10 Places to See Native American Pictographs & Petroglyphs in the West
Humans have been creating rock art since paleolithic times. The oldest known of which (so far) is cave art found on an Indonesian island dating to some 45,000 years ago. In the Old West, Native American rock art, including pictographs and petroglyphs, while relatively younger, is equally evocative.
Native American Pictographs and Petroglyphs
Both pictographs and petroglyphs are found throughout North America, but are especially famous in the West. Pictographs are paintings on rock. These are found all over the west but they generally do not preserve well except in some rare occasions.
More common are petroglyphs. These are symbols and icons that Native Americans chiseled into the stone face itself.
Pictographs and petroglyphs were not a language like Egyptian hieroglyphics. Generally, rock art could convey meaning or directions, but it was not a transmitter of language.
Rather, these symbols were typically abstract and spiritual. In the west, rock art was usually created by those who had undergone vision quests or to mark a place of deeply profound spiritual importance. In some instances they may have just been an expression of art. Interpretations are all subjective and speculative, which makes these images particularly alluring to viewers.
Here’s a look at 10 places in the American West where you can still see preserved indigenous works of spirit, art, and thought.
1. Legend Rock Petroglyph Site, Wyoming
Among the numerous petroglyphs in the West, there are few as dramatic as the Legend Rock Petroglyph Site in Wyoming.
A Wyoming State Park, the location features vertical cliffs that stretch for over 1,300 feet. The importance of Legend Rock to Native American spiritual beliefs is significant, having been a sacred site for thousands of years.
The first petroglyphs were carved perhaps as far back as six milenia and today a visitor can see about 300 petroglyphs on 92 different panels. The style has been attributed to the “Sheepeaters” in the Dinwoody style, an ancestor group of the Shoshone.
These petroglyphs show figures in headdresses with decorated torsos. Later tribes who may have carved into the cliffs were the Crow, Arapahoe, Sioux, Kiowa, Blackfoot, and Cheyenne.
Humans, animals, and geometric shapes appear in abundance. Perhaps the most well-known petroglyph from the site is that of the mythical thunderbird.
Visiting Legend Rock is simple. It is accessible for day visitors from May to September. A hiker just has to make sure to bring plenty of water and watch out for rattlesnakes.
2. Great Basin National Park, Nevada
In the Great Basin, archaeologists discovered a Native American culture dating from the 13th century CE which was dubbed the “Fremont Indian” culture after the Fremont River.
These people were, unlike their ancestors or their descendants, a sedentary people that practiced agriculture. They also avidly created pictographs. Some of these are found in Nevada’s Great Basin National Park, where the westernmost edge of Fremont culture spread.
Upper Pictograph Cave is the most well-known site within the park. To create their pictographs, the Fremont created paints which proved to last centuries. This usually entailed using an inorganic pigment such as the mineral hematite which would then be used with a binding agent such as eggs, blood, or oil, mixed with a fluid such as water, urine, or juice to create the paint.
The images have been dubbed the “Fremont-style” because of their distinct trapezoidal look for both human and animal figures. Other images such as lines or dots were abstract.
Visitors today can go to the park and approach the cave. However, they are forbidden to enter in order to preserve not only the rock art, but also the significant archaeological findings on the site. You can easily view the pictographs from outside the cave.
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3. Nine Mile Canyon, Utah
While it is called Nine Mile Canyon, this canyon is really over 40 miles long. It is suggested by Atlas Obscura that the nine-mile moniker came from a surveyor named John Wesley Powell who used a technique called the “nine-mile transect.”
In any case, Nine Mile Canyon is also dubbed the “world’s longest art gallery” due to the numerous pictographs and petroglyphs at the site.
The diversity of pictographs found in Nine Mile Canyon is impressive. These have been inscribed over the course of a millennium from the early Fremont culture circa 400 CE to 1400 CE. Later, Anglo settlers even put their own carvings on the rock.
The carvings range from animal life, hunting scenes, to abstract images. Some even contain directional guides such as a dragonfly symbol which indicated a bountiful land overlaid with cardinal directional points. This was meant to convey to a traveler which way to go.
What’s more, there are images that guide people on how to monitor the sun in order to best provide direction for when to plant and harvest crops.
Aside from these sites, the canyon also features a ghost town called Harper, making it well worth the visit. The site is managed by the Bureau of Land Management.
Related read: When Did the Wild West Really End?
4. Petroglyph National Monument, New Mexico
One of the largest rock art sites in the United States is Petroglyph National Monument in New Mexico. This site features rock art from up to seven centuries ago with an estimated 25,000 petroglyphs along 17 miles of escarpment.
Most of these were made by the ancestors of the Pueblo and most were created from the 14th to the late 17th centuries CE. This artform came crashing to an end with the Spanish conquest of the area.
These petroglyphs are generally believed to be sacred symbols rather than containing any sort of mundane meaning. Most are abstract. For example, Britannica notes that common motifs include spirals, geometric shapes, people, animals, and stars.
For each it is important to look at individual petroglyphs in context to see how it was integrated into the environment about it. In 1990, the site was established as a national monument.
Today, it is still considered a sacred space by Native American people who conduct important religious ceremonies on the grounds. The site is open year-round with multiple trails to view these alluring images.
5. Saguaro National Park, Arizona
These include shapes and objects that are easily recognizable but also a large amount of abstract images that people still wonder over. The largest collection of the petroglyphs and pictographs may be found in the park on Signal Hill, a low-lying rocky hill that is distinct in the district.
