Three Rivers Petroglyph Site, north of Tularosa, NM, Oct. 21, 2012

October 26th, 2012 | Posted by Steve in Birds | New Mexico | Parks | Petroglyphs & Pictographs | Photography | Prehistoric Man | United States of America

During my stay in El Paso, TX I had originally decided to make another visit to White Sands National Monument.  While reviewing the photo handbooks I brought with me I found information on the Three Rivers Petroglyph site.  As near as I could tell it was about 120 miles one way from El Paso.

To get there all I had to do was get on Highway 54 and take it 17 miles north of Tularosa, NM.  I knew the road as far as Alamogordo, so the few miles beyond there presented no problem.

As I drove Highway 54 I counted down the miles on my odometer.  About 1/2 mile beyond mile marker 96 Otero County Road B-030 appeared on the right.  At the junction was a small tourist & trinket shop, and behind that a red school house.  About 4.5 miles up the road the Bureau of Land Management sign at the entrance of the Three Rivers Petroglyph Site is on the left or north side.

A somewhat more technical description of the area than found here is on the New Mexico Bureau of Geology and Mineral Resources internet site.  The address is  They also show a couple of photos of the same places you’ll see below.

The parking area has permanent structures including covered picnic areas, marked parking stalls, a clean bathroom, and a small office.  The current charge is $5.00 per vehicle.  I walked in to pay and found to my pleasure that my Lifetime Senior National Parks pass covered the entry so I paid no fee.  I bought my pass not long after I turned 62 at Ft. Pulaski, GA.  Since then it has paid for itself many times over.

Inside the office the volunteer registers your visit and offers a couple of handouts.  One of them has an abbreviated topographical map on it.  The elevation here is about 5,000 feet.  The hill with the petroglyphs is a basaltic ridge that rises some 100-200 feet above the parking lot and stretches over a mile distant.  The hiking trail seems to be about a mile and a half long & travels to the north and north-north west from the parking lot.

Rattlesnakes are common to the area, but I saw none that day.  The hike, on a scale of 1-5 was a 2 and rarely a 3.  Good boots or shoes are a must as the trail is rocky.  The volunteer in the office told me I could hike off the trail in the rocks as much as I liked and I did just that.  While climbing in the rocks sometimes I found the purchase was a bit slippery.  Fortunately my boots have ‘no slip’ soles except for the times when they slip.

The hill here is basaltic rock, belched from a volcano millions of years ago.  It is a lower foothill of the Sacramento Mountains about 10 miles to the east.  The ridge and the rocks of the petroglyph area seemed to be quite eroded, which means they have been exposed to the elements for ages.  Where the rocks have been recently split or broken the base color of the rock is close to an 18% gray.  That is kind of handy if you’re a photographer.  It would have been handier still if I would have thought of it then instead of now.

Where the rock surface has been exposed it darkens with Desert Varnish, sometimes approaching black.  I believe the closer to black the rock gets the more Manganese it will have in it.  A more red color indicates more Iron.

Petroglyphs are etchings in rock.  The desert varnish allows the etchings to show against the darker background.  Where the etchings aren’t too deep or are very old they start to “fade” or get closer to the background color of the rock as new desert varnish seems to cover them up.

Petroglyphs and pictographs or pictograms (paintings on rock) are common to the American Southwest, the rest of the U.S. and are found at many, many other places worldwide.  Many known sites have thousands of individual pieces of art.

Three Rivers, for instance, has over 20,000 petroglyphs, all in a very small area.

I feel compelled to mention some other well-decorated sites in the Southwestern United States.

Lower Renegade Canyon (also known as Little Petroglyph Canyon) in the Coso Mountains, California is inside the boundaries of the China Lake Naval Weapons Station.  It is a great place for petroglyph viewing.  There are at least 10,000-15,000 petroglyphs along a trail some 2+ miles long.  Many are large meaning over 5 or 6 feet tall.

The surrounding Coso Mountains, still within in the Naval Weapons Station, have thousands more, but these are all off limits.  Access to Lower Renegade Canyon is available only through the Maturango Museum in Ridgecrest, Ca.  The Maturango Museum is the only public agency allowed to run tours of the petroglyphs on Navy land.

Hueco Tanks, TX, the subject of an earlier post, is well known for its hundreds of pictograph masks and other pictograph art.  Another site, the western side of Saguaro National Park near Tucson, AZ has dramatic petroglyphs.

Painted Cave, the subject of a post from last year, has over 1,000 pictograph handprints alone.  One pair of those hands has 6 fingers.

Petroglyph National Monument is immediately adjacent to Albuquerque, NM and is a great place to view this type of rock art.  It is maybe a 20 minute ride from downtown.

Canyon de Chelly in Arizona has hundreds of both petroglyphs and pictographs.  Some of these even depict Spanish Conquistadors on horseback.  These are seen via one of the tours available at the park headquarters.

Newspaper Rock in the Petrified Forest National Park, AZ has hundreds of petroglyphs that cover only a few large boulders.  You cannot directly approach Newspaper Rock, but you can view it from a cliff above.  A medium length telephoto lens will bring out some detail.

The volcanic tablelands and gentle hillsides above Bishop, California have a number of Petroglyph sites.  You can drive right up to these and park your vehicle.  Hundreds if not thousands of petroglyphs are found above Bishop.

