Three Albuquerque Area National Monuments


Last Updated on September 5, 2023 by Grant

Albuquerque is home to one national monument, Petroglyph, and within easy driving range of two more, El Morro and El Malpais. All three of these parks offer a variety of historical and natural experiences. 

Petroglyph National Monument is located in Albuquerque itself and includes three low canyons rife with petroglyphs from Ancestral Puebloans going back more than a thousand years. 

El Morro National Monument is located about 120 miles west of Albuquerque and preserves a sandstone bluff with a shaded water hole at the base. This consistent source of water attracted travelers for more than a thousand years and you will find petroglyphs and inscriptions from Ancestral Puebloans, Spanish conquistadors and American settlers carved into the rock. 

The pool at the base of Inscription Rock at El Morro National Monument
The pool at the base of Inscription Rock at El Morro National Monument

El Malpais National Monument, which is located adjacent to El Morro NM, preserves a vast volcanic landscape with cinder cones, lava tubes and sandstone bluffs.

Added all together, visiting these parks makes for an exceptional experience.

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Inside Albuquerque

Petroglyph National Monument

Petroglyphs along the Rinconada Canyon Trail in Petroglyph National Monument in Albuquerque.
Petroglyphs along the Rinconada Canyon Trail

Petroglyph National Monument sits on the northwestern edge of the city of Albuquerque and consists of four developed units: Boca Nedra Canyon, Rinconada Canyon, Piedras Marcadas Canyon and the Volcanoes Day Use Area. There is also the Information Center.

The Information Center is just that: a place to get information about the trails and units of the park. There is a park store and that’s about it. There are no trails, exhibits or anything to do at the information center. We normally recommend stopping at the visitor center first but, honestly, that’s not really necessary unless you need to get your passport book stamped or want something from the park store.

The Petroglyph National Monument Information Center
The Petroglyph National Monument Information Center

If you want to see the eponymous petroglyphs, you will need to go to one of the three canyons and take a hike. The canyons are low escarpments of volcanic rock and the hikes through them were fairly easy. 

Boca Negra Canyon

Boca Negra Canyon, while part of the park, is operated by the City of Albuquerque. There are three trails here, two short and easy, one a bit more strenuous. We chose the Mesa Point Trail, which is the moderate trail here. The trail was less than half a mile but had more than a 100-foot elevation gain. 

The steepness and ruggedness of the trail definitely got our heart rates going. As we ascended the canyon wall, we saw various petroglyphs along the way. Some of the petroglyphs were quite distinctive and very cool to see. There are around 100 petroglyphs at Boca Negra Canyon.

Trail up the Boca Negra Canyon in Petroglyph National Monument in Albuquerque
Trail up the Boca Negra Canyon

As we got to the top of the canyon wall, we were treated to a sweeping view of Albuquerque and the mountains beyond. Getting down the trail is a little more difficult due to some poor trail markings. Still, it was a good trail and we enjoyed it.

Rinconada Canyon

Rinconada Canyon has one 2.2-mile loop trail through the base of the canyon. While it does have a modest elevation gain, it is really quite a relaxing trail. There are around 300 petroglyphs throughout the canyon. 

Petroglyphs along the Rinconada Canyon Trail in Petroglyph National Monument in Albuquerque.
Petroglyphs along the Rinconada Canyon Trail

This hike was our first visit to the park (Boca Negra Canyon was closed on New Year’s Day) and we enjoyed the hike a great deal. We saw a bunch of petroglyphs, including more modern inscriptions from ranch hands going back to the 1800s. 

There’s not much variety in the scenery but the petroglyphs make this hike more than worth it.

Sheepherders' inscriptions in Rinconada Canyon of Petroglyph National Monument in Albuquerque
Sheepherders’ inscriptions in Rinconada Canyon

Piedras Marcadas Canyon

If you were only to visit one of the three canyons, we suggest this one. Piedras Marcadas Canyon has two trails, one for seeing petroglyphs (1.8 miles) and one for hiking on top of the canyon (1.4 miles). You can combine the two trails into a 2.5-mile loop. 

