Ancient Images on Red Rock

Zion National Park is an amazing place… With so much beauty in the form of stone, water, flora and fauna, it is simply one of my favorite places in the world. One can spend weeks in Zion exploring different hikes and canyons every day, yet barely scratch the surface of what the place has to offer. Visitors often associate the park with only the main canyon and the north fork of the Virgin River. Popular hikes in Zion Canyon include Angels Landing and Weeping Rock. Historic Zion Park Lodge is also located in the main canyon. The first lodge, which was built in the 1920s and burned down in 1966, was speedily rebuilt that year to accommodate guests as soon as possible. That replacement was remodeled in 1990 to more closely resemble the original. It does not have the grand facade of larger national park hotels, like the Yellowstone Lodge, blending instead into the landscape of the narrow canyon in a subtly pleasing way.

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Union Pacific Motor Coaches at the original Zion Lodge, ca. 1929, photo courtesy of the Library of Congress archives

Though I truly love the main canyon, and sites like the Temple of Sinewava framed by the gorgeous cottonwood trees that thrive there, when hiking and exploring I prefer wandering the canyons on the east side of Zion. There are sublime sights in the east canyons that include the Desert Bighorn Sheep, reintroduced to the park in the early 70’s and now thriving. Because it is such a vast and enthralling area, too immense to cover in a blog entry, I will focus here on just one  hike, one of hundreds of very interesting places within the park.

With the many amazing hikes, washes, iron intrusions, canyons, hoodoos, autumn trees, rivers and slot canyons commanding one’s attention, it is easy to simply pass by the small spaces, including the signs of human life from long ago. Even those who have often visited Zion National Park may not have seen the petroglyph panels in the eastern section along the Zion – Mount Carmel Highway.  According to some folks there are hundreds of rock art sites in Zion, but this area is likely the most well-known and easiest to access from the road. The panels are found by walking through a beautiful stone culvert along a wash, and are guarded by extremely tall pine trees. This site is commonly referred to as Petroglyph Canyon. (You can find more specific information about location by searching the web.)

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Historic image of a stone-faced culvert in Zion, similar to the one along the stream near the rock art panel. Courtesy of Library of Congress archives

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The wall itself is at least 100 feet tall – nearly plum, vertical, red rock ~ pocked with erosion and framed by scrub maples and tall pines. The petroglyphs may be as old as 7,000 years, as human habitation has been traced back that far in the Zion area to ancient Puebloan people (Anasazi and Fremont) as well as ancestors of the Southern Paiute. The petroglyphs found on these rocks were likely made by some or all of these groups over generations.

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There is very little protection for this site but for a general policy of secrecy – just a simple and low wooden fence, and signs warning about consequences of damaging the petroglyphs. Graffiti is present, but not as bad as at some sites I have explored in the southwest. This panel is not a secret, but there are no signs leading visitors to the wall, nor will most Rangers give directions to visitors… Some sites in the park are closed due to vandalism. Sad.

Gazing at the images one can’t help but wonder what they meant to the people creating them… Was it deeper than ‘mere doodling’? Is there meaning tied to sun and moon cycles like other rock art sites in the southwest? What might we find for shadows and light on the spiral below if we returned on a solstice?

I can’t help but imagine the people pecking these images into the walls, with perhaps their family and friends watching them from nearby ~ what were the others doing while the image creators worked? Crafting sandals? Foraging? Preparing food? Or was this conducted in secret, with just a chosen few working on the symbols as perhaps part of a prayer to benefit the group? The time taken to make them was so precious for ancient people in a life that was relatively short and full of very hard work. My own feeling is that these creations hold a depth of meaning we may never fully comprehend.

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