Editor's note: Across the country, there are many spectacular landscapes that would fit appropriately within the National Park System. This article is the latest in an occasional series that looks at some of these places.
In places, the brush strokes are delicate, exquisitely formed, the work of a master. Others, though, are more roughly fashioned, in some cases pecked or scratched into the rock face's thin veneer.
The images, dating back thousands of years, are priceless. So, too, is the scenery in the landscape within which these pictographs and petroglyphs exist. It is a landscape of staggering natural beauty expressed by soaring cliffs, canyons compared to the grandest one in the country, minarets, and reefs of rock that tell a fascinating geologic story.
The plein aire art museum where you can find these works? Central Utah's San Rafael Swell.
Near-Perfect Preservation Conditions
The general aridness of central Utah gets the credit for preserving the rock art forms that, perhaps, date back 7,000 years, and which have been referred to as the state's Sistine Chapel. Though some appear childish, and others have been covered with images from nomadic cultures that followed the original artists through the millennia, the figures tell intriguing, at times hard-to-cipher, stories that still beg explanation.
The images inspired some intriguing names: "Head of Sinbad" was attached to a figure topped by a wriggling snake, while "Black Dragon" was spawned by a pictograph that some think looks much like a winged dragon.
Some of the oldest images fall under the category of "Barrier Canyon" rock art, a folder Dr. Polly Schaafsma, one of the country's most-renowned experts on Native American rock art, assigned the images to in the 1960s when she was part of an effort to catalog what existed in the southern Utah canyons that the pending Lake Powell were about to inundate.
While researching a story for Smithsonian magazine some years ago, I learned that some archaeologists who have studied the Barrier Canyon images believe they were created between 1900 B.C.and A.D. 300. But Alan Watchman, a research fellow at Australian National University, told me his radiocarbon analysis dates some of them to the Early Archaic period, from about 7430 B.C. to 5260 B.C.
Another archaeologist, Phil Geib, also was of the opinion that the earliest image might date to the Archaic period of roughly 8,000 B.C. to 1,000 B.C. He notes that a figurine similar in style to Barrier Canyon rock art was recovered in a cave in Utah above a layer of soil dating to around 7500 B.C. A distinctive style of sandals directly associated with the figurine, he says, dates to around 5400 B.C.
But Archaic-era images aren't the only ones within the Swell. There are some from the Fremont Culture that lived in the area from about 700 A.D. to 1300 A.D., and more recent images crafted by Ute artists and Spanish explorers, and even an inscribed name purportedly made by that 19th Century criminal, Butch Cassidy.
More modern history counts structures and roads built by the Civilian Conservation Corps, overly ambitious ranchers trying to coax a living from the spare landscape, remnants of uranium mines tapped during the Cold War.
Taken together, this history -- modern and prehistory -- tell wondrous stories in a demanding landscape.
Surrounding this graphic history is a landscape that is jaw-dropping.
The San Rafael Swell is an 80-mile by 30-mile bulbous protuberance of rock in south-central Utah that was ratcheted into place by geologic machinations some 60 million years ago. The resulting geology is an open-air classroom, a layer-cake of strata named Coconino Sandstone, Kaibab Limestone, the Triassic Age Moenkopi and Chinle Formations, Wingate, Kayenta, and Navajo Sandstones.
These rockbeds deposited over millions of years have colored the Swell with buffs, reds, tans, greys, blues, yellows, whites, and oranges. And within some of those formations are paleontological treasures -- the Cleveland Lloyd Dinosaur Quarry, which holds a rich cache of fossilized prey and predator dinosaur remains, lies near the northern end of the Swell, and field research elsewhere in the Swell has turned up amazing finds.
According to the Utah Geological Survey, remains of Acrocanthosaurus, a giant carnivore of the Early Cretaceous that was nearly as large as Tyrannosaurus, turned up in the Cedar Mountain Formation not far from Cleveland Lloyd. It possessed "enormous teeth adapted for cutting flesh," the Geological Survey notes.
