Best National Parks for Admiring "Rock Art"

You can reach the Great Gallery in Canyonlands National Park, top photo, via a 30-mile drive on a dirt road followed by a 3.25-mile hike along a wash, while the black pictograph on the bottom lies in the back of a cave in Dinosaur National Monument accessed via a float down the Yampa River. Kurt Repanshek photos.

There are a handful of places in the National Park System where you can view petroglyphs, which are images carved or pecked into rock, or pictographs, which are painted images. Some are walk-up panels that you can ponder for hours, others require a float down a river or a long hike. Here's a quick look at some of those units and what you can expect to find.

Canyonlands National Park

While there are examples of rock art that are closer to roads in this park, none can compare with those found in the Great Gallery that's located in a dusty wash of the park's Horseshoe Canyon annex. You can download a great resource (in pdf format) on the rock art of Horseshoe Canyon at this site. Visit the Needles District and a short hike to Cave Springs leads to an old cowboy camp in a sandstone alcove that has some pictographs on the back wall.

Those who spend any time in the park's Maze District also have come across intriguing panels of petroglyphs.

Petroglyph National Monument

When it comes to sheer number of rock art images, or ease in viewing them, few units of the National Park System can compare with this monument just west of Albuquerque, New Mexico. Within its 7,231 acres there are an estimated 20,000 examples, ranging from handprints to images left behind by historic American Indian and Hispanic cultures. According to park officials, "It is estimated 90% of the monument's petroglyphs were created by the ancestors of today's Pueblo Indians."

Dinosaur National Monument

Though a float trip is perhaps the easiest, and most enjoyable, way to access some rock art sites in this monument that sprawls across northeastern Utah and northwestern Colorado, there are some you can walk to with a little effort. Many of the petroglyphs were left about 1,000 years ago by the Fremont culture, according to the park. One of the easier sites to visit is the "Swelter Shelter," which lies only about a mile from the park's visitor information station near Jensen, Utah.

Virgin Islands National Park

Not easily reached, due to the travel most visitors must endure to reach this park, Virgin Islands National Park has one curious panel of petroglyphs carved into a rock wall near a pool of water found along the Reef Bay Trail. The carvings are believed to have been the work of the Taino people, a pre-Columbian seafaring culture

Olympic National Park

It takes some walking, but an interesting collection of glyphs can be found on boulders along the Pacific Ocean in the park's northwestern corner. To get there, you have to hike the Ozette Loop Trail to an outcrop known as "Wedding Rocks." There you'll find petroglyphs of whales and other images believed to have been carved by Makah Indians long ago.

El Morro National Monument

Perhaps not overly well-known among the national park junkies, the highlight of this 1,279-acre monument is a "200-foot sandstone monolith on which are carved thousands of inscriptions from early travelers. The monument includes pre-Columbian petroglyphs and the remains of Pueblo Indian dwellings." Some of the petroglyphs are relatively new, dating to the 1600s when Spanish explorers came through the region and camped here, while others go back an estimated 1,000 years. Walk the Inscription Loop Trail and you'll pass some 2,000 petroglyphs and inscriptions, according to park officials.

Comments

Canyon de Chelly National Monument is missing in this list. There are some totally amazing Rock Art panels in the two main canyons. Unfortunately visitors can't really see them, because the National Monument is on Navajo land and access is limited to tours - that do not cover Rock Art - or you need a guide for an individual tour and have it approved by the NPS. But you can take a look at some of the art on the NPS website at http://www.nps.gov/cach

Mesa Verde also has several easy to get to displays of rock art, some in cliff dwellings and a nice size panel on trail.

Let us not forget the petroglyphs in Capital Reef National Park. While they can't compare to the rock art in the Great Gallery, they are very easy to get to, being right off of Utah 24.

We should also not discount the mysterious pictographs at Amistad NRA. Here's a quote from the park's website:

"Nestled along the United States-Mexico border in southwestern Texas and northwestern Coahuila, the Lower Pecos River Archeological region encompasses an area of about fifty square miles. Though this cultural region is fairly small, more than 2,000 archeological sites have been recorded. These sites cover a time span from the 19th century to over 10,000 years ago. Over 325 pictograph sites have been documented containing some of North America’s oldest and largest pictographs. These pictographs range in size from isolated motifs just a few inches tall to huge panels stretching more than 100 feet along the back of rock shelter walls."

I was astonished when I first visited the shelters. I don't think I have ever felt the tug of an ancient civilization here in the States as I did standing before these well-preserved rock paintings. It was weeks before I could get them out of my mind.

Rick Smith

I think the 'best' rock art is sometimes that which you stumble onto without guidance. There are far, far more than a 'handfull' of sites. Keep alert near any water source in the Southwest. My personal favorite was a petroglyph panel recording a successful hunt in a remote small slot canyon. Two groups of human figures bracketed a herd of about two dozen desert bighorns, five of which were down with arrows or spears sticking out. As I faced my backpacker's mac & cheese that night, I couldn't help thinking of their days of feasting, probably laughing, and patiently pecking their story into stone.

Then there are the ones in the Pate Valley, Yosemite National Park..