Albuquerque’s  west side is bordered by this national reserve area, 7,500 acres of black boulders that crawl with about 20,000 carved lizards, birds, and assorted odd beasts.
Most of the images, which were created by chipping away the blackish surface “varnish” of the volcanic rock to reach the paler stone beneath, are between 400 and 700 years old, while others may date back three millennia.
A few more recent examples of rock art include Maltese crosses made by Spanish settlers and initials left by explorers (not to mention a few by idle 21st-century teenagers).
Stop in first at the visitors center on Unser Boulevard at Western Trail (505/899-0205, www.nps.gov/petr , 8 a.m.–5 p.m. daily) for park maps, flyers on flora and fauna, general orientation, and free activities on the weekend.
You can see some of the largest groupings on two major trails: Boca Negra Canyon, a short paved loop, and in Rinconada Canyon, a 1.25-mile one-way hike. Boca Negra Canyon is the only fee area ($1/car on weekdays, $2 on weekends), and there are restrooms and water in the parking area.
The Rinconada trailhead is less developed; the walk can be tedious going in some spots because the ground is sandy, but it’s relatively flat. The clearest, most impressive images are in the canyon at the end of the trail. Keep an eye out for millipedes, which thrive in this stark environment; dead, their curled-up empty shells resemble the spirals carved on the rocks—coincidence?
You can also explore in the northernmost section of the reserve, Piedras Marcadas Canyon, on a few trails that start in the backyards of the homes bordering the area; maps are available at the visitors center.
The back (west) side of the parkland, the Volcanoes Day Use Area (9 a.m.–5 p.m. daily) is also a great place to survey the city. Access is via Paseo Volcan (Exit 149) off I-40; turn right (east) 4.3 miles north of the highway at an unmarked dirt road to the parking area.
From the base of three cinder cones, you can look down on the city and see “fingers” stretching east, their crumbled edges forming the escarpment where the petroglyphs are found. They formed when hot lava flowed between sandstone bluffs that later crumbled away. If you go in the winter, you’ll see that the volcanoes, which were last reported emitting steam in 1881, are still not entirely dead: Patches of green plants flourish around the steam vents that stud the hillocks, particularly visible on the middle of the three volcanoes.