Native American Mystery: Three Rivers Petroglyphs, New Mexico

Lisa Fritscher July 9, 2011 No Comments

Three Rivers Petroglyphs Entrance

The petroglyph site is well worth a visit

The Three Rivers Petroglyph Site is in the middle of nowhere, along Highway 54 between Carrizozo and Tularosa, New Mexico. Managed by the Bureau of Land Management, the site’s tiny budget does not leave room for a Visitor Center, gift shop or restaurant. But there are clean restrooms and a small ranger station staffed by extremely helpful and friendly volunteers. Approximately 30 minutes from Carrizozo or Alamogordo, the site is well worth a visit.

The Petroglyphs

Three Rivers Petroglyphs Hike

The petroglyphs are a 1,000 year old mystery

Petroglyphs are a form of rock art. As opposed to pictographs, which are painted on rocks, petroglyphs are actually carved or etched into the rock’s surface. The petroglyphs at Three Rivers were created between 900 and 1400 AD by Jornada Mogollon Native Americans, ancestors of the modern Hopi and other Pueblo peoples.

The purpose of the petroglyphs and the choice of location remain a hotly debated mystery. Perhaps this was a sacred site, a conjunction of trade routes, or simply a scenic lookout point. Some have even postulated that the petroglyphs were a children’s art project. Whatever the reason for them, the petroglyphs are stunningly beautiful.

Our Experience

Three Rivers Petroglyphs Hosts

The hosts were extremely helpful

The road to the petroglyph site is well marked but quite desolate. A left turn into the site leads to a gravel parking lot with a few RV sites, a small building with modern restroom facilities and a tiny trailer that serves as the park office. If the office is closed, you can pay your entrance fee at an outdoor station.

As of 2011, admission to the site is $2 per vehicle. National Park Service passes are honored. The hosts were quite helpful, providing a map of the site and an admonition to carry plenty of water. It was 98 Fahrenheit when we began our hike, and well over 100 by the time we finished. The sun was beating down with no clouds in sight, and the humidity was less than 10 percent. Water was definitely a requirement!

Three Rivers Petroglyphs Hiking Trail

The hiking trail is rugged and steep

The self-guided hike begins with a short, flat path to a wheelchair-accessible set of mounted binoculars. The rest of the one mile roundtrip trail up the side of the mountain is steep, rugged, rocky and fairly strenuous. I looked doubtfully at Dad, who has a few health conditions and walks with a cane, but his face was determined. As it turned out, he did just fine–a few moments of huffing and puffing along the way, and some back pain that evening, but nothing he couldn’t handle.

Petroglyphs Off Trail

Many of the best glyphs are off the main trail

The petroglyphs are scattered along both sides of the trail. As the ranger explained to us, there are more than 21,000 petroglyphs at the site, of which only 11 are marked on the map. While most parks require visitors to stay on the marked paths, this one actually encourages you to get off the trail. Many of the best glyphs are nearly impossible to see from the path. Of course, taking any artifacts is against federal law. Be careful to avoid touching the glyphs, as they can be damaged by handling.

The Hike

Three Rivers Petroglyphs Slippery Trail

Watch your footing when leaving the trail

The trail has changed little in 1,000 years. There are no handrails, smooth grades or other modern “finished” elements. There is a steep drop off the mountain on one side, and loose rocks on the other. Several spots require you to pick your footing carefully, to avoid tripping or slipping. Although it sounds a bit scary, no rock climbing or other special skills are required. Plenty of tourists of all ages make the climb each day. Just use caution and avoid getting so caught up in photography that you forget to watch where you’re going!

Detailed Petroglyphs New Mexico

The glyphs are surprisingly detailed

There is a short climb before you reach the actual petroglyphs. We found it easiest to stick to the trail until we reached the first marked glyph, to orient ourselves and provide a guide to what we were looking for. Once we were comfortable with the trail and the glyphs, we began going off-trail a bit. Not being experienced climbers or hikers, though, we did not roam too far. If you are used to the mountains, you may want to go further afield, discovering glyphs that we never saw.

Three Rivers Petroglyphs Shelter

The shelter at the top of the trail is a great place to relax

We found several level spots along the trail that were great places to stop, catch our breath and drink some water. We found that one 16 ounce bottle of water each was just enough water, though if we do it again we might take along a third bottle to share. At the summit of the marked trail is a small shelter with benches. This is a terrific spot to stop and relax, enjoy the mountain overviews, or let the kids play.

You can continue up the mountain past the shelter. There are few petroglyphs on that segment, but some people claim that they are some of the best. As it was the end of the marked trail, though, Dad and I opted to head back down. You can loop around the other side of the glyphs on the return trip, finding glyphs that were not obvious on the way up.

It took us nearly two hours to do the full trail, but we were stopping every few feet for photographs. At a moderate walking pace with few stops, you could easily finish in an hour or so. There is an old village ruin a short distance from the parking area, but the rangers explained that there is literally nothing left. They showed us photos of the site, and we decided not to explore it.

Tips for Parents

Three Rivers Abstract Petroglyphs

The images are sometimes abstract

The petroglyphs are spectacular, and it was great fun trying to imagine the story behind various glyphs. Why was that image created? Who made it? What was he or she trying to say? Some images are clearly of something specific, such as a ram or a bird or a person, while others are more abstract. We enjoyed trying to decide what some of the abstract images might be.

Although the terrain is tricky, it is relatively safe. Discuss safety tips and ground rules before your visit and do not allow kids to run or play on the rocks. Keep them with you or slightly ahead of you, where you can pay attention to their movements. Dress appropriately for the weather and carry plenty of water, along with a few snacks. It is virtually impossible to get lost, but you may get wrapped up in the petroglyphs and spend more time than you anticipated. Sunscreen and a hat can help prevent painful burns in the desert sun.

avatarAbout the Author:

Lisa is a full-time travel writer. She lives in an RV with her disabled father and writes about their experiences. Although she has no children of her own, Lisa loves being an Aunt to her own relatives and the children of all her friends. You can follow her adventures on her blog, Travel Confessions.

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