Please note, this hike was conducted earlier this year.
View from Prehistoric Trackways National Monument.Located in the Robledo Mountains (elevation 5,280 ft), Prehistoric Trackways National Monument is a 15-20 minute drive northwest of Las Cruces and offers hiking, biking, horseback riding and off-highway vehicle trails. In 2009, Prehistoric Trackways became a national monument not only to protect the beautiful desert landscape, but the history behind it. It remains not only a playground for outdoor enthusiasts, but those looking for a unique educational experience.
The name “Prehistoric Trackways,” itself, is a big draw for those looking for some place different to explore. What sets it apart from other nearby outdoor attractions is the geological and scientific significance the area holds. In 1987, Paleozoic Era tracks were found by paleontological field researcher Jerry Paul MacDonald. In his book “Earths First Steps,” MacDonald recounts using his prior knowledge of these fossil discoveries by those who frequented the Robledo Mountains to
pinpoint the exact Discovery Site, which featured footprints of numerous amphibians, reptiles, and insects (including previously unknown species), plants, and petrified wood dating back approximately 280 million years.
“Usually when people think of tracks they think of dinosaurs, they come out and they expect to see a footprint that’s a couple feet big, where in reality the largest one is size of your hand, but the majority of them are much smaller,” BLM Paleontologist Colin Dunn explains.
The area was further explored, and 2,500 slabs of well-preserved prehistoric fossils were removed from the site. They now reside in museums throughout the state and nationally. The scientific study conducted in 1994 even sites the Trackways as “the most significant Early Permian track sites” in the world. The Permian period was the geologic period immediately preceding the time of the dinosaurs, extending back 290 million years ago.
Dunn encourages visitors to take advantage of the BLM’s ongoing guided hike to the trackways, which takes place the third Saturday of each month (delayed as of March 2020 until further notice) to better understand the significance of the discoveries. The main advantage to the guided hike is that Dunn provides visitors with a glimpse into the past, painting a detailed picure the area’s once vastly different landscape and ecosystem, pointing out the fragments of what remains.
Those hiking the 1.5-mile path to the Discovery Site can still find small prehistoric tracks along the way, as a good portion of the area has yet to be further explored. Visitors to the area are not allowed to remove any of their findings from the monument, as the site is still used for scientific research. Visitors who attempt to remove fossils can be subject to fines and/or imprisonment.
“It’s the diversity and preservation of these specimens that make it world-class and it can teach us a lot about life before the dinosaurs,” Dunn says.
Prehistoric Trackways National monument is not only highly trafficked for those looking to hike, bike or horseback through the desert landscape, but is one of the few areas that allow off-highway vehicles.
Dunn adds that OHVs were allowed by the Bureau of Land Management prior to its designation as a monument, and although some routes had to be closed the area remains popular for those looking to do some off-roading.
All-in-all, Prehistoric Trackways National Monument is not only rich in outdoor recreation opportunities, but also for those wanting a glimpse at the past. As Dunn puts it, “It’s a unique worldwide resource and it’s right in our own backyard.”
For directions to Prehistoric Trackways National Monument, visit www.blm.gov/visit/ptnm. As temperatures rise it is important that hikers wear light, breathable clothing, take plenty of water, wear and reapply sunscreen and wear a hat for shade, as the hike offers few areas for relief from the sun.