As the landscape rose, it was transformed into a maze of sorts by erosion. So cut, twisted, and inhospitable appearing is the Swell that when mountain man Jedediah Smith peered into it briefly in 1826, he figured there was no reason to explore it further and kept on going. What the mountain man found to be a barren wasteland is viewed to many today as spectacular.
It was back in 1935 that many Utahans felt the same way, and at the time the Utah State Planning Board briefly lobbied for creation of a "Wayne Wonderland" national park, a 360,000-acre park named after Wayne County, one of the counties that the Swell is found in.
In 1936 Bob Marshall, founder of The Wilderness Society, identified nearly 2 million acres of roadless area in the general vicinity of the Swell that should be protected, and in 1980 the Interior Department identified seven potential National Natural Landmark sites in the same area. More recently, the Emery County Development Council at one point proposed that 210,000 acres of the Swell be set aside as a national park. About in the early 2000s, then-Gov. Mike Leavitt proposed that 620,000 acres be set aside as a national monument.
But the movement never could gain traction in Utah, where 67 percent of the landscape is owned by the federal government, a percentage that in the state's political circles spurs contempt.
Today part of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management landscape, the San Rafael Swell might not carry the "national park" imprimatur as do nearby Capitol Reef and Canyonlands national parks, but it is no less worthy of tag. Those who believe the Swell needs greater protection, perhaps as a unit of the National Park System or else as officially designated wilderness (it currently contains seven Wilderness Study Areas), cite mining, grazing, and off-road vehicle impacts as threats to the landscape. Some rock art panels have served as shooting targets.
Recreational Opportunities Abound
But the lack of a more protective land-management status hasn't prevented recreation in the Swell. Indeed, near the southern end of the Swell stands Goblin Valley State Park, and on BLM lands nearby the beautifully eroded Little Wildhorse and Bell slot canyons wiggle through the Swell.
Along with designated ORV routes, the Swell offers endless miles for horseback use, backpacking edens, mountain biking, and a river -- the San Rafael -- popular with paddlers when runoff swells it, usually from May into mid-June, depending on the previous winter's snowpack. The Green River, which runs through a portion of the Swell, is much more reliable for white-water cowboys and cowgirls looking to buck the rapids.
There's a wonderful BLM campground near the brink of the Wedge Overlook, which looks over a jagged canyon nearly 1,000 feet deep and which is locally referred to as the Little Grand Canyon.
Rock art aficionados appreciate the Swell for being home to some of the Southwest's most curious rock art, such as the renowned Buckhorn Wash Panel, the Head of Sinbad images, the Rochester Panel, or the collection of images found in Black Dragon Canyon.
Venture into the Swell and you'll find buttes and mesas, stone arches and minarets, grassy meadows and box canyons, streams and springs, and possibly be able to retrace routes Butch Cassidy took while fleeing posses. Too, the Swell is home to more than 200 desert bighorn sheep, peregrine falcons, feral horses and burros, Bald and Golden eagles, red-tailed hawks, and prairie falcons.
The prominence of the Swell -- its landscapes and rich archaeological and paleontological resources -- came up when the Obama administration was considering prospective landscapes for protection under the Antiquities Act. That Act allows presidents, without congressional approval, to designate landscapes for protection as national monuments.
"... the San Rafael Swell is a .. . giant dome made of sandstone, shale and limestone -- one of the most spectactular displays of geology in the country. The Swell is surrounded by canyons, gorges, mesas and buttes, and is home to eight rare plant species, desert bighorns, coyotes, bobcats, cottontail rabbits, badgers, gray and kit fox, and the golden eagle," reads an internal draft document prepared for Interior Department officials.
"Visitors to the area can find ancient Indian rock art and explore a landscape with geographic features resembling those found on Mars."
While political push-back from Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives seems to have squelched the administration's consideration of the Swell, and any other landscapes, for protection as national monuments, it hasn't lessened any of the wonders that you'll find in the Swell.