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La Cieneguilla Petroglyph Site: Hidden Gem of Santa Fe, New Mexico

Carrie's early life was magical, but her love of adventure and the unknown soon took her down darker paths. Destination: enlightenment.

Entrance sign to the La Cieneguilla Petroglyph Site.

Entrance sign to the La Cieneguilla Petroglyph Site.

I recently wrote about one of my favorite spots, Bandelier National Monument, but one of the real treasures of the Santa Fe area is the La Cieneguilla (also misspelled (??) Cienequilla) Petroglyph Site, which is managed by the Bureau of Land Management.

If you're obsessed with petroglyphs like I am, this is the place for you!

Located on the outskirts of Santa Fe on the El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro National Historic Trail, La Cieneguilla boasts thousands of petroglyphs, carved by ancient Pueblo peoples, who have since integrated into local Native communities.

El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro, the “Royal Road of the Interior,” was the earliest Euro-American trade route in the United States. In the United States, the trail spans 404 miles descending the Rio Grande Valley from the San Juan Pueblo, New Mexicoto El Paso, Texas. From there, the trail continued roughly 1,000 miles south to Mexico City. This Spanish colonial “royal road” represents 300 years of history helping make possible Spanish exploration, conquest, colonization, settlement, religious conversion, and military occupation of a large area of the borderlands from 1598 to 1885. For a time, it also enjoyed the distinction of being the longest road in North America. 1

  • La Cienequilla Petroglyphs | Bureau of Land Management
    Hundreds of petroglyphs, dating from pre-contact time and the Spanish colonial era, can be found along this mesa above the Santa Fe River. Most of the petroglyphs were placed there by Keresan-speaking puebloan people living in the area between the 13
La Cieneguilla Petroglyph Site (Bureau of Land Management)

La Cieneguilla Petroglyph Site (Bureau of Land Management)

This site is ... amazing! One of my all-time favorites.

I'll admit that it was a challenge to find it the first time; even though it sits on the outskirts of Santa Fe, the roads are confusing and poorly marked. (Pro tip: If you are coming from the north, do NOT turn into the housing development to the left that has the same name and a bigger, better sign; you want to turn towards the rocky bluffs.) It is located just a couple miles from the Santa Fe airport in a residential area, but you can also take a road directly from I-25 to get there.

One small sign designates the parking lot (we missed the turn our first time there). In fact, navigating much of the Site depends on following obvious trails with a healthy dose of intuition.

When you first enter the Site, there is a big trail that goes towards the hill. Easy-peasy.

But then you have to make a tough decision: Left or Right? (The sign at the fork in the road, by the way, is no help.) So we decided to go left. Again easy peasy, with a big, obvious trail lined with barbed wire fence that mostly made it obvious where we weren't supposed to go up the hill.

We ... got lost the first time we were there, because we couldn't figure out where we were supposed to go up the hill, and the trail was basically unmarked. This was made more confusing by the barbed wire makeshift-ish fence that served some sort of purpose, but did not serve as a guide. It was cut open in numerous places. Turned out, there was a point where the trail obviously led straight up the hill, over a bunch of jagged rocks, to the edge of the rocky bluff where petroglyphs would obviously be. You know, rather than the worn trail that ended up leading us to the mesa.

So basically, if you go LEFT and get to a place on the trail where there is no fence at all and there is an entire hillside covered with jagged black rocks that is not entirely impossible to climb, go up that hill and find the trail that is at the base of the bluff. Do NOT go on the mesa, that is too far. Follow that trail back to the fork at the entrance. You will be rewarded with the most petroglyphs you have ever seen.

The next time we went to the Site, we went right instead of left. The trail to the petroglyphs was obvious because it snowed the day before and people had already climbed the hill.

The petroglyphs were just as good on the right side, but it was a genuine challenge climbing over icy rocks to see them. We don't have the opportunity to get to Santa Fe very often, so it was worth the effort, but in general I would recommend visiting when there is no snow unless you are an experienced climber.

La Cieneguilla Petroglyph Site (Bureau of Land Management)

La Cieneguilla Petroglyph Site (Bureau of Land Management)

La Cieneguilla Petroglyph Site (Bureau of Land Management)

La Cieneguilla Petroglyph Site (Bureau of Land Management)

La Cieneguilla Petroglyph Site (Bureau of Land Management)

La Cieneguilla Petroglyph Site (Bureau of Land Management)

Some words of caution about this site: It gets hot in Santa Fe in the summer. I grew up and live in Colorado, and I thought I had prepared myself and my kids for a short hike. I hadn't.

We left early in the morning on what was predicted to be a mild-weather day. It was only supposed to get up to the 80s. We each took one water bottle, and didn't carry the umbrellas we normally would on a hot day.

We didn't know that the trails would be so poorly marked. We didn't know that there would be no escape from the sun.

I admit, I was ashamed for being so ill-prepared.

We got a little lost and wound up on the mesa, above the petroglyphs, first trying to find a way down to the petroglyphs, then trying to find a way off the hill before we got full-on heat stroke. There was nowhere to sit down. There was no way out of the sun. There were biting flies.

I thought I would get heat stroke before I got back to the car.

So, if you go in the late spring, summer, or early fall, BE PREPARED:

  • Bring plenty of water. The hike is not difficult, but it is easy to get lost. It's not the kind of "lost" where you don't know where you are, it's the kind of lost where you don't know how to get where you need to go, even though you can see quite plainly where that is. The main trail at the bottom of the hill is straightforward; getting to the petroglyphs, not so much.
  • Wear a hat or carry an umbrella. La Cieneguilla sits in the high-altitude desert, and there is ZERO respite from the sun.
  • Wear bug spray. Biting flies. In my bra. 'Nuff said.
  • Be mindful. Again, the trails in the rubble near the petroglyphs are poorly marked and while they are not expert-level trails, there are some challenging spots with jagged rocks and steep drop-offs.

In the winter, watch out for heavy snow. They don't generally get heavy, lasting snow in the area, but anything more than a half inch can make the trails to the petroglyphs treacherous.

La Cieneguilla Petroglyph Site (Bureau of Land Management)

La Cieneguilla Petroglyph Site (Bureau of Land Management)

La Cieneguilla Petroglyph Site (Bureau of Land Management)

La Cieneguilla Petroglyph Site (Bureau of Land Management)

La Cieneguilla Petroglyph Site (Bureau of Land Management)

La Cieneguilla Petroglyph Site (Bureau of Land Management)

1 https://www.legendsofamerica.com/camino-real-tierra-adentro/

Comments

Liz Westwood from UK on February 24, 2020:

You give good tips for visiting this site.

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