I often hear people saying the U.S. has a short history. Actually it’s as ancient as anywhere else. Before the Europeans took over this land there were hundreds of Native American cultures living here. Some have survived; others have disappeared. One of the most evocative reminders of their civilizations is the rock art of the American Southwest. Here are five good places to see some.
Canyonlands National Park, Utah
The stunning landscape of this park is the main draw, but hidden amidst the colorful mesas and canyons are numerous petroglyphs (carving in rock) and pictograms (paintings on rock). The best are in Horseshoe Canyon, where a large panel of ghostly painted figures have been variously interpreted as gods, ancestors or, by the scientifically challenged, aliens. They date to as far back as 2000 BC.
Nine Mile Canyon, Utah
One of the best sites for petroglyphs in all the Southwest is billed as the “world’s longest art gallery”. With about 10,000 images ranging in date from 950 AD to the 1800s, it is the biggest concentration of rock art ever found in the U.S. The remains of the homes of the Fremont people are clearly visible when hiking the canyon. The images include bison being stuck with spears, strange horned figures that may be shamen, and men on horseback dating to the historic period.
Saguaro National Park West, Arizona
The rock art here isn’t as grand as the other places on the list, but it’s far more accessible. Just a short drive from Tucson and only two hours from Phoenix, the park takes its name from the forest of giant saguaro cacti that grow here. There are two parks–one to the west and one to the east of town–and the one to the west has a rocky hill covered in carvings made by the Hohokam people. The most unusual is a strange spiral that may have been an early calendar. The Hohokam built large towns and extensive canal systems in southern Arizona until about 1450 AD. In fact, the modern cities of Phoenix and Tucson were founded by the Hohokam!
Petroglyph National Monument
Another easily accessible location, this national monument is right on the western edge of Albuquerque. You can see just how close from the above photo, courtesy Daniel Schwen. There are about 24,000 images here, mostly from prehistoric Pueblo peoples starting about 500 AD but also some made by Spanish settlers who saw all the pictures on the rocks and decided to add their own. Some are even the cattle brands of the early ranchers.
Canyon de Chelly National Monument, Arizona
We’ve talked about this amazing set of cliff dwellings before. Located in the heart of the Navajo Nation, prehistoric peoples built extensive villages here in the shadows of towering cliffs until their mysterious disappearance in the 14th century. As you wander the trails you’ll see petroglyphs of animals and people scattered about the rocks. If you have kids, playing “spot the picture” can be a fun way to keep them entertained. The jaw-dropping scenery will probably do that anyway. Note that the interpretive center is closed for remodeling until May 2011.
While desert scenes aren’t exactly the first thing you think of during the Christmas season, winter is a good time to explore these sites. The scorching sun takes a vacation, and in the higher altitude the desert can be downright cold!