Petroglyphs provide a magical connection to our distant past. Growing up in Utah — a place where the harsh desert climate has preserved thousands of pieces of art — allowed me to physically connect with my Native American ancestors on an almost daily basis. I am able to see what they saw, touch what they touched, and even feel what they felt. Ancient artists in Utah illustrated their view of the world around them, much like artists today, and provided powerful bond through time that suggests we’re not very different from those that came before us.
1. Dry Fork Canyon
The petroglyphs at Dry Fork Canyon have become famous due to their remarkable preservation and accessibility. Located in northeastern Utah, these petroglyphs were created by the Fremont people over 1,000 years ago. What makes these carvings so unique is their violent nature.
Though the eastern part of the canyon portrays peaceful scenes, about half a mile to the west, you’ll find the artist’s wicked thoughts expressed. Figures are depicted holding severed heads, wielding bloody weapons, and one man is even shown fighting an animal.
The picture shown above is known as the Three Kings Panel (though there are more than three visible figures). With each figure standing at more than six feet tall, it’s considered a masterpiece among historians.
2. Fremont Indian State Park
Imagine beginning construction on an interstate only to discover a sprawling ancient metropolis. That’s what happened to a 1980s road crew working on Interstate 70 in Sevier County, Utah. The city that rose from the dust was the most extensive collection of Fremont houses ever to be discovered.
Unfortunately, most of those houses were destroyed during construction, but the petroglyphs the city’s inhabitants created are still thriving. Thanks to these carvings, archaeologists have been able to unwind bits and pieces about this mysterious culture. For example, we now know that crops like corn, squash, and beans were grown, and the types of animals that were hunted.
This picture shows what appears to be bighorn sheep.
3. Dinosaur National Monument
Not only is Dinosaur National Monument home to some of the most well-preserved fossilized dinosaur footprints in the US, but it also has astonishing petroglyphs dating back over 2,000 years.
Part of what makes these images so timeless is their stark contrast with the darkened sandstone cliff faces the artist used as a backdrop. The petroglyphs at Dinosaur National Monument were created by the Fremont people and include animals like snakes, birds, and lizards.
Fremont designs include both carvings and paintings, although it’s rare to find paintings in this part of the desert because of the harsh climate. Most petroglyphs, though, have trace amounts of pigment, which suggests that designs were comprised of both carved and painted areas.
4. Nine Mile Canyon
Located in eastern Utah, Nine Mile Canyon is actually 40 miles long. It has been called “the world’s longest art gallery.” Due to the canyon’s remote and hostile territory, the petroglyphs at this site are mostly unscathed.
Human-like figures are depicted with trapezoidal bodies. Ornate decorations on these figures allude to headdresses, necklaces, shields, earrings, and other items. Abstract designs like spirals, circles, and seemingly randomly placed lines are also found in the canyon.
The Fremont culture that created these petroglyphs vanished between 1200 and 1500 AD. It’s thought that more aggressive tribes from the north either displaced them or absorbed them into their culture.
The scene depicted above is known as the Hunter Panel and shows figures with bows and arrows hunting bighorn sheep.
5. Arches National Park
The Colorado River borders Arches National Park in southeastern Utah. It’s most famous for its natural sandstone arches but boasts hidden gems like the petroglyphs portrayed in the image above.
The carvings in Arches National Park were created by the Ute tribe, the most recent inhabitants of the area, and date to somewhere between 1650 and 1850 AD.
The artist used a microcrystalline quartz knife or scraper to carve into the sandstone cliff face, and if you know where to look, you can still find debris piles from the scraping.
Images include stylized horses and riders surrounded by bighorn sheep and dog-like figures.
6. Parowan Gap
The Parowan Gap, located in Utah’s southwest corner, is a rare geological formation created by an ancient river. The river carved a 600-foot-deep notch into the mountain, leaving what is known as a “wind gap.”
Native Americans in this region used the gap for a smooth passage through the mountains, and some left behind amazing pieces of art. The meaning of these designs is still unknown. Archaeologists debate whether they portray actual events or concepts and whether they are a religious or hunting activity.
Most petroglyphs in this area depict humans and animals. The picture above, however, includes deep geometric shapes. The most obvious feature on this wall is known as the “Zipper” which many archaeologists believe is both a map and a calendar.
7. Canyonlands National Park
Hundreds of petroglyphs can be found at a site known as Newspaper Rock. Situated in Canyonlands National Park, the Indian Creek Canyon boasts one of the largest, best-preserved, and most easily accessible groups of petroglyphs in the nation.
This monument showcases a rock panel with carvings whose dates span from over 2,000 years old to as recent as the 20th century. The main groups of carvings have been assigned to the Anasazi (1 to 1300 AD), Fremont (700 to 1300 AD), and Navajo (1500 AD to present).
Most carvings feature humans and animals like deer, buffalo, pronghorn antelope, mountain sheep, and bear tracks. Other images tell stories of past events, much like a newspaper.
8. Moab, Potash Road
Potash Road is found in southeast Utah and contains carvings from many different tribes. Archaeologists believe that the Southern San Rafael Fremont culture created most of these petroglyphs.
Older art contains pictures of animals, lines of men holding hands, wedge-shaped figures with horns, shields, and spears. The more recent carvings, including hunters, horses, and riders, appear to be the work of the Ute tribe. These modern carvings are less weathered and less detailed than the older Fremont carvings.
Because the slope at the base of the cliff has been removed to create a highway, the carvings are about 20-30 feet off the ground.