Ancient Taos: Petroglyphs

A Prehistoric Art Gallery Awaits

Put on some sun protection, grab yourself some snacks, sturdy shoes, plenty of drinking water, and head out to one of many Taos area hiking/walking trails leading you to the sites of beautiful and mysterious petroglyphs.

Millions of years ago, molten lava stretched across the Taos Volcanic Field. Upon cooling, extensive layers of lava formed the Pliocene-era Servilleta basalts. As the continent shifted, the Rio Grande Rift exposed a winding path through the thick basalt crust. After tens of thousands of years of weathering, the Rio Grande River formed its famous canyon walls. The basalt that remains underground and unexposed to the elements are light brown. Those exposed to the sun, snow, wind, water, and ice develop a permanent patina of rich dark brown to an almost black. The more weathering, the deeper the patina. These darkened rock surfaces provided a perfect canvas for ancient artisans to tell their stories through illustrations that will last through the ages.

The word petroglyph is derived from the Greek word "petra" (stone) and "glyphein" (to carve). Ancient people would scratch, etch, and engrave the images we see today - symbols and creatures represented in light-colored line art. Over time, the furrowed lines can acquire the same dark patina as the stone they are on, which is likely to sign that the artwork is extra ancient. Sometimes bold, sometimes intricate, the purpose behind each petroglyph can only be assumed.

Your first petroglyph may be tricky to spot. The timeworn drawings can blend in with the other fissures and markings on the rocks and hide behind native grasses, shrubs, and trees. However, once you've seen a petroglyph or group of glyphs, you may find yourself to be one of the many who can easily spot these pictorial missives.

Guided hiking tour of petroglyphs in Taos, NM

Petroglyphs are touchpoints left by ancient people, leaving us clues about their appreciation and intimate relationship with their world in their drawings. Some petroglyph subjects are animals still roaming today – goats, elk, and sheep are common. Many petroglyphs seem to depict mountains, streams, and stars in the heavens. Frequently, the designs are cryptic - human and other unidentifiable figures on two legs, perhaps etched there by a shaman during a sacred journey. 

Two of the easiest to reach petroglyph viewing areas in Taos County can be reached from the depths of the Rio Grande Gorge. The Orilla Verde Recreation Area in the Rio Grande Del Norte National Monument is a verdant ribbon of outdoor recreation. Literally, Orilla Verde means "green ribbon." Open year-round, in addition to hiking, visitors can enjoy wildlife viewing, fishing, paddle sports, and biking in the area. Day use and overnight use of the Orilla Verde Recreation Area includes trail access, seven campgrounds, boat launches, picnic tables, grills, drinking water, and restrooms. Two group shelters are available for large groups – reservations are required.

Mountain view from La Vista Verde Trailhead

For an easy walk/hike to view petroglyphs, park your vehicle at the La Vista Verde Trailhead (GPS coordinates 36° 20' 30" N 105° 44'  10 W) and proceed east on the trail. As you walk along the gravel path, the vast chasm walls of the Rio Grande Gorge seem to reach the sky – but watch your step! Various indigenous cactus easily blend in with the clusters of rock, grasses, and sage just off the trail and among the willows closer to the river's edge.

Rio Grande running through Orilla Verde Recreation Area

Another is The Slide Trail (a.k.a old 570) which transported Taoseños down into the Gorge to cross the Taos Junction Bridge. Travelers would then climb up the winding dirt road leading up and over to Carson and Tres Piedras to pick up pinion firewood. A perilous journey by any means, the narrow, steep road was closed when almost sixty thousand pounds of basalt rock fell onto it in 1993. At that point, it was added to the BLM's Orilla Verde trail system.

The Slide Trail is a more moderate climb – the elevation changes more than you will experience on the La Vista Verde trail and the trail itself is more narrow. Still, you'll find picturesque views while you trek across seasonal small springs and arroyos that empty into the Rio Grande below. Beginning at the parking lot near the Taos Junction Bridge, your hike up the Slide Trail will take you 1.3 miles to the rim of the Gorge.

Petroglyphs on the Slide Trail in Taos, NM


To get there from the Northside of Taos: For example, departing from The Historic Taos Inn, El Pueblo Lodge, Burch Street Casitas and anywhere in Taos Ski Valley, Quail Ridge Taos or Arroyo Seco.

Drive north four miles from the Plaza on Paseo del Pueblo (64) to the light at NM 150. Turn left to continue on US 64 and drive past the Río Grande Gorge Bridge and rest stop. Turn left onto West Rim Road toward Pilar and Ojo Caliente.

After about 8 miles, there is a stop sign. Make a slight left and continue past the Petaca Point trailhead towards the Gorge. The road is gravel, narrow and windy from this point on, with steep drop-offs to the Río Grande below. Take it slow and enjoy the phenomenal views while you keep an eye out for bighorn sheep grazing on the rocky hillsides.

As you decend down into the Gorge, the La Vista Verde Trailhead will be on your left. To hike the Slide Trail, continue downhill and cross the Taos Junction Bridge, then turn left into the Río Pueblo Campground. There is a fee station where you can pay the $3 fee for day use. Continue up the road to the left and park near the trailhead. The entire one-way trip is about 22 miles from the center of Taos. (Good news - there are outhouse facilities at the campground.)

Approaching from the Southside of Taos: For example; departing from the Sagebrush Inn. Drive south on Paseo del Pueblo, just over 5.5 miles. Turn right at County Road 110 (towards the National Guard and Taos Country Club) and continue for 4 miles. At the end of the road is a BLM trailhead (with facilities). This approach brings you to the top of the Slide Trail. An alternate approach is to drive south on NM 68 to Pilar 17 miles and turn north on NM 570 and head toward the Taos Junction Bridge. Go past the bridge to the trailhead.


United States
36° 20' 9.4344" N, 105° 43' 59.808" W