Black Lava Butte Petroglyphs (Sand to Snow National Monument)


The petroglyphs of Black Lava Butte have been largely overlooked as an important cultural site. The first field study performed here by archeologists took place in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, since that time little study has been done.

In 2011, the ancient volcanic mesa was considered as the location of a future wind farm. The BLM fully aware of the sacred site that sat on top of the volcanic butte, issued a permit to Element Power, to install a 200-foot steel mast on Black Lava Butte. The steel mast was used to study the wind speeds prior to the installation of the turbine farm. Upon completion of their testing in 2012, Element Power announced that they would not be continuing the project because they did not believe the wind data collected is adequate for the kind of project development they were envisioning for the buttes.

I set off one early Sunday morning in July, with the hopes of finding some of these not so well documented petroglyphs. There are no defined trails leading up, nor are there any trails on top of the 3-mile long, half-a-mile wide, mesa. Surprisingly, it didn’t take long to begin stumbling upon some scattered petroglyphs above a large dry water run-off.  From the next half-mile or so after the run-off, I encountered small, simplistic petroglyphs, until I came across what likely was once the setting of a camp or small village site.

At the camp/village site are at least 50 petroglyphs, mostly small abstract designs. They are difficult to spot because the basalt rock is scattered all over the ground, and the designs are faint from the aging process. Sleep circles and grinding slicks are also prevalent, and make for further evidence of likely camp/village site.

The most exciting find was a grinding slick that was roughly six-foot by two foot in size. The rock is well-worn, and has a number of petroglyph designs carved in it. This grinding slick like this is truly a rare find.


Large grinding slick with petroglyphs.


From this point my exploration was cut short, I had been threatened by thunderstorms all morning, and the booming of thunder was continuously getting closer. I felt that I needed to get off of the mesa before the storm ripped through, and I was stuck without the possibility of shelter.

There is so much left to explore on Black Lava Butte, I will make a return trip shortly to see what else can be found. I’ve read estimates of there being over 800 petroglyphs here, and I want to see them all.


Interested in visiting this site?

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About the author

Jim Mattern

Jim is a scapegoat for the NPS, an author, adventurer, photographer, radio personality, guide, and location scout. His interests lie in Native American and cultural sites, ghost towns, mines, and natural wonders in the American Deserts.