sand island petroglyphs   13 comments

Posted at 9:24 pm in Arizona,Art,geology,history,Utah

Baby Rocks formation near Kayenta, Arizona

In my last post about travels through Utah, I wrote of our campsite in the high desert, a few miles west of Kanab. We stayed in that area for the first few days of November before moving eastward. My original plan had been to camp at one of several dispersed sites that are located along a couple of dirt roads north of 89 between Kanab and Page. However, after making inquiries at the Kanab BLM office, it became apparent that I’d have to look elsewhere due to road closures. In such arid regions, one would think that the roads would be easily maintained, but not so. Rock falls and wash-outs can make roads entirely impassable within minutes. Clean-up and rebuilding can take weeks to several months, so it’s always wise to stop in at the local BLM office to check on road and weather conditions before venturing off the beaten path.

With my plans foiled due to a recent rock fall, I decided to spend the better part of a day on the road, driving east from Kanab, past Lake Powell and over Glen Canyon Dam, through Page, Arizona, then taking routes 98 and 160, through the Navajo Nation lands of the Four Corners region, before turning north and re-entering Utah near Bluff. Once in Utah, I figured that I would find somewhere to camp the night. The drive from Page to Bluff was my first trip through the Navajo lands. I passed a number of farms, many with hogan structures in the yard. Also seen along the way were several hand-painted signs for community horse races. Northeast of the town of Kayenta, I took the above photo of Baby Rocks, an unusual formation of sand- and siltstone that has broken up into vertical towers which resemble a gathering of people (click on all images for larger version). From the highway, it was also possible to see several of the immense rock formations of Monument Valley.

view of a panel of petroglyphs on cliff face at Sand Island site near Bluff, Utah

By late afternoon, I was back over the Utah border, heading north on 191. I crossed the San Juan River, then turned east toward Bluff. Soon, I spotted signs for the Sand Island BLM campground and made a mental note to return there if I did not find a suitable campsite elsewhere. Continuing east, I made a quick exploration of Bluff, then returned to the BLM campground. Once again, I found myself almost alone – which is always nice. I chose a campsite beneath a tall gold-leafed cottonwood, near the towering sandstone cliffs that run parallel to the river. Before making dinner, I took the dogs for a walk over to the cliffs to study the many panels of petroglyphs which were a good part of the reason for my choice of stopping points for this evening. Various sources I’ve read date some of these petroglyphs to about 2500 years old.

our campsite, as seen from the trail along the petroglyphs (far right). The San Juan River is obscured from view by the trees.

Although the elevation was over 4000 feet at this location, we enjoyed one of the warmest nights of our trip. The campground is very sheltered and the south-facing cliffs must store a great deal of heat on sunny days. Although quiet during our visit, this site is a staging area for river rafting on the San Juan, so must see a lot more traffic during warmer months of the year.

anthropomorphic figures surrounded by Bighorn Sheep and other creatures

The petroglyph panels at this site are protected by a chain link fence along the sections with the highest aggregation of figures. However, the fence is close enough to afford an excellent view of the glyphs. I walked the length of the expanse of sandstone cliff and also found a number of isolated figures high above ground level. As we followed the roadway, Ravens occasionally appeared to soar along the upper edge of the cliff face.

several Kokopelli figures appear in one area of the glyphs (figures playing flutes)

Figures at this site include many anthropomorphs, perhaps most notably, a small group of Kokopelli figures – those playing flutes in the above photo. There are also many animal figures forming lines like small herds. The petroglyphs at Sand Island are the most accessible of those located along the San Juan River. There exist many more sites which may only be viewed from the water. Perhaps some day I will have a chance to take a rafting trip to see these additional sites.

geometric and more abstract figures appear in some of the panels

I spent awhile photographing the petroglyphs in the evening and again the next morning. The warmer light a couple of hours after sunrise seemed to produce the best results. The number of figures is so great at this site, that it could provide many of hours of study for those who are interested in such things. I would return to this campground later in this trip, only to notice new figures that had somehow been overlooked during my previous visit.

After shooting more photos, I packed up the van and set out for the next stop on our exploration of southeast Utah – Hovenweep National Monument – to camp and visit the stone dwellings. More about that in an upcoming post.

cliff face as seen from our campsite

Written by bev wigney on January 5th, 2011

13 Responses to 'sand island petroglyphs'

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  1. Very nice Bev !!!!!!!!

    Ed Cavanagh

    5 Jan 11 at 9:39 pm

  2. Bev, another wonderful post! I’m curious; are the petroglyphs protected (by distance, materials, etc.) from visitors, or are you able to go right up to them? While I like the latter, I’m not sure I trust the general public with such treasures.


