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True Gems: Indian Rock Art

A ghostly rock art painting at Thompson Wash

There aren't many places in a young nation such as America where you can be in the presence of the ancients. There's no Stonehenge, no Coliseum, no Angkor Wat. But when you visit rock art sites created by Indians thousands of years ago, you get a rare sense of history. And mystery.

The Indian groups who lived here centuries ago left a few traces of their lives--houses, tools, pottery, but no written language except their rock art. What does it all mean?

Dinosaur National Monument: More To Dinosaur

It's simply not true, says the National Park Service on the official website, that "the main experience at Dinosaur National Monument is to see the dinosaur bones at the Dinosaur Quarry." They're right. Dinosaur also has outstanding Indian rock art!

Dinosaur National Monument Details Directions: 13 miles east on Highway 40 from Vernal, Utah, take Highway 149 7 miles north and enter the N.M. The Cub Creek rock art sites are on Cub Creek Road, the main road leading into the park.
The McKee Springs rock art site is located on Island Park Road leading to Rainbow Spring Park. Exit the N.M. by going back on Highway 149. 3.5 miles from the N.M. entrance, go right on Brush Creek Road (unsigned--tricky!) for 4.8 miles. Go right (north) for 4.1 miles, then right on the unpaved Island Park Road for 12 miles to McKee Springs. 1 mile later Island Park Road ends at Rainbow Spring Park, a beautiful picnic area on the Green River.
Hours: 24-7.
Pets: not allowed on the trail
Main attractions: Indian petroglyphs, scenery, dinosaurs

After viewing the massive dinosaur graveyard at the Quarry Visitor Centre, we take the main throughway Cub Creek Road to see how the ancients looked at another kind of reptile. From the road, the image of a lizard stands out clearly high up on a sandstone cliff.

Cub Creek Road leads from the Quarry Visitor Centre through sagebrush valleys and red and grey hills. Indian rock art can be seen at Signpost no. 1 on the self-guided auto tour, but a sign greets us: "Park workers have fallen ill after working here." Time to go!

The second Cub Creek rock art site (signpost no. 13) is a sandstone rock panel that includes bighorn sheep, a zigzag line and human figures, one with curious rays emanating from its head. A short trail leads up the way to more rock art.

Lizard petroglyphs are so prominent that they can be seen a hundred feet away from the road (signpost no. 14). There's also a figure playing the flute. Rare, say archaeologists. The prehistoric Fremont Indians who created this rock art about 1,000 years ago were big on human figures and bighorn sheep instead. This is the best rock art site on Cub Creek Road! Yet the crowd has vanished, leaving the place all to myself. Go figure.

Cub Creek rock art
Count the fingers on this figure!
Leapin' lizards!
A rare Fremont Indian fluteplayer

It takes some work to get to the McKee Springs rock art site since there's no direct route from Cub Creek and the road there is unpaved (see directions). But it's so worth it! This superb site has a long panel of Fremont Indian petroglyphs. They're a thousand years old, but clearly visible on a background of desert varnish on a sandstone rock face. Human figures are the most popular subject. And just like the Cub Creek rock art site, there's another figure of a flute-player.

McKee Springs rock art
The central figure may be bearing a shield
Forewarned is four-armed
Another possible shield-bearer (below)
The big picture
Another Fremont fluteplayer

McConkie Ranch/Dry Fork Canyon

A figure nicknamed Bigfoot
The figure in the centre may be holding a head with tears streaming from its eyes.
Another ornately-designed figure
McConkie Ranch Details Directions: 10 miles from the intersection of 500 West and Main Street in Vernal, Utah. Go north on 500 West and left on LaPoint Road/Highway 121 for 3.5 miles. Go right (north) on 3500 West for 6.5 miles. The sign and entrance to the McConkie Ranch is on the right. Parking is available at a small lot at the foot of the cliffs.
Hours: 24-7.
Pets: allowed.
Main attractions: Indian petroglyphs
Main distractions:Loose dogs who scratched my baby (Ford Ranger). I recommend bubble wrap.

Fremont Indian petroglyphs run along the sandstone canyon walls at this site, which happens to be on privately-owned land. However, it's publicly-accessible. These are beautiful petroglyphs of large, elaborately-decorated human figures.

Some figures appear to be wearing necklaces and earrings. Some have circles for mouths, preserved with a permament expression of surprise. And some appear to be carrying heads with broken lines streaming from the head's eyes.

The bright afternoon sun makes it a bit difficult to see this rock art. There's no background of dark desert varnish that would make the McConkie Ranch rock art stand out. Still, the lizards who scurry away have no trouble seeing us on the rough and rocky path.

Nine Mile Canyon

Nine Mile Canyon Directions: 1.5 miles west of Myton on Highway 40, go left on the road signed Pleasant Valley and Nine Mile Canyon. See Trip Guide in this section for more.
Hours: 24-7.
Pets: allowed.
Main attractions: Indian rock art, pioneer Western ghost towns.

It's a trip to get to Nine Mile Canyon. Travelling from Myton in the north, it's 29 miles on a mostly unpaved, rocky, washboard road before we even get to Nine Mile. But then it becomes a game where we seek while rock art hides in plain sight on the sandstone canyon walls.