Bonnie hiking along the Piedras Marcadas Canyon Petroglyph Trail in Petroglyph National Monument in Albuquerque.
Bonnie hiking along the Piedras Marcadas Canyon Petroglyph Trail.

We opted for the Petroglyph Trail, as we had already hiked the Rinconada Canyon. This trail was great. We saw a lot more petroglyphs (there are 400 petroglyphs here) and more varied terrain, making for a more enjoyable hike.

We also saw some wildlife! It was really cool to spend a good bit of time watching a roadrunner zip in between the sagebrush. They are such neat birds and we enjoy watching them on the move.

A roadrunner along the trail at Piedras Marcadas Canyon at Petroglyphs National Monument in Albuquerque.
A roadrunner along the trail at Piedras Marcadas Canyon.

Volcanoes Day Use Area

Located on the west side of the park is a day-use area with a few trails leading out to the cinder cones of extinct volcanoes. We didn’t get a chance to make it out to this section of the park, so can’t comment on it other than to say it is on our list for the next time we are in the area. The trails look pretty cool!

West of Albuquerque

El Morro National Monument

While El Morro National Monument is located about 120 miles west of Albuquerque, it is a good day trip. You can also easily visit on your way to or from Albuquerque. The most prominent feature of El Morro NM is Inscription Rock. 

Inscription Rock is a large, sandstone mesa located near an ancient east-west trail and has a pool of fresh water at the base. This made it a common stop for people traversing this area for hundreds of years. We even saw a painting about Inscription Rock on a recent trip to Chicago! Ancestral Puebloans built a small village atop the mesa and inscribed petroglyphs in the base of the rock. 

On the trail to Inscription Rock in Morro National Monument.
On the trail to Inscription Rock

By the time the Spaniards arrived in the 1500s, the pueblos had been abandoned. Still, the conquistadors inscribed their names into the rock alongside the petroglyphs. As time went on, American settlers passed by and left their inscriptions on the rock.

What to do at El Morro National Monument 

The visitor center has excellent exhibits on the history of the area and there are two trails you can walk/hike. The Inscription Rock Trail Loop is a paved half-mile loop that takes you to the base of the mesa where the majority of the inscriptions and the pool are located. The Headland Loop Trail is a 2-mile loop that leads up to the Ancestral Puebloan ruins. 

Unfortunately, the Headland Loop Trail was closed when we visited due to snow and ice but we did walk the Inscription Rock Trail Loop. It was a good trail and we saw a lot of petroglyphs and inscriptions.

There is not much more to this park other than a small, free campground. You can easily spend an hour or two here and it is more than worth the time, especially in conjunction with a visit to nearby El Malpais NM.

El Malpais National Monument

El Malpais National Monument preserves a large area of basaltic lava flows and other volcanic terrains, including cinder cones and lava tube caves. 

Pronounced el-mal-pie-EES, El Malpais NM is an amalgamation of National Park Service land and Bureau of Land Management land of the El Malpais National Conservation Area. Honestly, there is a lot to explore here and much of it requires getting into the backcountry. 

The El Malpais National Monument Visitor Center
The El Malpais Visitor Center is just off I-40 near the town of Grants.

What to Do at El Malpais National Monument

Your first stop should be the visitor center located in the town of Grants, just off I-40. This is a perfect jumping-off point for exploring this park. If you are visiting as a day trip from Albuquerque to visit this site and El Morro NM, we recommend stopping here even before you go on to El Morro NM. The visitor center does a great job explaining the geologic processes which created this unique landscape. 

Exploring the North and West Sides of the Park

On the north and western side of the park, there are several good trails, including lava tube caves to explore and the Chain of Craters Backcountry Byway to drive. On the east side of the park, there is an excellent overlook and a sandstone arch. 

