For a historically oriented desert hike less than a 15 minute drive from a major airport, it can’t be beat!


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