Nearly every single guide in print and online starts the trip to Nine Mile Canyon from Wellington in the south and going to Myton. Here's a trip guide from Myton to Wellington. That's the way we did it!

Nine Mile Canyon trip guide:
(Numbers are miles marked on our odometer. Your odometer may vary.)

0.0 Turn off Highway 40 (1.5 miles west of Myton) and take road signed for Pleasant Valley and Nine Mile Canyon. Abandon hope of any civilisation.
1.5 Bear right on the road that says "Wellington 72."
6.0 Pavement ends. Pray for your vehicle. Go straight.
24.8 A sign says Sand Wash left, Nine Mile Canyon right. Go right, natch!
29.4 Junction. Cottonwood Canyon is left, Nine Mile Canyon right. There's some outstanding rock art in Cottonwood Canyon, which we discovered AFTER we left the area. Of course.
30.8 A long rock art panel on the right includes petroglyphs and pictographs under an overhanging rock.
31.4 Elongated bighorn sheep.
32.8 Maybe 20 feet up on the cliff is a rock art panel with a squiggly serpent.
34.0 Bighorn sheep surround a circle with four lines emanating from it.
34.2 Rock art with a bison.
34.9 Abandoned 19th century ranch.
35.4 On a cliff ledge next to a tree is more rock art.
36.9 19th century ghost town.
40.9 More rock art, mostly of bighorn sheep.
53.7 Pavement begins.
65.7 Highway 6/191

A rock art panel. This stretched-out sheep can be seen at mile 31.4 A squiggly serpent
Now this figure is just weird. Can be seen at mile 31.4 The horned figure to the left may be using a tool to tangle up the legs of the sheep on the right. It also appears to have tentacles for feet. Can be seen at mile 35.4 Spiral or spaceship? You decide!
A very happy man leading a centaur. A very, very happy man. (Look closer.) A 19th-century building abandoned.

Thompson Wash: Far From Being A Wash-Out

Thompson Wash Directions: Take the Thompson exit from I-70 and head north through town. 4.2 miles from I-70 is the rock art site. Continue up the same road for 0.4 mile and take the signed turn for Sego Canyon. The ghost town at Sego Canyon is 1 mile up.
Hours: 24-7.
Pets: allowed.
Main attractions: Indian rock art, ghost town at nearby Sego Canyon

I once skipped seeing the rock art at Thompson Wash because I'd read it'd been vandalized with graffiti. You can still see graffiti but don't miss this great site! It's easy to get to, the road drives right up to the sites. At least three different Indian groups including the prehistoric Fremont and historic Utes left art here, making it a diverse collection. And best of all, it gives us our first glimpse of what's known as Barrier Canyon art.

A lot of people are in love with the Barrier Canyon style and no wonder. It's one of a kind. The painted figures at Thompson Wash have huge, round eyes. They're bald. Sometimes they're horned. And they have no arms or legs. It's easy to see why people call these figures ghostly.

Barrier Canyon rock art survives bulletholes Fremont rock art A long Barrier Canyon rock art panel
A close-up shows ghostly figures with antennae on their heads. Anthropologists say those may be snakes near the figures' shoulders. Another close-up shows more ghostly figures, possibly supernatural beings according to anthropologists. Ute Indian panel with graffiti.
This Barrier Canyon rock art is across the road from the BLM site.

Courthouse Wash, Arches National Park

Courthouse Wash Details Directions: TBA
Hours: 24-7.
Pets: not allowed since this is within Arches National Park boundaries.
Main attractions: Indian petroglyphs
Barrier Canyon figures hanging out in the shade

Some people head out to find the Courthouse Wash rock art site in Arches National Park and never make it there. I was almost one of them.

The trick to finding the rock art is to not hike up Courthouse Wash but past it. Tricky, huh? The site is a long panel on a redrock cliff so close to the highway you could almost drive right up to it. And that's why it's been vandalized. Still, it's a spooky reminder in the great Barrier Canyon style.

Potash Byway Indian Writing

Potash Byway Details Directions: Four miles north of Moab on Highway 191, go west on Potash Highway 279. After mile marker 11 on the Potash Byway (before mile marker 10), there are two signs for "Indian Writing."
Hours: 24-7.
Pets: allowed.
Main attractions: Indian petroglyphs

A few miles north of Moab, red rock cliffs rise tall. They look impenetrable like a fortress but a small road snakes around their base next to the lush green banks of the Colorado river. The road is the Potash highway and it goes to the Potash Byway Indian Writing sites.

Ten feet or higher up on the red rock wall are some petroglyphs carved into the desert varnish. The tourist near us wonders how the Indians got up that high to write. Her husband confidently tells her that the riverbank must have been taller in those days. Maybe. Archaeologists also say that the Fremont Indians who lived here placed their rock art high on cliff walls deliberately, to underscore the heroism or ceremonial importance of the petroglyphs.

The Potash petroglyphs include human figures with horned headdresses, dogs, bighorn sheep and strings of humans joining hands like a row of cut-out paper dolls.

