It has been nearly a year since I visited a half-dozen “rock art” sites in Lincoln County, Nevada. For whatever reason a couple of those places I had yet to do anything with. It is unfortunate how that sometimes happens, but I do on occasion lose steam, forget, or plan to come back to something sooner than I end up doing so. This doesn’t necessary mean that I didn’t enjoy a site, because in this particular instance, I found the White River Narrows to be one of the more intriguing sites visited on this particular trip. So much so that I dedicated an entire day to exploring the surrounding area.
The White River Narrows is a long and winding canyon in the White River Valley. Access to the area is easy. Roughly 24 miles north of Crystal Springs, State Route 318 travels directly through the narrows for a short distance. Well maintained dirt roads venture off the highway and further into the narrows, passing directly by many well documented petroglyph panels.
The rhyolite cliffs of the narrows were carved by the White River between 2.5 million to 11,700 years ago. The petroglyphs found here have been dated as far back as 4,000 years. The narrows were once a travel corridor for Native Americans in the region, interesting enough none of the information that I’ve combed through mention a particular tribe or tribes, but my best guess would be the Southern Paiute as they inhabited nearby Pahranagat Valley.
Many of the sites that are found in and around the narrows are no big secret. Lincoln County in association with Ely BLM have done a fine job in educating the public about many of the archeological sites in the county. A large and colorful brochure covering six of the panels in the narrows is available at a registration box. To the average visitor these six panels are likely more than enough to get their “rock art” fill, but for someone like myself I want to find more.
I start my day by driving north through the narrows on an unnamed dirt road that is accessed from 318. There were several random petroglyphs along this route. One site in particular stood out to me, it is the only site on the north side of 318 that is included in the BLM brochure. A majority of the designs at this site are abstract designs of long lines, spirals, “rakes”, and meandering lines. There are also a significant number of Basin & Range style bighorn sheep, lizard, footprints, and stick-figure anthropomorphs. Pahranagat-style anthropomorphic figures are also present, this is the furthest north known site that this style exists, as much of it is concentrated south in Pahranagat Valley.
A little over a half-mile down the road, on the east side, a large dome-shaped outcropping caught my eye. I could see what appeared to be a large cave opening staring back at me. I wondered what I might find inside, so I hiked out to it. As I approached the cave, I had the feeling that I was being watch. I scanned the horizon carefully, catching sight of a coyote about a quarter of a mile away. His eyes were fixated on me. I let off a good whoop-whoop, letting him know that I was aware that he was there, but it didn’t faze him. I keep an eye on him as I checked out the cave.
The cave ended up being empty with the exception of what may have been a yoni carved into the back of cave. Native tribes were known to carve large vagina depictions into boulders, making this cave a site likely used for fertility magic, or puberty rituals.
From the cave I noticed an interesting outcropping of large boulders a little further out, I decided that they were worth checking out. Meanwhile the coyote was continuing to eye me, I whooped some more, but this guy wasn’t going anywhere. I have to admit that this was the first and only time that I have had concern for my safety in regard to a coyote.
Arriving at the boulders, the first that I came to had dozens of weathered petroglyphs along the bottom, the ground covered in hundreds of lithic scatters from tool making. My hunch was correct this time, and there was evidence to prove it. Tucked along the boulders there were plenty of little rock shelters and overhangs, each containing trace elements of a time in which they were occupied by an earlier people.
I was continuously watching my back, the last thing that I needed was to give this overly curious coyote the opportunity to sneak up on me. Every time that I looked however, he was still standing in the same place, watching me.
As I returned to my vehicle I was going to have to pass right by Wylie, I decided that I’d give him a taste of his own medicine. Instead of avoiding him, I walked straight toward him. When I got within a couple of hundred feet, he finally took off, but I couldn’t tell exactly where he went. As I passed where he had been sitting and watching, some nearby brush shook , scaring the crap out of me. I was probably near pissing my pants as a jack rabbit scurried away at rapid speed.
It was time to check out the cliffs on the other side of the highway. I returned the way that I had come in. At the crossover, a gate has to be opened, I’ve always thought of these gates as the BLM’s way of keeping the wilderness contained safely behind a barrier, or is it the other way around, trying to keep urbanites out of the wilderness?
I walked up to the gate to open it, when something peculiar caught my attention on the white volcanic cliffs that the highway travels through. From a distance I thought that I could make out pigment along the walls. I walked closer, and sure enough, there were orange finger smudges, zig-zag lines, and even some stick figure anthropomorphs along a 30-foot stretch of the highway. Somehow these pictographs had managed to survive highway construction, and the hordes of travelers that passed by daily. It is interesting that there are no mentions of these pictographs anywhere, making them a very cool find, that obviously few people notice.
It was now onto the main stretch of narrows that the area is famous for. There is a road that travels through them, but I didn’t want to just drive from panel to panel, and possibly miss something. I crossed the highway, parked the Jeep and began what was probably a five-mile (give or take) round trip hike through the ancient river carved canyon.
The petroglyphs begin on the wall directly south of the highway, the panels for the most part are small and spaced apart until you reach the main panel, which is the largest in the narrows. Here there is a mixture of Fremont and Basin & Range style petroglyphs. The designs consist of several styles of anthropomorphic figures, some are stick figures, others are full-bodied. Many of the human figures feature genitalia. In regard to female figures with genitals, I’ve only seen similar stylization along the White Cliffs in Death Valley National Park. Also of interest is that several of the figures contain traces of red pigment, suggesting that at one time the glyph had been filled in with paint.
Zoomorphic features like bighorn sheep, deer, and bear paw prints are also prominently featured in the panel. But what really caught my eye was the twenty-odd foot meandering line. Part of the line has “tick” marks, like it was used for counting or keeping track of something, while other sections zig-zag up and down like you’d see on a life support machine. The vast majority of the petroglyphs fall below the line, appearing as though they are following it.
This panel has seen some vandalism, likely due to its close proximity to the highway, and an old route (SR 38) that once ran directly through the narrows. Some of the vandalism at this point can be considered historic, the earliest inscription by Carl Williams is dated September 18, 1926. However there are more recent inscriptions dated 1976, and 1978. When visiting these sites it is important to not add to the panels with modern inscriptions, when doing so you are harming the archeological integrity of the “rock art,” and it is highly illegal, punishable under federal law. It also makes you a self-absorbed douche bag.
It would take me forever to cover every panel that is located through this stretch of the narrows, so I will leave at this. The White River Narrows Archeological District is a treasure trove of archaeological splendor, possibly the nicest site in Lincoln County. Between the volume of well documented, and obscure petroglyph and pictograph sites, as well as the gorgeous setting. Take a day and come here, walk the land, and you will not be disappointed.