The beginning of the Chain of Craters Backcountry Byway
The beginning of the Chain of Craters Backcountry Byway

Honestly, we made a mistake visiting here in the winter. The lava tube caves are all closed from November 1 to April 30th. This was a serious bummer since we have explored lava tubes before at Lava Beds National Monument and really enjoyed it.

Read more about Lava Beds National Monument here.

 The area had gotten a decent amount of snow recently and the trails were all quite muddy and slick. The backcountry highway through the El Malpais National Conservation Area was quite wet and would have been difficult to get through, even with a four-wheel drive. 

To put it mildly, I really want to go back and hike some of the trails and drive the backcountry byway. From what we saw, this park is beautiful. I really want to see it in the spring or fall. 

Sandstone bluffs overlooking lava flows at the east end of El Malpais National Monument
Sandstone bluffs overlooking lava flows

Exploring the Eastern Side of the Park

We did, however, drive Hwy 117 south along the eastern edge of the park, visiting the Sandstone Bluffs Overlook, which provides an excellent view of the lava fields and would be a cool place to stop for a picnic lunch. 

We continued south to La Ventana Natural Arch, which is one of the largest arches in New Mexico. The arch is carved into the side of a sandstone mesa and is a short walk from the parking lot. 

La Ventana Arch in El Morro National Conservation Area
La Ventana Arch

Where to Stay and Eat in Albuquerque

Originally, when we planned this trip, we planned on staying the night in Grants, NM after visiting El Morro NM and El Malpais NM. Especially if you are planning on really exploring El Malpais NM, we recommend staying close. The same is true if you are passing through the area on I-40 and visiting the parks as you drive through. That said, there’s not a lot to Grants beyond a few hotels and restaurants. 

We ended up changing our plans on our visit to Chaco Culture National Historical Park the day before, which took longer than we expected and prevented us from driving all the way to Grants. So, we ended up driving from Farmington, NM, visiting El Morro NM and El Malpais NM, and then heading on to Albuquerque.

An empty two-lane highway in the desert.
Driving west from Farmington on our way to El Morro NM

Read more about visiting Chaco Culture National Historical Park here.  

Where to Stay in Albuquerque

We stayed at the Hilton Garden Inn by the airport in Albuquerque. The hotel was quite comfy and made a good base for spending New Year’s Eve and Day in Albuquerque. The only issue with the hotel was its hot water heater. It was having issues and could only barely keep up with the demand for hot showers in the morning. The hotel did refund us Hilton Honors points for our trouble but, based on reviews, the hot water had been an issue for a while. While we would stay here again, we would make sure the hot water issue had been fixed first. 

Read TripAdvisor Reviews | Book the Hotel

Where to Eat

Right down the road from the hotel is the excellent 377 Brewery. We went for a late lunch/early dinner and the food was outstanding. I had the All Nasty Burrito and Bonnie had the grilled chicken salad. The beer was quite good as well and we enjoyed the whole experience. 

A burrito and a beer at 337 Brewery
An All Nasty Burrito with red sauce and a La Puntita IPA… both quite tasty.

Final Thoughts on Visiting the Albuquerque Area National Monuments

When it comes to these parks, you can see a lot in just a little bit of time. You can see the heart of Petroglyph NM in one hike, allowing you to see hundreds of petroglyphs. At El Morro NM, you can spend half an hour and see dozens of inscriptions at the base of the mesa. If you have an hour more, you can hike to the top of the mesa to see the views and the ruins. In a couple of hours, you can drive along the eastern side of the park, seeing vast lava flows and a massive sandstone arch. 

Grant Sinclair and Bonnie Sinclair at Ventana Arch in El Malpais National Monument
Selfie at La Ventana Arch

That said, I highly recommend budgeting at least one additional day to spend some time exploring the backcountry of El Malpais NM. We really want to stop here again the next time we come through to explore the backcountry byway and do some hiking when the trails aren’t muddy soup. 

Regardless of the amount of time you have to explore these sites, all three are excellent and well worth the stop.

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