Unfortunately, the pictographs have not worn well over the centuries and are barely visible. However, the petroglyphs fare better and are evocative. One example found here is the so-called “Great Spiral.”
The petroglyph’s design of a spiral alone upon a rock is simple yet thoughtful leading one writer to comment that the petroglyphs “evoke a mysterious presence, a complex sense of the divine, expressed by ancestors who once peopled this continent.”
The most common wisdom is that the petroglyphs found in Saguaro were of religious importance. Beyond that it is purely speculative. Perhaps they told a story or represented a clan, or ensured the support of the spirits. Each visitor may have their own interpretation.
Related read: Tom Jeffords and Cochise: Blood Brothers of Arizona
6. Shavano Valley Rock Art Site, Colorado
The Shavano Valley contains the largest concentration of rock art in western Colorado. The site contains 37 different rock art panels that were composed between 1000 BCE and 1900 CE.
That’s a long time and as a result the diversity of the pictographs and petroglyphs has been used as a point of tracing continuity and change in Native American culture in that region. What makes understanding the petroglyphs of Shavano easier than other sites, is that they were carved until recently so they are within near living memory.
Twenty seven panels of the rock art were created by archaic and Ute peoples. The remaining 11 panels are of more recent origin containing inscriptions and graffiti. However, these are considered historically important since they are also a record of early white settlement in the region.
The Native American panels offer some unique insights into cultural developments in western Colorado. The early petroglyphs are of a singular straight line style showing images of animals as well as human-type figures. Later styles are more mixed with curved lines.
One well known image is found on Panel 1 which depicts three bears climbing in trees. Experts believe that this may tie into an Ute legend. Generally considered a premier site of the Native American past, it is not open to visit by the general public. However, private tours may be arranged through the Ute Indian Museum.
Related read: The Complicated Legacy of Peacemaker Ute Chief Ouray
7. Pictograph Trail in Little Blair Valley, California
In the Little Blair Valley of southern California, the Kumeyaay people left a record of impressive yellow and red rock art. These images are quite alluring in their abstraction consisting of chains of diamonds and chevrons.
While the site is not the most extensive of rock art sites, it is certainly one of the most important since it one of the few archaeological records of Native American people from that region.
One writer reasons that the images may have been painted by young men to identify and thank the spirits that aided him during the ordeals between boyhood and manhood. Other images may have been painted by females as they went through the vision quests of their own puberty rituals.
These pictographs may have been initiation art.
The site is located in the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park and is open year-round. It is a moderate 3 mile out and back hike.
8. Canyon de Chelly National Monument, Arizona
Where many rock art sites go for the anthropomorphic or the abstract, Canyon de Chelly’s petroglyphs provide insight onto the terrible clash between Europeans and native cultures.
The Canyon de Chelly National Monument is located in desert regions in northeastern Arizona and contains numerous examples of 19th century Navajo rock art. Some of the most stunning are silhouetted images of Spanish riders complete with cloaks, hats, and rifles.
This makes this rock art much more dateable. According to Stewart M. Green’s “Rock Art,” these images depict how a contingent of 500 Spanish soldiers led by Antonio Narbona forced their way into the canyon in 1805. At that time, the canyon was a base for either Diné or Navajo people.
In the massacre that followed over 100 elderly, women, and children were killed while they were huddled in a shallow cave for safety. The place, now called Massacre Cave, held their bones for a century and a half until archaeologists found them.
In 1931, President Hoover approved the designation of the site as a national monument in order to preserve its rich trove of archaeological knowledge.
9. Indian Painted Rocks, Spokane, Washington
Along the Little Spokane River in Washington State, members of the Spokane tribe painted red figures onto the rocks.
The stone itself was porous which allowed it to easily absorb the pigment and also provided for its preservation for the next 250 years. The site, Indian Painted Rocks, is reported by Atlas Obscura has some puzzling pictographs of an abstract nature, but some are easily deduced.
For example, some pictographs depict horses and another a cross. Was this a sign of European settlement?
Another image is a “water devil” design, which may indicate the presence of an evil spirit. Or maybe these images were just the art of an individual who painted the rocks and did not even realize his or her work would last so long.
While interpretation, as with almost all Native American rock art, is up for debate the actual painting has been analyzed. According “Ghosts and Legends of Spokane,” the Spokane people used red minerals which were crushed then mixed with fish oil.
This art is easily accessible at the Little Spokane Natural Area, a relatively short hike from the trailhead’s parking lot.
Related read: 17 Epic Facts about the Transcontinental Railroad
10. Canyonlands National Park, Utah
The penultimate western landscape of deep gorges created by milenia of erosion, it is little wonder the Canyonlands National Park in Utah was a place that would move Native Americans to art.
Horseshoe Canyon is a part of the park and is one of the most stunning locales to see both petroglyphs and pictographs. Here, hikers can see life size figures etched and painted into the rock face. This 200 foot display is called the Great Gallery and it is believed to have been created by hunter gatherers thousands of years in the past.
The trouble is that getting to see the site is difficult. From Moab, Utah you need to drive over three hours to reach the trailhead. Then to reach the Great Gallery you need to hike seven miles (14 round trip).
There are no services, so you need to be supplied. It is also recommended not to do it during the summer, when temperatures can easily exceed 100 degrees Fahrenheit.
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Joseph A. Williams is an author, historian, and librarian based in Connecticut. He has authored three books: The Sunken Gold, Seventeen Fathoms Deep, and Four Years Before the Mast.