Five great places to see Native American rock art

Native American, native american, petroglyph, new mexico, petroglyphs
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!

%Gallery-111971%

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!

Understanding the wild west: Visiting a Native American pueblo

New Mexico, like much of the western US, has long been home to many Native American tribes who shaped the history of the region every bit as much as the white settlers and cowboys who came after them.

Around Albuquerque, Santa Fe, and Taos, you can’t drive more than a dozen or so miles before you see another sign pointing the way to a Pueblo that is open to visitors. Each of these can provide a window into the Native American culture, as residents are often willing to show visitors around and tell them all about the Native heritage. Two of the most fascinating and unique Pueblos in the area that are open to visitors are the Taos Pueblo and Acoma Sky City.

Taos Pueblo, Taos, New Mexico
Located just outside the small, quirky town of Taos, Taos Pueblo’s claim to fame is that it is one of the oldest continuously inhabited settlements in North America. People have been living here for over 1,000 years, and it’s both a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a National Historic Landmark.

The main parts of the traditional structures date back to around 1000 A.D. while the walls, which are made of adobe, are continuously maintained by the people living there. Residents of the pueblo live just as their ancestors did – with no electricity or running water, cooking their food by the fire. They do however, have some modern conveniences. Watching an old woman cook fry bread on an open flame and then seeing her grandson climb into his dusty Ford pickup truck presents an interesting juxtaposition.

The Pueblo is open to visitors daily (though it occasionally closes for special ceremonies). Visitors must pay an admission fee plus a camera fee and guided tours are available.

Acoma Sky City, Acomita, New Mexico
Acoma Sky City is nearly as old as Taos, but located atop a 367-foot bluff, it’s a bit more visually impressive. As you drive down a narrow paved road, you see the mesa rising up from the ground, the small adobe buildings cluttered together on top.

Like at Taos, visitors here must pay a camera permit fee, but here they are not allowed to wander freely and explore – they must be part of a guided tour, which costs $20 per person. Acoma has been inhabited since around 1150 A.D. and also calls itself the “oldest continually inhabited” community. Like at Taos, the residents here live without running water and electricity, but the Pueblo here feels a bit more “ancient”. Because it’s on top of the mesa, you won’t see any cars near the dwellings so you can truly feel as through you’ve stepped back in time as you wander around the buildings and stop to shop for traditional handicrafts and art.

After the tour, visitors can get a more in-depth look at the history of the Pueblo at the Cultural Center, a state-of-the-art museum space. At both Acoma and Taos, visitors can purchase traditional crafts and baked goods from the residents, who rely on business from tourists to sustain themselves.

There are countless other, smaller Pueblos located in the area, but with limited time, I highly recommend visiting one or both of these.

Scenic America: The Four Corners

When you’re figuring out where to go for vacation, you might want beautiful vistas, clean air, ancient ruins, and traditional cultures. A lot of people make the mistake of thinking they have to go to some remote country to find all that. You don’t. Head over to the Four Corners region and you’ll get all that and more.

The Four Corners, where the states of Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, and Utah meet, is home to several national monuments and parks as well as some of the most stunning scenery in the country. Much of the area is taken up by various Native American reservations, including the Navajo Nation, which is the largest. This region has been a center of native culture for thousands of years, and includes several well-preserved pueblos, adobe villages preserved by the elements and their builders’ natural ingenuity. The best are Canyon de Chelly and Mesa Verde.

“Awe inspiring” is a hackneyed phrase in travel writing, but you’d have to be a robot not to be moved by the vast open spaces, rugged mountains, and varied colors of the landscape. The desert has a subtle beauty to it that grows on you the longer you stay. Sometimes it’s not so subtle, like when you pass through the massive buttes of Monument Valley or watch the sunset change the sky from pink to crimson to purple over the course of a quiet half hour.

While the region seems remote, it’s quite easy to get to. One scenic route is to fly into Phoenix (definitely not a scenic start, but it gets better), drive a rental car up to the old logging town of Flagstaff in the mountains, stop at the Grand Canyon and Painted Desert, and continue on to the Four Corners. You can see a lot in a long weekend, but you might want to consider staying a whole week and exploring some of the more untrod areas.

%Gallery-70174%