SchoolArts Room

Looking for Petroglyphs at La Cieneguilla

By Nancy Walkup, posted on Sep 10, 2016

On our hunt for accessible petroglyphs near Santa Fe, this morning we visited La Cieneguilla and were not disappointed. Petroglyphs are images created by removing part of a rock surface by incising, picking, carving, or abrading, as a form of rock art.

The word comes from the Greek words petros meaning “stone” and glyphic meaning to “carve.” These Pre-Columbian petroglyphs near the Santa Fe, New Mexico, airport contain representations of birds, deer, animals, and more.

The La Cieneguilla site is home to some of the more accessible petroglyphs in the American West. The area is overseen by the Department of the Interior, Bureau of Land Management, and a 1991 archeological survey recorded over 4,400 images within less than a mile. The descendants of the people who made the petroglyphs now live along the Rio Grande at the Cochiti and Santo Domingo Pueblos.

Some of the petroglyphs are thought to go back to the Archaic Period (around 8000 to 2000 BCE), but most of the images are Puebloan and date to between the 13th and 17th centuries. The trail is quite steep at times but stop often to look around you; some petroglyphs may not be fully visible until you look behind you.

The meaning of petroglyphs is not understood but you will find many recognizable images, such as hands, four-legged creatures, bird, spirals, and geometric forms.

Most of the petroglyphs are just below the mesa top. As you get higher on the trail, you can see the road and the flat land below.

Spiral and bird

A cliff face with many images. The petroglyphs are carved, some quite deeply, into black volcanic rock.

This was the strangest image we found—almost a spiraled rectangle. We couldn’t think of any natural features that would be so regularly rectangular.

A closeup

The sky was its usual New Mexican deep blue.

Another unusual geometric design

From the Bureau of Land Management:

Please do not climb on, touch, chalk, wet down, or do rubbings of the petroglyphs. Cultural Resources in the vicinity are fragile and irreplaceable. The Archaeological Resources Protection Act of 1979, the Antiquities Act of 1906, and the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990 protect them for the benefit of all Americans. Any person who, without a permit, injures, destroys, excavates, appropriates, or removes any historic, or prehistoric ruin, artifact, object of antiquity, Native American remains, Native American cultural item or archaeological resource on the public lands of the United States is subject to arrest and penalty of law.

More geometrics, a double spiral, and animals

Multiple flute players? You’ll see lots of these.

In Santa Fe and want to visit? Travel 3.3 miles west from the intersection of Airport Rd and NM 599l. The Bureau of Land Management parking area is on the west side of the road. Follow the arrow-marked trail for a 5 to 10 minute walk to the basalt cliffs where the petroglyphs are located. Supposedly the trail is only 1.5 miles, but the climb is steep. The best petroglyphs are found further in so stay on the trail as long as you can. If you make it to the end of the cliffs, the trail goes downhill and leads back to the main entrance. A hat, sunscreen, and water will make your trip more comfortable. There are no restrooms or water available at the site. There is no fee to visit.

If you are an art teacher and want to find a lesson about petroglyphs, there are a number of lessons found here. You are welcome to download my photos and share them with your students.