“Petroglyph Canyon” in Zion National Park is a pretty well guarded secret. On the National Park Service’s scale of cultural site classifications it has been ranked a #2. What that means is, if you go up to a ranger and ask them where to see petroglyphs they will not tell you about this site. If you asked them about “a canyon with petroglyphs,” they again will not acknowledge it. However if you asked for the site by name, they might tell you about it, it just depends on the ranger.
This classification system has always come across as kind of silly to me; National Parks are the people of the United State’s land, set aside for us by our government. Cultural sites are part of our nation’s history, and we as citizens have the right to be educated hands-on about the history of the people of this nation. On the preservation side, there has to be a better way than to hide the cultural resources from the people who have a genuine interest in learning. I will add that this isn’t a Zion problem, this is a National Park problem. This same scenario is played out at National Parks across our country.
I found out about “Petroglyph Canyon” on the evening prior to arriving in Zion National Park, after poking around a couple of websites. Both websites provided rather vague clues as to it’s whereabouts. Needless to say, I’m always up for a challenge!
The day that I arrived, I spent several hours wandering around the canyons below the smaller of the two tunnel systems along Route 9 in the park. Both accounts had made mention of “Petroglyph Canyon” being in the vicinity of this tunnel. Mid-afternoon I quit my search for the day; I had a larger hike up the east rim of Zion Canyon planned for the afternoon and evening. I spent a majority of that hike, and that night thinking about the possible location of these elusive petroglyphs.
The next morning I drove back to the tunnel, and searched the area again, looking in any nook or cranny that I may have missed the previous day. Hours had passed again, and I couldn’t say that I was any closer to finding what I was looking for. I was pretty frustrated at this point; I returned to my Jeep and drove east on Route 9 for about a mile and a half to a pull off with a wood fence. One of the posts that I read had mentioned a wood fence, but they stated that it was located immediately upon exiting the tunnel. There was no wood fence immediately after exiting the tunnel, I figured that the NPS may have removed it. Despite it’s distance from the tunnel, I figured that it was worth a look…after all, I had two strikes, I had one more pitch before I was out.
I climbed down the rock faces, and entered the wash below; walking north back toward the road from below. There was a small tunnel directly below Route 9, walking through it, I felt like my luck was about to change. Emerging on the other side I was drawn to an area heavy with vegetation, and high dark flat walls. I could see NPS markers along the wall as I made my way through the array of pine and desert scrub. I came out at a metal box, with the typical “Cultural site spiel,” inside the box a guest registry. I opened it up, and signed it. Looking over the list of people who had signed in and the dates of their visits, revealed that as little as ten people per month visit the site. That is a miniscule number considering Zion receives nearly three million visitors in a year!
Along the wall there are two panels of petroglyphs, and a single pictograph. The pictograph doesn’t amount to much, it is just a single red triangle that blends in against the orange-colored stone. The petroglyphs on the other hand are stunning, one of the two panels consists almost entirely of bighorn sheep motifs. The sheep designs are a bit different from those that I am use to seeing in the California desert, their styling appears simple and archaic. One noticeable difference is the use of a split hoof in the design. There also appears to be some deer, and a single bear motif; along with at least one anthropomorph, a spiral, and some other unidentifiable designs incorporated into the panel.
The second panel has more of a focus on anthropomorphic figures. Some of these figures with their large heads and small bodies stir up images of our modern incarnation of aliens. Multiple serpentine lines are present; some believe that these lines may represent a calendar, or counter of some sort. The circular designs that are incorporated into these serpentine lines, may be representative of the sun and/or moon. Maybe these early inhabitants are trying to tell us when the aliens may return? Highly doubtful, but a fun way of looking at the possibilities.
In all there are an estimated 153 singular petroglyph designs at “Petroglyph Canyon.”
It is thought that the petroglyphs in “Petroglyph Canyon” were made by the Virgin Anasazi, who occupied this part of Utah between the years 1 – 1200. They were the westernmost Ancestral Puebloan people in the Southwest. Their territory consisted of the Virgin River and Muddy Rivers, the western Colorado Plateau, the Moapa Valley and were bordered to the south by the Colorado River. They occupied areas in present day Nevada, Arizona, and Utah.
In terms of architecture, the Virgin Anasazi differed from their counterparts. Instead of constructing massive buildings, they tended to construct smaller pueblo style seasonal structures, containing only a few rooms. A few of such ruins remain in areas of Zion National Park today, but like the petroglyphs they’re whereabouts are not made publicly available.
After having found “Petroglyph Canyon,” I was very happy that I hadn’t thrown in the towel, and persisted in my search. I have included a map to the site, and highly encourage others to visit and learn about these images carved in stone. If you have never visited a petroglyph site before, or are not aware of proper site etiquette please review: Hands off the Petroglyph! Etiquette for Visiting a Petroglyph / Pictograph Site.