Petroglyphs along a trail or obscure road are ultimate history tour
The herd loped in a graceful circle, the sun shining brilliant overhead. They raced across the sandstone grit of rock faces and that’s where they stayed — frozen in eternal motion.
How long since they’d passed that way? How long since the hunters had pursued them?
They’d lived in a different world, but the sun and the earth and the brilliant blue sky were constant. On that clear morning, I thought I could understand the impulse to carve the world into the patina of desert varnish on the smooth rock face.
What now are petroglyphs were once a daily diary and the art of months and years passing — events recorded, triumphs remembered, people memorialized and heroic attempts made to understand the inscrutability of the natural world. Throughout this region, petroglyphs created by ancient hands are a history carved in rock.
Fellow features writer Melinda Mawdsley and I had gone in pursuit of them. Subconsciously, it might have been to appreciate the vivid history of this area we both love, or to be humbled by an enhanced sense of our place in it, but ultimately our reason was this: Petroglyphs are really cool.
They’re one of those things, like slot canyons or waterfalls, where some are known and charted and widely admired, and others are a little more obscure — the kind where it helps to know a guy. And we know a guy.
On a recent sunny morning, we meandered to Gateway with our friend Dave, who knew of some petroglyphs about 10 miles down 4.1 Road heading toward Utah.
I can’t really offer better directions than that, I’m afraid, because we actually had no business being on the dirt 4.1 Road, which had obviously been hit hard by September’s heavy rains. But Melinda and I in tandem often can’t muster even one complete unit of common sense, and Dave sometimes gets this kamikaze glint in his eye, so we kept going. Because we are dumb.
Down a dry creek bed that bisected part of the road, over a rock fall, and we arrived at a boulder face that Melinda and I would have missed if Dave hadn’t pointed it out. Several feet above our heads was a human figure with what appeared to be buffalo horns and several animals that could have been deer or elk.
Most striking, though, were two small footprints side-by-side on a nearby rock face. They were only about 3 inches long — a toddler’s footprints, it would seem — and that’s when the time travel really began for me. I imagined a clear, blue-sky morning identical to the one in which I was standing, the Dolores River idly flowing nearby, the leaves golden on the cottonwood, and an artist beginning to carve those small footprints on the rock.
Were they a symbol of something? Or the actual footprints of a child? Archaeologists, ethnologists and historians have sound theories about the significance and meaning of this area’s petroglyphs — whether created by Fremont, Ute or other hands — but standing so near the images carved on the stone face, the imagination easily takes over.
That’s why, the next morning on the Palisade Rim Trail, I could envision hunters, hundreds of years past, pursing a thundering herd of deer as they hurtled past the rock outcropping near where we stood. In a place where change happens a grain of wind-blown dirt at a time, I imagined the scenery had been much the same, the day similar with a chilly nip to the air.
Our moderate hike up rewarded us with what appeared to be deer or elk carved into the stone. It would be deeply unfair to describe the images as crude, because only a true artist could achieve the sense of motion found in a circle of animals running beneath an obviously brilliant sun.
Like so many other petroglyphs in this area — there are friezes of them in various canyons and on myriad rock faces, and I think most people have their favorite spots — the images have been frozen in time for hundreds, if not thousands, of years.
But they vividly show a life of similar interests: the hunt, the harvest, the changing seasons, the questions about life in this fierce, beautiful landscape.
I also was delighted to see that the two sites of petroglyphs Melinda and I visited — near Gateway and along the Palisade Rim Trail — seem to have been cherished and protected. I hope that is the case for all the rock art we have inherited.
To see what was so meticulously carved, to imagine the heart and mind that deemed it important enough to record, to conjure images of the hands that created it ... I think this is the most lovely sort of living history we have.
Get going: The Palisade Rim Trail is off U.S. Highway 6 (also called G Road) in Palisade. The trail head is near where the highway intersects North River Road.
Park on the west side of the highway, then carefully cross the road to the trail head. The petroglyphs are on a rock outcropping at the top end of the lower loop trail. Please admire them with your eyes only and resist the urge to touch.
There are petroglyphs scattered throughout this region. Check with the Bureau of Land Management or Museum of Western Colorado for information. Please always be respectful. They are ancient and they are art.