LYDEN – About halfway between Española and Taos, shortly before N.M. 68 dips into the small farming community of Velarde, a county road slips off the beaten path. It crosses the Rio Grande and winds its way through typical riparian New Mexico.
But the basalt-ridden hills that suddenly jut from the valley are decidedly atypical.
Here at the Wells Petroglyph Preserve and Mesa Prieta Petroglyph Project, Native American rock pictures are found in an abundance difficult to believe.
The sheer splendor and variety of the petroglyphs – which date back centuries if not millennia – is an absolute wonder.
The preserve sits on 186 acres that Katherine Wells bought in 1992 and which she later donated to the Archaeological Conservancy.
And while the preserve is open to the public with small, group tours on Wednesdays and Saturdays, self guided tours are not permitted, as well as children under 10 and pets. Though service dogs are.
Private tours anytime of the week are available though appointments need to be made in advance at mesaprietapetroglyphs.org. They range anywhere from $35-$200.
“For a long time, we kind of kept the site low-profile,” Wells said. “Now we’ve done a lot of documentation and we know what’s here. If we’re going to protect it, a lot of people have to know about it.”
While Albuquerque’s Petroglyph National Monument is recognized for its vast collection of rock pictures, it still fails to come close to the concentration at the preserve.
“When we started recording, we thought there may have been 20,000 images here,” Wells said. “There are about 27,000 in the Petroglyph National Monument. We have now recorded 60,000 and we’re only about half done. We think there are about 100,000 at least so we have a lot more work to do. We’ve been recording since 1992.”
The petroglyphs fall into three categories, she said, with archaic pictures as much as 7,500 years old, puebloan pictures up to 700 years old and colonial era images made about 400 years ago.
Volunteers have developed numerous meandering trails – most of which are quite easy walking and a few that are more rugged – on which guides lead visitors and explain different aspects of the petroglyphs.
Amanda Fox, Mesa Prieta Tour and Outreach Coordinator, led visitors on one such recent tour.
Some of the petroglyphs mark the seasons.
“Equinoxes are of extreme importance in many cultures,” she said. “And we have solstice markers as well as equinox markers all over the preserve.”
On one, the nub on the side of a boulder causes a shadow to slice through a circular spiral at dawn of winter solstice.
In another area, the shadow of an overhang perfectly matches the arched back of a flute-playing animal at noon of the equinoxes.
“Every single day you come out, you see something different,” Fox said.
For Wells, her favorite image is a glorious heraldic lion that the puebloans must have seen on the royal flags the Spanish carried on their way into the area and immediately recognized as a signal of power and strength.
That image is part of a trail system requiring a certain amount of stamina. But the basic tour still includes hundreds of other images, like intricate shields and eagles in flight.
Visitor Brook Maher of Taos said the excursion was well worth it.
“I was surprised I hadn’t heard more about it,” she said. “I’ve gotten more interested in petroglyphs after moving here from New York. I’ve been trying to learn more about what’s here and I’m an artist and I’m interested in it from that aspect as well.”
A tour of time
The vast time difference in the petroglyphs was one of the amazing aspects of the tour, Maher said.
“I had a hard time visualizing how long ago some of them were actually done,” she said. “But some of them are incredibly sophisticated, especially when you take into account all of the solar aspects of viewing them. That I had not been aware of. Those are more layers that I was not conscious of. They are images that I can sort of see myself trying to incorporate into something at some point.”
Visitor Linda Hodapp, a retired respiratory therapist from Taos, said the number of petroglyphs took her by surprise.
“The reputation of this place is there are so many glyphs, but there are way more than I thought,” she said. “I thought we were going to be hiking all day and just seeing one then there’s another one. But as you turned around, they were just everywhere. This place is just spectacular.”