Petroglyphs and pictographs have been extensively studied.  The exact meaning of these etchings and paintings is sometimes unknown.  The subjects are extensive.  They include masks, snakes, animals, horned sheep, lizards, spiritual drawings, human figures, and geometrics to name a few.

I find both types of rock art to be fascinating so I was very interested to see what I could find.  I quickly realized that my camera batteries and memory cards wouldn’t be enough if I weren’t judicious with my subjects.

The photos I show here will tend to be the larger drawings and the more recognizable shapes.  This isn’t the first post I’ve done on petroglyphs or pictographs.  I’m sure it won’t be the last.

The first photos are of the signs as you approach the area.  They offer useful information.  Photo 3 is the bridge before the entry area.  The petroglyph ridge rises to the right.  A lot of it is higher up, hidden from this angle of view.

Once inside and just onto the trail this figure appears.

I think this is a lizard because it has a tail.

A shaman or other spiritual figure?

An eagle or Thunderbird?

A geometric?

Another spiritual figure?  Notice that it wraps around most of the edge of the rock and covers much of its surface. Notice also the mask at the upper left which may be related, but is otherwise not part of the larger figure.

This geometric repeats throughout the area.  I shot at least 3 photos of different petroglyphs of “a cross or X in a circle surrounded by dots”.  One of the 3 uses a “Maltese” cross instead of a plain cross or “X”.  I show it later.  The “Maltese Cross” in circle is also found on one of the signs I’ll show in the next post.  This particular symbol probably had an important meaning to the inhabitants.

An animal, possibly a cougar or other type of cat.  The Tularosa Valley is in the background.  This is a pretty good photo.  I like the next one better.

The geometric on this stela is well known to the park and is found in some photo books.  I will be using this photo to illustrate some basic Photoshop techniques on an entry I plan to add to the permanent menu on this site.  A stela or stele (steel-a or steel) (plural stelae or steles) is a carved or inscribed stone column, often used for commemorative inscriptions.  In the word Stela or stele the first “e” is long!

The view here is generally to the north-west.  The Tularosa Valley is way in the background.  It is at 28mm on the 24-105mm f/f lens, 1/400th of a second at f/18, ISO 640.  The f/18 yields an excellent depth of field.  This is a very wide angle shot.  28mm is not quite 1/2 of normal.  The focus point on the design is just in front of me so all the foreground is in sharp focus.  The small hill and the far background lose a little focus.

The small basaltic hill appearing in the middle background above did not seem to be part of the park.  Access to it did not appear to be very easy, or encouraged.  Because it is very close to the ‘petroglyph ridge’ I suspect it will have many petroglyphs also.

A woolly sheep,  This is another of the well know petroglyphs known to this site.  My photo does not do it justice.  There are better photos elsewhere.

This footprint appeared life size.

Here is the geometric with the Maltese Cross.


A sheep.  The best time to catch this fellow is early in the morning before the sun rises above the Sacramento Mountains to the East.  This particular drawing is found on the internet when a search for Three Rivers is made.  Again, mine is not the best photo.

A mask

Another mask, this one appears to be fading, or else it wasn’t etched very deeply.

Designs with the Sacramento Mountains in the background.  Ruidoso is high in the Sacramento Mountains.

A geometric design showing the Tularosa Valley in the background.

A lizard?

A dog or another animal.  This is another design often shown on websites featuring this area.

A human figure with a what appears to be a pine tree.

More feet.  Off to the right is an easier part of the trail up the ridge.

A bird and some geometrics.

A large mask.

This shows part of the Tularosa Valley.  That thin bit of white at the horizon is the White Sands National Monument some 40 miles away.

As of this point I was well above the ridge which seemed to have most of the petroglyphs.  The awning at the left is a rest area.  The ridge line & hiking trail follow down from left to right eventually ending near the parking lot.  The parking lot is hiding out of sight of this view.  The hill in the middle background at the left is not part of the tour and may be off of the property.

For this shot I am some 100-200 feet above and about a mile away from the parking lot.  Behind me there is another peak rising 30 or more feet above me.  To my right are large basalt cliffs with 15 to 30 foot drops.  I found very few petroglyphs in this area so I decided to turn back about where this photo above was taken.


On the way down I got a few more photos of petroglyphs.

A display with a birdlike figures and what looks like a mask in the foreground.

An interesting geometric looking east.  The Sacramento Mountains are in the background.

I call this the stairway to heaven.

and finally another interesting geometric.


I will have 2 more posts from this day, each will be small in size.  The first will show the excavations of the village site a few hundred yards from the petroglyphs.  The “Jornada-Mogollon” pre-historic native American group that supposedly carved the petroglyphs lived in the village.

The people who lived here at Three Rivers are a small part of the “Jornada-Mogollon” native American group or tribe. The Jornada-Mogollon also drew the pictographs at Heuco Tanks.  Presumably, it was different branches of the tribe making the drawings independently of each other.  Certainly, one group etched the drawings (Three Rivers) and the other group painted them (Hueco Tanks).  The straight line overland distance between the two places is easily 110 miles if not more.  It was probably a dry desert then.  Today those miles are very dry.

The second post will show a few miscellaneous photos of places of interest to me I shot during my trip that day.

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