NM21 Road Trip – Day 6

September 20, 2021

Part 1, Mesa Prieta

After a restful Sunday, today I hit it hard. I was up and dressed and packed for the day and out the door by 7:40. Destination: Mesa Prieta. That’s the home of the Wells Petroglyph Preserve (now owned by the Archeological Conservancy) and the Mesa Prieta Petroglyph Project, which is located on private land in a semi-secret location between Santa Fe and Taos.

In some ways, this destination was the main reason that I planned this whole rock art road trip. I had originally bought tickets for two on a guided tour for spring 2020. Then the pandemic hit and they canceled all tours. Then they made an offer that instead of two spots on a public tour I could use those tickets for a private tour. When they finally started offering tours again in the fall of 2021, I leapt at the chance. Today Shorty and I got that private tour. We pulled into the parking area about 8:50, and the tour guide arrived shortly after, then we got underway.

As you can imagine, it’s pretty special to get a private tour. I could take as much or as little time as I wanted at each stop on the hike. When I wanted to stop for water, we stopped for water!

Like the rock art hikes at the Petroglyph National Monument and La Cieneguilla, the rock art here is all petroglyphs carved into volcanic rocks that have crumbled and fallen off a east-facing cliff above a river. There’s a pattern here!

Some of the figures here are from the archaic period (5500 BCE to 500 CE, footprints, handprints), some are classic period Ancestral Puebloan (14th century to 17th century, flute players, religious figures), and some are historic period (starting in 1598 when Oñate and Spanish settlers arrived to colonize the region, horses, crosses).

Enough introduction, let’s look at the photo gallery…

I got no time for the jibba-jabba. - Mr. T

No, Mr. T is not the photo gallery. Click the photos below:

I bought a booklet from the tour guide called Mesa Prieta Rock Art on the Wells Petroglyph Preserve. From reading that after I got back to my Airbnb, I learned two things that made the morning’s rock art excursion even more significant than I realized at the time:

  • “Mesa Prieta is the largest known site of petroglyphs representing Spanish history and culture in the United States”, and
  • Mesa Prieta “has more rock art images than any other site in the state” with current estimates in the neighborhood of 80,000 (roughly 4x as many as Petroglyph National Monument near Albuquerque, where I hiked on Day 3)

Part 2, Tsankawi

After I said goodbye to my tour guide, my next priority was lunch. She recommended a place in Española called La Cocina, so that’s where I went.

New Mexican food choice of the day: lamb enchiladas with green chile

It was delicious. And of course I had to eat the sopaipillas they brought with the meal. Later they gave me extra energy to climb rocks and ladders on my afternoon hike.

Ground lamb enchiladas

After lunch I drove toward Los Alamos. On the way, the road passes through a half dozen Pueblo Indian reservations. It was weird to see signs all along the way that read…


They take their COVID-19 precautions pretty seriously in these parts, and most of the pueblos don’t want visitors right now. One or two of the places I considered hiking on this trip are closed currently because of that.

Near Los Alamos, New Mexico is Bandelier National Monument. The main district of the monument is a canyon with a bunch of cave dwellings (called cavates) carved into the soft volcanic rock that exists in this area. Separate from that, though, is the Tsankawi section of the national monument. It’s got a little bit of everything.

There are some of the same sort of cave dwellings, ruins of a pueblo on top of the mesa, some rock art, and a lot of trails that have been walked on by so many people over the past 600 years that there are now deep grooves worn into the soft rock.

The hike includes a couple of ladders that freak some people out. Walking on the side of a cliff also freaks some people out, especially parents with children. And so this section of the monument gets a lot less tourist traffic than the main section. And that’s why I went.

The whole loop trail is only 1.6 miles, though a fair amount of it is up and down, so it feels like more. But I knew it wouldn’t take me long, so I didn’t bother taking any water or my backpack. I even left Shorty in the car, because I wanted to move fast and he’d just slow me down.

Here’s what I saw:

Once I got back to the car, I headed down valley toward my next stop, the Sonic in Santa Fe for a large diet limeade. All the hot dry walking made me appreciate it so much!

Categorized as Travel

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