A monumental anniversary: A natural and cultural landmark, Petroglyph National Monument was designated 30 years ago on June 27

This year marks the Petroglyph’s National Monument’s 30th anniversary. Pictured are the petroglyphs at the Boca Negra Canyon location. (Roberto E. Rosales/Journal)

Planning a party was among the top items on Nancy Hendricks’ to-do list when she became National Park Service superintendent of Petroglyph National Monument in October.

If you think that sounds frivolous and irresponsible, think again.

Nancy Hendricks

Hendricks knew that June 27, 2020, marked the 30th anniversary of the designation of the 7,000-plus acre site on Albuquerque’s West Mesa as a national monument. She wanted to recognize the occasion appropriately.

“I was really looking forward to it,” Hendricks said during a recent phone interview. “We were going to invite all our former employees and people who were important to the development of the monument. We were going to invite all the pueblos and tribes, who are the reason we are here.”

The monument protects a variety of natural and cultural resources, including five volcanic cones, hundreds of archaeological sites and 24,000 petroglyphs, often enigmatic images carved into rock – mostly by ancestral Pueblo peoples hundreds of years ago.

But the coronavirus pandemic proved to be a party pooper. The celebration has been put on hold.

“We are not going to do anything formal at the monument,” Hendricks said. “But our trails are open, our visitor center and park store are open. We hope people come out on our anniversary (Saturday) and see us.”

Protect and preserve

President George H.W. Bush signed legislation making the 17-mile-long, boulder-strewn escarpment a national monument on June 27, 1990. But efforts to preserve that land and its natural and cultural treasures dates back at least to the late-1960s when a “Save the Volcanoes” campaign was launched to protect the cones from proposed residential development.

Millions of dollars in Albuquerque city and federal money went toward purchasing the volcanoes and the mesa land around them.

From left to right: Rep. Joe Skeen, R-NM; Rep. Steven Schiff, R-NM; Rep. Bill Richardson, D-NM; Sen. Pete Domenici, R-NM; Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-NM; and Manuel Lujan Jr., United States Secretary of the Interior, from New Mexico, watch as President George H.W. Bush signs the designation of the Petroglyph National Monument on June 27, 1990. (Courtesy of Petroglyph National Monument)

Also around that time, the city started buying land, including sites that are now part of the national monument, from the Bureau of Land Management for use as regional parks. In the mid-’80s, Friends of the Albuquerque Petroglyphs, formed by Ike Eastvold, joined with other groups in working toward the establishment of a national monument.

Even monument designation, however, has not always spared the petroglyph site from the pressures of urban development that press in on it from all sides. In 2006, after more than a decade of controversy and court action, construction started on a four-lane extension of Paseo del Norte through the monument. The road project was completed and the extension opened to traffic in 2007. It was reported at the time that some boulders marked with petroglyphs, which are often powerful societal or religious symbols, had been moved from the road’s path.

Managed jointly by the National Park Service and the city of Albuquerque, the monument provides recreation and education for visitors. But Hendricks said the most prominent goal of those charged with the monument’s management is the preservation of the site’s landscape and cultural significance.

Visitors walk near petroglyphs at the Boca Negra Canyon location. (Roberto E. Rosales/Journal)

It’s an ongoing effort.

Late last year, bicycling was banned on roads and trails within most of the monument, not only to protect the soil and plant life but also to provide a less busy and more peaceful atmosphere in a space considered sacred by native people.

Some people still have not gotten the message on the biking ban.

“It’s been a process, but it’s getting better with education,” Hendricks said. “We have been telling people about open space areas they can bike, but some will always be upset.”

And then there’s vandalism.

“We’ve had an uptick in graffiti since January, five incidents since then, three of those since coronavirus (became a factor),” Hendricks said. “You got people out of work, frustrated, with time on their hands. Most of the incidents have been spray painting, not just on rocks but on signs and other monument property, and there was one incident of cutting into the rock.”

Start early, stay cool

The pandemic never forced the closure of the monument’s trails – Boca Negra Canyon, Rinconada Canyon, Piedras Marcadas Canyon and Volcanoes Day Use – to visitors. The visitor center, park store and vault toilet facilities were closed in March but reopened on June 12.

There is no water for drinking or hand washing on the trails, so visitors are advised to bring bottles of drinking water or purchase them at the park store and also to bring hand sanitizer.

Petroglyph National Monument is a fascinating place to visit any time of year, but during the summer months it is a very hot place to visit.

Hendricks suggests arriving at the monument as early in the day as possible. She recommends the Piedras Marcadas Canyon trail, which is open from sunrise to sunset, as the best summer-hiking trail. Located 6½ miles northeast of the visitor center, the Piedras Marcadas trail offers access to hundreds of petroglyphs.

“Piedras Marcadas is 1½ miles round trip and there are petroglyphs close to the trailhead,” Hendricks said. “It is not as sandy as the Rinconada Canyon trail, so it is cooler. It’s just really nice at sunrise.”

It’s just a good place to start a personal celebration of the monument’s 30th anniversary.

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