Capitol Reef National Park

Petroglyph Wall in Capitol Reef National Park
Petroglyph Wall in Capitol Reef National Park (National Park Service)

Petroglyph Pullout Walk

After a leisurely tour of the museum displays in the Visitor Center, take a walk along the "Petroglyph Pullout" on Utah Hwy 24, just one mile east of the Visitor Center. Petroglyphs and pictographs, the so-called "rockart" of prehistoric peoples, have long held a special fascination for young and old alike. From the parking area, a short path leads to the base of the Wingate Sandstone cliff. Visible from this viewpoint are some of the most interesting petroglyph panels at Capitol Reef.

Please do not attempt to climb the talus slope in front of you. Use a telephoto lens for "close-up" photographs. Rock art panels are very fragile and many have already been seriously damaged through vandalism, carelessness, or ignorance. Do not touch any petroglyphs or pictographs. Each touch removes a few more sand grains from the rock surface. We need your cooperation to protect and preserve these treasures of the past.

The pathway that leads to the east parallels the base of the cliff for about 500 feet and provides an opportunity for easy viewing of additional examples of Fremont rock art.

This is a short, fairly level walk, though the path is uneven and narrow in places and may become slippery when wet. There are shady places along the way so the walk is not unpleasant even at midday. Many of the petroglyphs visible from the path are badly weathered and difficult to spot, especially in certain lighting. There is no "best" time of day or year for viewing—lighting conditions change from hour to hour and sometimes from minute to minute, depending on the play of sunshine and shadow on the cliff face. Take your time, walk a short distance, and stop and explore the sheer Wingate Sandstone cliff with your eyes. Then, go a bit farther and repeat the process. The excitement and thrill of "discovering" a petroglyph panel for yourself is a major part of the enjoyment of "petroglyph watching" and will be a rich reward for your patience and effort.

About 500 feet down the path, a small rock cairn marks the last of the petroglyphs along this section or the cliff: a large, beautifully rendered image of a bighorn sheep and, on a large detached slab, the head and shoulders of a nearly life-size human figure. From this point, you can retrace your route, taking the left-hand fork in the path just before you reach the irrigation ditch crossing. This will bring you back to the parking area.

Interpreting the Petroglyphs

Within the general category of prehistoric rock art there are two basic subdivisions.

Petroglyphs are images created on rock surfaces by removing a portion of the rock surface, usually by "pecking" or chipping with a pointed piece of harder rock, but sometimes by scraping or "grooving" the rock face. The pecking tool could be held in the hand and wielded like an ice-pick, or held like a chisel in one hand while striking it with a "hammer-stone" held in the other hand. The latter method gives better control and likely was the preferred method.

Pictographs, the second major category of rock art, are images created on the rocks by adding or applying pigments, usually obtained from mineral sources, to the rock surface. On occasion, the two techniques were used in combination. Pictographs tend to weather faster and are usually preserved only in well-sheltered locations, as in shallow caves.

At this location, the cliff face is exposed to the weather and petroglyphs are the rock art form to be seen. Many of them are very faint from the effects of weathering. Perhaps at one time there were also pictographs to be seen here. If so, they are lost forever.

Prehistoric rock art raises many questions and provides an opportunity for endless speculation. One such question revolves around the identity of those who produced it. Many theories have been advanced, ascribing the rock art to (take your choice) ancient Egyptian, Phoenician, or Celtic wanderers, member of the "lost tribe of Israel" or even to extraterrestrial "space travelers." Most scholars, however, agree that the rock art of the Colorado Plateau was produced by prehistoric American Indians.

Another question often asked about prehistoric rock art is, "What does it mean?" Again, there is much speculation but little agreement. There is, perhaps, more consensus about what rock art does not mean. Most scholars—not all—agree that there is little evidence to support an old but very popular theory that it is a form of writing; universal meanings for rock art symbols seem to be lacking. Some people believe that rock art represents mere "doodling" with no real significance to the makers. While a minority of rock art may fall into this latter category, most does not appear to fit such a simplistic interpretation. The effort and skill needed to produce rock art suggests motivations more profound than boredom.

Much of the rock art on the Colorado Plateau has been interpreted as attempts to propitiate natural or supernatural forces. Human-like figures, such as those you have seen above, with elaborate masks, headdresses, and costumes suggest attempts to depict supernatural beings. Bighorn sheep are often seen on panels. Perhaps they, too, had religious significance. Other animals were equally familiar and useful to these people, but are depicted with far less frequency.

We cannot say for certain what rock art means; all we can do is make "educated" guesses. Nevertheless, speculating about the meaning of rock art is enjoyable and challenging; your interpretation may be as good as that of the "experts."

Age of the Petroglyphs

Petroglyphs and pictographs are hard to date with any great accuracy. We can, however, date some artifacts found in adjacent archaeological sites with confidence. At Capitol Reef, these sites fall into a period between 700 A.D. and 1275 A.D. It appears that the same people who left these datable artifacts were the ones who created most of the rock art. Some rock art seems to have been added by more recent visitors. One petroglyph showing human figures on horses, probably Ute, is of more recent origin since horses were not introduced to North America until about 1500 A.D.

Tradition records that when Mormon pioneers began to settle in this valley in the 1880s and clear the land for farming, they discovered traces of ancient irrigation systems. We know from a variety of artifacts discovered in the valley that the Fremont people understood and utilized basic agricultural practices. Unlike the Anasazi, who became almost totally dependent on farming, the Fremont developed a "mixed economy," continuing to depend heavily on hunting and gathering, but supplementing this by cultivating what has been described as "the trinity of prehistoric American Indian agriculture"—corn, beans, and squash. The flood plain between the Wingate cliff and the Fremont River, now bisected by the paved highway, may well have been a life-sustaining Fremont corn field a thousand years ago!

Published: 21 Sep 2009 | Last Updated: 6 Jan 2011
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


Sign up to Away's Travel Insider

Preview newsletter »