Five great places to see Native American rock art

Native American, native american, petroglyph, new mexico, petroglyphs
I often hear people saying the U.S. has a short history. Actually it’s as ancient as anywhere else. Before the Europeans took over this land there were hundreds of Native American cultures living here. Some have survived; others have disappeared. One of the most evocative reminders of their civilizations is the rock art of the American Southwest. Here are five good places to see some.

Canyonlands National Park, Utah
The stunning landscape of this park is the main draw, but hidden amidst the colorful mesas and canyons are numerous petroglyphs (carving in rock) and pictograms (paintings on rock). The best are in Horseshoe Canyon, where a large panel of ghostly painted figures have been variously interpreted as gods, ancestors or, by the scientifically challenged, aliens. They date to as far back as 2000 BC.

Nine Mile Canyon, Utah
One of the best sites for petroglyphs in all the Southwest is billed as the “world’s longest art gallery”. With about 10,000 images ranging in date from 950 AD to the 1800s, it is the biggest concentration of rock art ever found in the U.S. The remains of the homes of the Fremont people are clearly visible when hiking the canyon. The images include bison being stuck with spears, strange horned figures that may be shamen, and men on horseback dating to the historic period.

Saguaro National Park West, Arizona
The rock art here isn’t as grand as the other places on the list, but it’s far more accessible. Just a short drive from Tucson and only two hours from Phoenix, the park takes its name from the forest of giant saguaro cacti that grow here. There are two parks–one to the west and one to the east of town–and the one to the west has a rocky hill covered in carvings made by the Hohokam people. The most unusual is a strange spiral that may have been an early calendar. The Hohokam built large towns and extensive canal systems in southern Arizona until about 1450 AD. In fact, the modern cities of Phoenix and Tucson were founded by the Hohokam!

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Petroglyph National Monument
Another easily accessible location, this national monument is right on the western edge of Albuquerque. You can see just how close from the above photo, courtesy Daniel Schwen. There are about 24,000 images here, mostly from prehistoric Pueblo peoples starting about 500 AD but also some made by Spanish settlers who saw all the pictures on the rocks and decided to add their own. Some are even the cattle brands of the early ranchers.

Canyon de Chelly National Monument, Arizona
We’ve talked about this amazing set of cliff dwellings before. Located in the heart of the Navajo Nation, prehistoric peoples built extensive villages here in the shadows of towering cliffs until their mysterious disappearance in the 14th century. As you wander the trails you’ll see petroglyphs of animals and people scattered about the rocks. If you have kids, playing “spot the picture” can be a fun way to keep them entertained. The jaw-dropping scenery will probably do that anyway. Note that the interpretive center is closed for remodeling until May 2011.

While desert scenes aren’t exactly the first thing you think of during the Christmas season, winter is a good time to explore these sites. The scorching sun takes a vacation, and in the higher altitude the desert can be downright cold!

Four New Mexico gems worth visiting

New Mexico – the “Land of Enchantment.” This beautiful state is a popular tourist destination, no doubt, but there are plenty of amazing gems hidden in New Mexico’s dusty desert corners that are well worth checking out. Most visitors here come to Santa Fe for great shopping and Southwest style or head to Taos to visit one of the nation’s oldest Native American pueblos or go skiing. But the central and southern parts of the state have some amazing places worth more than just a glance in a guidebook. Here are four amazing lesser-known sights in New Mexico that are worth a visit.

White Sands National Monument
Ever heard of the alien-like white gypsum dune fields at White Sands? Few people have. But it is one of the most fantastic, unusual places to visit on earth. 275 square miles of snow white desert dunes spread across this part of Central New Mexico in a beautiful and positively lunar landscape. A circular drive takes visitors through the most accessible parts of the monument, or you can park your car and take a short (or long) hike through the more remote dunes. A fun way to enjoy the beauty of White Sands is by sledding down one of the dunes, which with their snow-like glow, will really make you feel like you’re in a winter wonderland.

White Sands National Monument is located along U.S. Highway 70 east of Las Cruces. A visitor center greets cars here and sells maps, sleds and books. Entrance fees are $3 per person.
Gila National Forest and Wilderness
Pronounced ‘hee-la’, the Gila National Forest is named for the tributary river of the Colorado River (think Grand Canyon) that flows through the area. Within the sprawling borders of this 3.3 million acre protected area in Western New Mexico, you’ll find everything from dense alpine forest to bubbling hot springs.

The Gila Wilderness was once home to ancient Native American cultures, such as the Mogollon and Apache tribes. The tribes left the remains of their settlements in cave dwellings, carved into the sides of desert mountains, and fantastic petroglyphs, giving us a glimpse into the daily lives of ancient people. Exploring the Catwalk Recreation Trail, you’ll maneuver along a series of elevated platforms once used by area miners, providing great views of narrow canyons and local wildlife.

The Gila National Forest and Wilderness is accessible from a number of entrance areas, depending on which activity you’re interested in. Camping can be done throughout the park, while the cliff dwellings, as well as a series of hot springs, are located in the southern part of the forest near Silver City, NM. The Catwalk Trail is closest to the town of Glenwood on NM 174. Entrance fees vary.

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Reserve
Unless you are a bird fanatic, you probably haven’t heard Bosque del Apache, a unique stretch of wetlands that sprawls through the central portion of New Mexico. The term ‘Bosque del Apache’ is Spanish for ‘Apache woodlands’, dating to a time early in New Mexico’s history when Spanish conquerors noticed that local Apache tribes often camped along the lush shores of this watery area. Today, the Bosque (‘bos-kay’), as it is known to locals, is a major migratory stopping point, where thousands of species of birds, including Sandhill Cranes, stop during their annual flights north and south.

A driving loop ($5/vehicle) takes visitors on a one-hour scenic tour of the Bosque, where you can stop to take in the spectacular views of flora and fauna reflected in the Bosque’s serene waters. Be sure to bring your camera and binoculars.

Billy the Kid’s Grave
Billy the Kid, one of the most infamous gunslingers of the Old West, is buried in the tiny town of Fort Sumner in the eastern part of New Mexico. Billy the Kid spent most of his short young life riding through New Mexico with a band of outlaws known as The Regulators. He participated in the Lincoln County Wars, and was arrested for murder and broke out of jail several times. Eventually, he was gunned down by local lawman Pat Garrett in Fort Sumner and laid to rest here. The Kid’s headstone has been the object of much speculation and thievery, and was stolen a number of times before finally being caged in over its current spot in Fort Sumner, on top of the Kid’s remains.

It is free to visit Billy the Kid’s grave, which makes for an easy stop when driving through Fort Sumner on NM 60/84. Don’t be fooled by the rather tawdry Billy the Kid Museum located along the main road, which charges an entrance fee to view photographs and a replica grave. Instead, just east of town, follow Billy the Kid Rd. south for about 5 miles until you see the Old Fort Sumner Museum. The tombstone is located in the graveyard behind the museum and is accessible for free.