The red rocks of Utah presented the perfect canvas for ancient peoples to tell their stories with petroglyphs and pictographs. Find images of animals, symbols and humans wearing elaborate jewelry and clothing on canyon walls and shaded rocks, giving you a glimpse of what life was like in eras past.
Rock art has survived hundreds, even thousands of years, but it can’t survive vandals or even repeated touching — the oil from fingertips damages rock art. So please use Leave No Trace principles near these historical artifacts to preserve them for future generations.
What’s the difference between a petroglyph and a pictograph?
Found throughout southern Utah, a petroglyph is an image carved, incised or scratched into stone. A pictograph is a painting on stone, using natural pigments.
Pictographs are typically found only in caves or other areas where they can be protected from the elements of sunshine, wind-blown sand and precipitation.
Newspaper Rock State Historic Monument Just Outside Canyonlands National Park
Newspaper Rock features a rock panel carved with one of the largest known collections of petroglyphs. It is located 53 miles south of Moab outside of the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park. The rock is a part of the Wingate sandstone cliffs that enclose the upper end of Indian Creek Canyon, and is covered by hundreds of petroglyphs—one of the largest, best preserved and easily accessed groups in the Southwest.
The carvings on the rock include pictures of deer, buffalo and pronghorn antelope. Some glyphs depict riders on horses, while other images depict past events like a newspaper might.
The images at Newspaper Rock were inscribed into the dark coating on the rock, called desert varnish. Desert varnish is a blackish manganese-iron deposit that gradually forms on exposed sandstone cliff faces owing to the action of rainfall and bacteria. The ancient artists produced the many variations of figures and patterns by carefully pecking the coated rock surfaces with sharpened tools to remove the desert varnish and expose the lighter rock beneath. The older figures are themselves becoming darker in color as new varnish slowly develops.
Find more information at www.blm.gov/visit/newspaper-rock.
Courthouse Wash Pictographs in Arches National Park
The Courthouse Wash Pictographs are a series of images on a sheltered sandstone wall in Arches National Park. The pictographs depict a variety of figures, some measuring up to 5 feet in height.
The site is located near the junction of Courthouse Wash and the Colorado River, extending over a 300-foot section of cliff base.
Figures were engraved by removal of the rock’s covering of desert varnish. The painted figures follow the Barrier Canyon Style and are believed to be between 1500 and 4000 years old. The incised figures are attributed to the Fremont culture and are dated to about 1000-1200 A.D.
The site is accessible from a trail half-a-mile from U.S. 191 northeast of Moab. The site was extensively vandalized in 1980, but has been restored. Please be respectful around these fragile historic treasures.
Find more information at www.nps.gov/arch/learn/historyculture/courthouse-wash.htm.
Swelter Shelter and McKee Springs in Dinosaur National Monument
See the flute player “Kokopelli” petroglyph and one named “Big Foot” in this remote northeast Utah national monument.
Swelter Shelter is the most accessible of five Fremont people’s petroglyph sites. Down Cub Creek Road from the Quarry Visitor Center, it’s just a 200-foot walk from the roadside parking lot to see a large rock panel of ancient carvings and paintings that include snakes, birds and lizards.
But the most spectacularly large and vibrant petroglyphs are at McKee Springs on unpaved Island Park Road. The road is impassable when wet. Check conditions before heading out. Expert guided tours of this area are often bundled with 1-day rafting trips–check with local outfitters in Vernal, Utah.
For more information about petroglyph panels in Dinosaur National Monument, visit www.nps.gov/dino/learn/historyculture/viewing-petroglyphs-and-pictographs.htm.