Humans with horned heads with arms that end in spirals. More humans with horned heads. One figure appears to hold a spiral and a spear. Bighorn sheep are also here.

Behold the horribly deformed figures with big round things for hands! Or maybe they're shield-bearers. A bear surrounded by miniature bighorn sheep.

Most fascinating to me are human figures whose arms end in spirals. What do the spirals mean? Are they shields? Early (and inefficient) parasols? The result of not cutting your nails?

Newspaper Rock: Ute Too Can Read All About It

Newspaper Rock Details Directions: 15 miles north of the farming town of Monticello on Highway 191, go west on Highway 211 for 12 miles. Turn onto the well-signed route to Newspaper Rock, just a short drive off Highway 211.
Hours: 24-7.
Pets: allowed.
Main attractions: Indian petroglyphs ranging from O A.D. to 1954 (courtesy one G. Gonzalez--yeah, thanks a lot, dude!); picnic tables at the nearby river.

Most people travelling west on Highway 211 zip towards the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park. But take the short detour to the impressive Newspaper Rock. For 2,000 years members of different Indian groups have been leaving signs on this crowded rock panel. Archaeologists say some petroglyphs were made by the Fremont and the Anasazi, and many by the Ute Indians in nineteenth-century.

The Newspaper Rock panel includes petroglyphs of horse riders, humans wearing headdresses, horses, deer, bighorn sheep, bison, shields and abstract images.

What do these glyphs mean? What story were they meant to tell? What do they say to you?

A panoramic view of the Newspaper Rock panel.

This crowded section includes deer, riders, bighorn sheep, bison and abstract linear images. The footprints are thought to be paw prints. The splayed animal figures near the very top (one is flanked by a row of deer on the left and a row of bighorn sheep on the right) may be animal pelts.

A close-up of the top section of the previous image shows a herd of deer and a bighorn sheep obviously being chased by a UFO (the cross within a circle).

A bison is beautifully rendered in the upper right corner of this image. The bowlegged figure on the left with the squiggles emanating from its head may be wearing a ceremonial headdress. The fringes on the sides of its legs may indicate chaps and European-American influence. To the right of the figure's head is a bear paw print.

Two aliens (top) oversee another successful hunt. Alright, alright, maybe they're humans wearing funny hats. Who knew the Shriners had such a long and interesting history? I'm pretty sure that's a wagon wheel at the bottom right of this image.

Close-up of the successful hunt.

Stairway to heaven: the prints ascend up the rock.

A close-up of said trail. The footprints are thought to be pawprints. The two circles at the top may be shields. Or more UFOs!

Shay Canyon

Check out these beautiful Anasazi petroglyphs!

A herd of bighorn sheep or antelope Humans and animals are in this panel. The bird in the bottom right corner has weird feet So do these sheep/antelope
A flute-player on the left is flanked by a row of paper doll cut-outs. Okay, humans holding hands Two armless, legless figures. The one on the left comes with horns on its head They say two heads are better than one
Another two-headed beast. Just for the record, it wasn't my idea to take this photo A female stick insect. It's a prehistoric Kate Moss! Behold how long the rock art panel is! I'm just in there for scale

Sand Island Recreation Site Details Directions: The entrance is to the south, off Highway 191, two-three miles west of the Bluff town limits.
Hours: 24-7.
Pets: allowed.
Main attractions: Indian petroglyphs; river running.
Main distractions: Bugs! Be sure to wear eau de citronella before you visit.

Another extensive petroglyph site is located at the Sand Island Recreation Area. Nearby, river runners put in their boats at the broad San Juan river. The Sand Island petroglyphs span 150 yards on a rock panel surrounded by pale-green salt cedars.

The petroglyphs here are a little fainter than some at Newspaper Rock. They're being slowly recovered by the dark-brown iron oxide stain known here as desert varnish. The heavier the varnish and the fainter the petroglyph, the older it is.

Like Newspaper Rock, members from different tribes ranging from the ancient Anasazi to the more recent Ute and Navajo left signs here. Some of the petroglyphs are 2,000 years old.

One fascinating type of petroglyph is thought to signify a mask, in the first image below. Masks made of human skin have been excavated at ancient Anasazi sites in the canyons of Grand Gulch, forty-five miles away.

A panoramic view of the Sand Island panel

Three flute-players (one at top, two at centre) or possible porn superstars (look closer) dominate the scene crowded with a bird, circles and bighorn sheep. The facelike figure to the right of the top flute-player is thought to be a face.

Close-up image of what may be an ancient Anasazi mask. The dots looping down and up from each side of the mask may be earrings.

More masks, maybe.

Even the bighorn sheep plays the flute! Look for the geometric masks below the flute-playing sheep.

Squiggly lines dominate in this image. Handprints hang upside down beneath the line in the rock face. And that would be because this image is upside down. Ah, crap.

The figure riding a giant, stippled horse may be wearing a hat. This is clearly a more recent image since horses appeared on the continent with the Spanish invasion.

Close-up of a figure who may be wearing a head dress. Or be having a bad hair day.
Lots of bighorn sheep
The Glen Canyon style is distinguished by the lines inside the figures' bodies. Horned human figures appear to the left of the deer.

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