Ten miles north of the tin-sided Utah town of Vernal, in the backyard of the McConkie Ranch, sits one of the most fascinating pictorials of the Fremont people who occupied this area from about 500 A.D. until about 1200 to 1300.
Fremont artists painted and pecked complex images onto sandstone rock, displaying human figures and a broad array of animals such as mountain lions, lizards and bighorn sheep. Many figures are dressed in detailed garments, complete with elaborate necklaces and earrings.
You think our kids are nuts? Check out some of these figures!
The McConkies have graciously opened their private museum to the public. A small information booklet compiled by Jean McConkie McKenzie titled “Rock Art” often is available for purchase at the site. It discusses many of the rock-art features in the canyon.
There were no copies remaining when three of us — John and Lynne Greene and myself — visited recently. Nonetheless, we happily left a donation in the small hut at the edge of the parking lot to help the McConkies defray expenses for allowing the public access to this spectacular outdoor art museum.
In their book, “Roadside Guide to Indian Ruins & Rock Art of the Southwest,” by Gordon and Cathie Sullivan, the Dry Fork Canyon Rock-Art site is considered by many experts “to contain the largest and best-preserved collection of classic Fremont-style images to be found anywhere.”
As the book states, “despite hundreds of years of erosion and weathering, many of the images remain startlingly clear, making this site one of the most photographed in the Southwest (United States).”
I took about 110 photos myself, none of which can adequately depict the true story those native people left — allowing us a sneak-peek through this window into their past.
Contemporary Shoshone and Ute people “view the petroglyphs and pictographs along Dry Fork Creek as enduring, spiritual messages left by their ancient ancestors as they migrated to their present homelands in Idaho and Wyoming. These images signify a strong and sacred connection to the land and the life it supports — a connection that is still vital to Native Americans today,” wrote to the Sullivans.
I would agree with that assessment, and so would John and Lynne, now full time rock hounds in their somewhat recently discovered retirement.
Many panels display warriors with shields, others show figures dressed in what appears to be ceremonial garb. Some images are anthropomorphic, others seem like family members — mother, father and child — holding hands.
Most of the rock art at this site is very accessible, although the trail has a few rugged spots, so be careful. It’s clearly marked as it winds its way along the lower edge of vertical cliffs extending from the McConkies’ backyard.
To reach the site, travel west on I-70 to the Loma exit, No. 15. Turn right on 13 Road/Colorado Highway 139, and head north over Douglas Pass to Rangely. In about 39 miles, turn left onto Colorado Highway 64.
Proceed through Rangely, and in another 19.6 miles, turn left onto U.S. Highway 40 (that’s West Brontosaurus Boulevard to locals). Follow U.S. 40 into Vernal and you’ll find yourself on Main Street.
Turn right on 500 West and stay on that as it intersects with Utah Highway 121, then turn right onto 3500 West. This is the Dry Fork Canyon Road. You’ll find the McConkie Ranch in about seven miles. This last stretch of road is dirt, but easily traveled in a sedan.
Turn at the sign reading “Indian Petroglyphs” and proceed about a half-mile to the parking/picnic area.
Fremont culture is named “Fremont” because of archeological findings of this culture along the Fremont River, particularly where the river transects the sandstone cliffs of Capitol Reef National Park. The Fremont River itself is named for John Charles Fremont, an American explorer.
There is no firm consensus as to the Fremont comprising a single, cohesive group with a common language. However, the people inhabiting this region 1,000 years ago were all certainly meat eaters (deer and rabbit bones can be found at numerous sites) and they ate a lot of corn (cobs and kernels remain at many sites, as well).
The Fremont culture appears to be uniquely distinct from the Anasazi, or ancient ones.
Ancient Pueblo People, or Ancestral Puebloans, is a preferred term for the cultural group of people often known as Anasazi, who are the ancestors of the modern Pueblo peoples. The ancestral Puebloans were a prehistoric Native American civilization centered around the present-day Four Corners area of the Southwest United States.
From many sites and many inferences, archaeologists believe the Ancestral Puebloan emergence occurred around 1200 B.C., during the Basketmaker II Era. That predates the Fremont culture by quite a few centuries.
Check out this fine rock-art site for yourself, and see what you can infer.