An Insider’s Guide to Walking Ancient Paths and Rock Art
Just beyond the edge of Santa Fe and a short hike through the deep silence of the terrain lies a rocky ledge that seems to whisper to passersby, the dark stone speaking a cryptic language.
Carved into the boulders of the ledge at the La Cieneguilla Petroglyph Site and throughout the Southwest are thousands of petroglyphs thought to originate from the pre-contact time of the Spanish colonial era. Despite a great deal of scholarly study throughout modern history, no one can say for certain what these depictions meant to the people who created them. Not only does their meaning remain shrouded in mystery, but many of the etchings’ depictions are indecipherable, leaving curious visitors to speculate.
Petroglyph carvings, etchings into the dark outer layer of rock that reveal a lighter rock underneath, are cousins to pictographs, which are images painted on stone with natural pigments.
The earliest known petroglyphs were made by first carving a series of small holes into the rock which were then interconnected. As tools became more sophisticated, a different method of carving, sawing with a bone blade, was used. Human-like depictions are known as “anthropomorphs” and animal-like depictions are known as “zoomorphs.” The most widely recognized anthropomorphic figure, the hunch-backed flute player known as the Kokopelli, can be found in numerous areas throughout both the La Cieneguilla site and Tsankawi Trail, a detached section of the Bandelier National Monument.
Numerous farfetched theories have popped up to explain the mysterious iconography. Some have theorized that the rock art could have been created in spare time as nothing more than primitive doodling, however, rock is not an easy medium to carve in to, let alone with rudimentary carving tools. These carvings required untold hours of meticulous hard work, spare time that hunter-gatherers in the unforgiving terrain weren’t likely to have much of.
There are an infinite number of ways we can interpret the individual symbols; circular shapes could represent the sun, an eye, the universe or the circle of life. Humanoid figures could be a representation of the culture’s friends, foes or even extraterrestrial life forms! The only thing we can say for certain is that the stories told through the rock express humanity.
La Cieneguilla Petroglyph Site
To get to the La Cieneguilla Petroglyph Site from Santa Fe, travel south on I-25 and take exit 276. Turn right onto Highway 599, Santa Fe Relief Route and take a left onto Airport Road. After about three miles you’ll see a small parking area with a Bureau of Land Management sign for La Cieneguilla Petroglyph Site.
The hike up to the petroglyphs is for experienced hikers with some rock scrambling over large, sometimes slippery boulders. The best time to spot the etchings is just before sunset or early morning, when there are shadows cast into the shallow indentations. Be sure to watch your footing and keep in mind that there have been rattlesnake sightings at the site.
Tsankawi Trail at Bandelier National Monument (TEMPORARILY CLOSED DUE TO COVID-19)
To get to the Tsankawi site from Santa Fe, take Saint Francis Drive North and continue on to Highway 285 until you reach Highway 502 (Los Alamos Highway), which you’ll turn left on. Take the exit for New Mexico Highway 4/Bandelier National Monument and travel for about 1 mile until you reach a gravel parking lot on the left with a sign that reads “Tsankawi Prehistoric Site.”
The Tsankawi site, offers a glimpse into the lives of the Ancestral Tewa Pueblo people and is an excellent day trip for anyone looking for solitude, scenery and a little bit of history. Built from volcanic rock and adobe in the 1400’s, the homes of the Ancestral Tewa Pueblo people remain fairly intact. Today their descendants live in nearby San Ildefonso Pueblo.
Centered on a narrow mesa, Tsankawi offers incredible views of the surrounding mountains. The nice, easy trail follows in the footsteps of those who inhabited the pueblo. Scattered among the cliffs around the Tsankawi site and in many of the cliff dwellings are several large petroglyph panels with figures of people, birds, animals and stars.
The Tsankawi Trail is easy to moderate with a few ladders that guide visitors up the steepest areas.
These trails are just the beginning for those looking for outdoor adventure in Santa Fe. Read more about the endless trails and beautiful landscapes waiting for you to discover in our blog, 4 Don't Miss Trails in Santa Fe County.
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