    5 Jan 11 at 9:53 pm

  3. Ed – Thanks! Glad you liked it.

    John – There is a shoulder-high chain-link fence along the base of the cliff, but a determined person could probably touch the petroglyphs without too much trouble. Basically, you can get nice and close to shoot photos. It’s pretty much a trust thing as far as people not vandalizing these sites. I have actually been to a number of sites that have really incredible petroglyphs — I will be posting photos of them in the near future – and there is nothing more than a wood rail fence and a sign asking people not to touch the petroglyphs or pictographs. In most cases, the amount of damage or defacement seems to be fairly minimal. I’ve spoken to people who monitor these sites and they think the amount of damage is becoming less rather than more. At one time, more people did stupid things like shooting at the rock art, etc… There are really high fines for defacing these kinds of sites now — something like 50K, so perhaps that’s been a deterrent, but I have a feeling it has more to do with a growing respect for cultural artifacts. At least I hope that is the case. Anyhow, I’ll be doing a few more posts about neat sites that I visited during this trip – coming up sometime soon.

    bev wigney

    5 Jan 11 at 10:54 pm

  4. I do love following rock art trails and have Big Plans for future trips to see more–Chaco Canyon, and Hovenweep are on the top of my list so I am looking forward to your next post. I visited the glyphs at Seco Canyon and they are so exposed it was frightening–And the glyphs outside Moab are on a wall that is used for rock climbing, so that puzzles me too, I wish these artifacts were more protected! You covered some great landscapes on your trip down…how exciting! Here’s a linky to some of the glyphs I saw in Utah if you care to take a look, its possible you have visited these sites already.


    6 Jan 11 at 10:11 am

  5. Sondra – I was actually thinking of both Sego Canyon and Moonflower Canyon, when I mentioned how poorly protected some of the rock art sites are. Sego Canyon just blows me away (I see that you got some nice photos there!). So amazing that such a site exists. I’ll be writing about my trip there sometime soon. I know what you mean about some of the sites around Moab. One of the sites I visited is in a subdivision just outside of town. I did go to Chaco later in this trip and will be putting up a post when I have time. You have something special to look forward to! (-:

    bev wigney

    6 Jan 11 at 10:40 am

  6. This comment is for the post just before this one, too. Wonderful to check your blog and see your new painting of the Nevermore Cat. That’s deeply inspiring to me as are your ongoing portraits of Sabrina and Sage. That one of Sage is sublime. The town of Bisbee radiates creative energy. It’s so good to see that winter desert light. We had some good Pacific Northwest winter-sun-low-in-the-sky light between Christmas and New Year’s Day, but today there is a dense cloud cover and steady light rain. Just the kind of day for looking at the ancient petroglyphs of a dry sunny place!


    6 Jan 11 at 7:42 pm

  7. am – Thanks about the Nevermore Cat. It was such a nice project and reminded me that i need to be doing more painting. It seems that there is art at every turn in this town, so it does inspire. I love the desert light here. There’s an old apricot tree next to the south wall of this house and it throws the most incredible shadows on the stucco walls — very sharply defined shadows.

    bev wigney

    6 Jan 11 at 10:53 pm

  8. I’ve been in that country, and I like it.

    I’m wearing a belt right now with a Kokopelli on the buckle.


    7 Jan 11 at 8:27 am

  9. Mark – This was my first trip into the southeast corner of Utah and I loved it there. Spent more than two weeks camping and wandering around to various places. If all goes well, I will probably return and spend a few weeks there next autumn as there is just so much to see. Any turquoise on that belt buckle? (-:

    bev wigney

    7 Jan 11 at 10:06 am

  10. Bev, the buckle is just silver. My watch band, on the other hand, has some turquoise. I also have some other buckles with turquoise. One of my favorites has a thunderbird in turquoise. My mother and father traveled through the Southwest many times after they retired and started RVing. My mother loves the jewelry and has quite a lot, including one huge squashblossom necklace. You don’t see much of that back here in the Southeast. My father also wore some pretty fancy watchbands and buckles.


    7 Jan 11 at 10:49 am

  11. Mark – The thunderbird in turquoise must be terrific. I love the jewelry too, but own very little. However, I’ve been thinking of watching for a nice bracelet. I should have visited more of the trading post stores while I was up in the Four Corners, but I may well be back through there in the spring. You’re right – you don’t see much of that jewelry in the east. That’s one of the things I like about being down here in AZ. You see some wonderful jewelry – a lot of functional pieces worn by men. I stopped at a gas station – trading post in northern Arizona (near Red Mesa). I was the only non-native person around the place. A man came up to the cash to pay for his gas and he had a fantastic silver and turquoise watchband. Really something!

    bev wigney

    7 Jan 11 at 11:01 am

  12. Beautiful pictures as always.
    The landscape and arid environment are totally alien to me, rooted as I am in this green and pleasant land. I don’t know how I would cope in the barren vastness of it all. And the thought of people living and building their civilisation in such a desert place is even harder to imagine. But wondrous to observe from a distance, nonetheless.


    12 Jan 11 at 7:20 am

  13. J – Thanks! There is no denying that these landscapes feel strange to me too, or at least they did when I first began traveling through them. Now that I’ve spent to much time in the desert, it seems a busy place, full of birds, lizards, beetles and so many other creatures. The infinite vistas, so rarely marked by man made structures, excite my soul in a way which is difficult to describe. Yes, to think of how earlier civilisations managed to exist in these places. I feel the constant echo of their presence and am reminded of the transitory state of all life.

    bev wigney

    12 Jan 11 at 9:28 am

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