New Mexico Road Trip | Three Rivers Petroglyph Site - SantaFe.com
Rock at at Three Rivers Petroglyph Site

If you’re into art or history, or just like being outdoors, a trip to the Three Rivers Petroglyph Site, in Southern New Mexico about halfway between Tularosa and Carrizozo, is a must. Just east of U.S. Highway 54, there’s a basaltic escarpment and, on nearly every available surface along the ridgeline, the Jornada Mogollon people, sometime between 900 and 1400 CE, chipped the desert varnish to create petroglyphs.

The History

The people lived along three creeks that give the place its name. Three Rivers sounds more majestic than three creeks, I suppose, but water wasSign for Three Rivers Petroglyph Site. once more secure there. Reminders of their presence can be found in partially excavated pit houses along one of the creeks near the petroglyphs.

Three Rivers is one of the few locations set aside solely because of its rock art. It is also one of the rare sites giving visitors direct access to petroglyphs. From the visitor shelter, a moderate trail leads the inquisitive about 200 feet up to the ridgeline, taking you back in time to an art gallery unlike any we have today. Nearly every large boulder in the 50-acre site has rock art.

There are images of antelope and sheep, bears and wolves, thunderbirds and hummingbirds, snakes and lizards, insects and fish. There are intricate geometrical designs, images of plants, handprints, and footprints. There are also masks and human faces. Examining the art, you’ll see some people were extremely talented, making exquisite pictures. Others created images more like stick figures.

Archeologists have documented more than 21,000 images along this ridge, making it one of the largest and most interesting rock-art sites in the Southwest. Most of the petroglyphs are accessible in the first half mile along the trail. The balance requires a sense of adventure, keen eyesight, and the sure-footedness of a bighorn sheep. But for those who want to discover images not seen by the masses, the quest is worth the effort.

What do they mean?

Visitors at Three Rivers Petroglyph Site.
Visitors hiking the trail at Three Rivers Petroglyph Site.

While we know how the petroglyphs were made and are fairly certain who made them, what they actually represent is open to interpretation and has been debated by scientists and scholars for decades. Do they represent animistic rituals to obtain the power of the animals represented? Are they prayer symbols to bring hunting success, a bountiful harvest, or rain? Are they elements of rite-of-passage rituals? No one knows for certain, but they give us a glimpse into the minds of the people who lived here, indicating how they conceptualized their real and spiritual worlds.

About halfway along the ridgeline of the escarpment, there’s a sheltered picnic table — a shaded place to rest tired feet and contemplate what you’ve seen. It also lets you scan the lands of Tularosa Basin west to the San Andreas Mountains. It’s pretty empty now — actually part of White Sands Missile Range. But, following the Civil War, it became bustling ranch land.

Susan McSween Barber, who was embroiled in the Lincoln County War and came to be called the Cattle Queen of Tularosa Basin, had a 1,500-acre ranch here. Patrick Coghlan established a ranch of nearly 3,000 acres, and John Riley and Las Cruces lawyer and businessman William Rynerson also had a ranch. The Coghlan and Riley ranches dealt with legitimate cattle and some “illegitimate” cattle fenced by John Kinney of Lake Valley and Billy the Kid.

Various legal battles and sales consolidated the ranches into the hands of Albert Fall in 1915, but he lost it when he became embroiled in the Tea Pot Dome Scandal in 1922. Eventually, the combined lands, now called Hatchet Ranch, were purchased in 1939 by Thomas Fortune Ryan III.

Three Rivers was a busy town of some 300 people. They worked at ranching, grew cotton and alfalfa, and provided wood and water for the railroad. Then, the railroad consolidated its operations in Carrizozo, and many of the Three Rivers residents moved a bit farther north. They took their houses with them — actually disassembled and rebuilt them, building supplies being so expensive. There wasn’t much left in Three Rivers.

Local history

Schoolhouse at Three Rivers in New Mexico.
The old schoolhouse at Three Rivers near the petroglyph site.

That’s the brief history and, if you’re as curious as I am, you will have noticed the red schoolhouse when you turned off U.S. 54 — just before crossing the railroad tracks — and wondered why this solitary building is there. To educate Three Rivers’ children, the one-room school, with its single teacher, was built — the school, not the teacher.

Three Rivers today consists of the school and the Three Rivers Trading Post, where you can buy cold, non-alcoholic drinks and gifts. The buildings are owned by Pamela and Cameron Blagg. Pamela says she believes the building housing their trading post and the school were built around 1904. She tried to explain who owned what land and when, but it’s complicated, like unraveling a snarled ball of yarn.

But there’s still some ranching at Three Rivers. There’s the trading post and the school. And there are the petroglyphs.

Accommodations

The Three Rivers Petroglyph Site is perfect for a day trip. The site offers five shelters with picnic tables and cooking grills, and one group shelter with three picnic tables and grills. For those who prefer spending more time with the rock art, there are two RV sites with water and electric hookups. Five locations are also established for tent use, one of which is handicap accessible. Restrooms and drinking water are available. Leashed pets are allowed in the campground but are not on the trails. For those who consider “roughing it” getting out the chipped plates, there are motels and restaurants in Carrizozo 25 miles to the north.

The site is open year-round from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. spring through fall. It closes at 5 p.m. in winter. There’s a $5 per car day-use fee. Campsites are $7 per day and RV hookups $18 per day.

 

Written and photography by Bud Russo

Originally published in Neighbors magazine | 2021

This article was posted by Cheryl Fallstead

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