Select Page

A tiny portion of the prehistoric rock art on view at Three Rivers Petroglyphs Site.

If you like art and don’t mind a mild workout, you’ll enjoy the Three Rivers Petroglyph Site.

Because Three Rivers contains one of the largest collections of prehistoric rock art in the American Southwest.

And you’ll find the collection on a series of hills.

That makes this day trip an art hop and hiking adventure all-in-one.

The drive to the site, located off Highway 54 about 17 miles north of Tularosa in Otero County, is easy enough.

It’s not until you arrive at the site that the workout begins.

The site, you see, is actually a cluster of hills covering over 50 acres of land. Huge rocks cover each hill. And prehistoric art images, over 20,000 in all, cover many of these rocks.

Most intriguing of all, not one of the images is the same. 

To see most of the petroglyphs would take weeks or months of dedicated hiking while searching through the rocky hillsides. But the beauty of Three Rivers is you do have direct access to the art. So you can see and examine up close as many petroglyphs as you have time for.

Who created this prehistoric rock art?

The Jornada Mogollon.

The Mogollon were a people who flourished in the American Southwest between 200AD and 1450AD. Their villages extended northward from the current day Mexican state of Chihuahua through Southern New Mexico and southeastern Arizona.

And the Jornada Mogollon was the branch of Mogollon who lived in within New Mexico’s Tularosa Basin. The people made their way by farming and hunting. As hunters, they became skilled in fashioning and using sharp tools. This prowess helped them to make these petroglyphs we see today.

Each unique design came into being only after the Mogollon artist removed enough material from each rock’s surface to create it.

What struck me about these etchings was that they were here, there, and EVERYWHERE.

The great variety of pictures makes the hike interesting.

Some of the designs seem childlike; others, more intricate. It’s clear that the people who “drew” them had varying levels of artistic skill.

Prehistoric rock art is here, there and everywhere at Three Rivers Petroglyph Site near Tularosa, NM.

Jornada Mogollon geometric and circle + corn designs at Three Rivers Petroglyph Site.

But what compelled the Mogollon to create?

Etching into hard stone takes serious work and these folks created THOUSANDS of images.

What were they after?

Like the sign at the Three Rivers Petroglyph Site trailhead says, not even the experts are sure.

Trailhead sign describing the Mogollon, creators of the prehistoric rock art located on the Three Rivers Petroglyph Site.

What’s it all about? We can only imagine.

For that reason, when it comes to exploring theories on what the various petroglyphs meant, seems the sky is the limit.

So what do you think . . .

Was the Jornada Mogollon Rock Art an early form of graffiti . . .  or something else?

In other words, were some petroglyphs meant to identify the individual who tooled it? 

If so, one of the biggest guys in the neighborhood did this one.

Prehistoric rock art figure, Three Rivers Petroglyph Site.

Was this “Big John?”

Did others serve as address markers for their rock alcove homes?

Take, for example, this petroglyph. 

The combination of a circle and dots is a popular motif in Mogollon prehistoric rock art seen at Three Rivers Petroglyphs Site.

This bold design with a circle and dots motif appears early on the Three Rivers Petroglyph Site trail path.

The circle and dots combination was a popular motif among Mogollon artists. The dots, researchers say, may have represented corn or population. 

So maybe the Mogollon who made this design meant to communicate to another Mogollon coming across it: “A large and prosperous family lives here.”

I said, Maybe.

More likely they made art for some of the reasons we do today.

That is, to express themselves and what they observed in visual terms. And to make a statement others would see and be impacted by long after they were gone.

If so, I’d say they were successful in their work.

Because 600 years have passed since the last Mogollon left the area or joined other tribes of people. Yet we KNOW they existed and have a decent idea WHO they were.

And thousands more are meeting them for the first time at Three Rivers Petroglyph Site each year.


    1. Learn more about the Mogollon, in general, and the Jornada Mogollon, in specifics. Who were they and where did they go?
    2. For a look at another facet of Mogollon creativity, check out Jornada Mogollon pottery.

Where did you take your last art tour?