Petroglyphs, pictographs in Canyon Piñtado Historic District worth trip over Douglas Pass

I made a presentation about our Western Colorado Botanical Gardens to a group of wonderful women at Two Rivers Convention Center a couple of weeks ago. Many of them swore they “loved” my hiking columns, but couldn’t get out and hike any more. It was an age thing.

That certainly doesn’t mean they cannot continue to enjoy the beauty and splendor of the Colorado outdoors. Often, that pleasure is just a short memory — or drive — away.

I mentioned one trip a few of them knew, yet most had never driven along Colorado Highway 139 through Canyon Piñtado — the “painted canyon.”

If you drive from Loma to Rangely on Highway 139 over Douglas Pass, you’ll travel through the center of the Canyon Piñtado Historic District.

Named by Father Escalante when he and Dominguez tried to find a northern route to Monterey, Calif., and the good Fathers’ Mission, the canyon displays a plethora of Native American Rock Art — both pictographs (rock paintings) and petroglyphs (rock carvings).

Some petroglyphs indicate this canyon was occupied by prehistoric Barier Canyon people 11,000 years ago. Other rock art dates to the Freemont people and Anasazi, from 1,300 to 600 years ago, and others still to the Ute tribes since that time.

Why did Native Americans inscribe petroglyphs and paint pictographs on sheer sandstone walls? Were they doodles, religious scripture, boundaries, events, hunting maps, memories, leaders, ghosts?

All of the above? None of the above?

Or were they just taggers?

No one knows for sure, although they probably were not random graffiti taggers. Yet, “studying these mysterious messages from civilizations long past may trigger your imagination,” reads one narrative from Rangely’s Web site at http://www/rangely.com/CanyonPintado.htm.

That’s about all my columns are designed to do. Trigger your imagination — or your memory.

Thanks to the work of the Bureau of Land Management, the town of Rangely, the Colorado Dept. of Transportation and many others, you can pull over and view some of these spectacular displays of Native American culture as you travel Highway 139.

Take I-70 west to Exit 15, the Loma exit. Go north. You’re on the Douglas Pass Road (Highway 139). Drive all the way over the pass and stay alert, because it’s a windy two-lane blacktop and sometimes there’s road damage.

It’s an enjoyable scenic drive and gets you out of the heat of the desert. The top of Douglas Pass is 8,268 feet or 2,521 meters in elevation.

When you get to mile marker 53.5, pull over. Here’s the first site you can visit. It’s called the Waving Hands Site. Look to the west of the road at a dark red figure that waves to you from the cliff face. He’s got company. This rock is loaded with several small painted Fremont figures.

There are more just around the corner, Ute figures with horses, arrows and outlined “waving” hands.

Go another couple of miles to mile post 56. Here you’ll find what the BLM considers the principal Canyon Piñtado site. This is the site described in the journals of the Escalante Expedition.

The largest figure here is Kokopelli, the hump-back flute player of Anasazi fame. His presence indicates a tie with the more civilized cultures of the Four Corners area, whose relics can be seen near Mesa Verde.

Hop back in the car and drive another half-mile. Here, about 100 yards above the highway on the west side you’ll see a painted panel of white bird figures, but there’s more. While it’s a steep climb, it’s short and well worth it (if you’re able) to see what other artwork adorns this panel.

At mile post 57.8, the BLM has provided another pullout for the Cow Canyon Site. Turn down Philadelphia Draw to the east of Highway 139 and travel about .2 miles.

Turn right (south) and travel another .8 miles. Immediately after the second cattle guard, turn east up a small draw. Drive another .1 miles past this turn and park. The panels are about 90 yards to your left, facing the road.

There are three more BLM-designated sites along this highway, at mile post 61.3 (the East Four Mile Site); mile post 67.6 (the Lookout Point Site); and 70.5 (the Camel Ridge Site).

Check them out, and please heed this BLM advice:

“ The rock art of Canyon Piñtado is a fragile remnant of people who occupied Northwestern Colorado more than 1,000 years ago.

“The figures depicted on these rocks hold clues as to what Fremont people (and others) considered important in their lives. Although we don’t understand what all the figures mean today, we do know that they are precious gifts to us from our past.

“This art is worthy of protection from vandalism, theft and destruction and we should treasure and preserve them for all generations to come.”


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