The fertile valley around Moab has been home to humans for thousands of years. Prehistoric Fremont and Ancestral Puebloan people once lived and farmed in the bottoms of the canyons around Moab. Their rock art, granaries, and dwellings can still be seen here. Nomadic Utes had replaced the earlier groups by the time the first white settlers arrived. They left fewer signs of settlement but added their artistry to the area’s rock-art panels. You don’t need to travel far to see excellent examples of native pictographs and petroglyphs.
If you approach Moab along I-70, consider a side trip to one of the premier rock-art galleries in Utah. Sego Canyon is about five miles north of I-70; take exit 185, the Thompson Springs exit. Drive through the slumbering little town and continue up the canyon behind it (BLM signs also point the way). A side road leads to a parking area where the canyon walls close in. Sego Canyon is a showcase of prehistoric rock art—it preserves rock drawings and images that are thousands of years old. The Barrier Canyon Style drawings may be 8,000 years old; the more recent Fremont Style images were created in the last 1,000 years.
Compared to these ancient pictures, the Ute etchings are relatively recent: Experts speculate that they may have been drawn in the 1800s, when Ute villages still lined Sego Canyon. The newer petroglyphs and pictographs are more representational than the older ones. The ancient Barrier Canyon figures are typically horned ghostlike beings that look like aliens from early Hollywood sci-fi thrillers. The Fremont Style images depict stylized human figures made from geometric shapes; the crudest figures are the most recent. The Ute images are of bison and hunters on horseback.
Potash Road (Hwy. 279)
From U.S. 191 just north of the Colorado River bridge, take Highway 279 west along the river 5.2 miles to these easily accessed petroglyphs. There’s even a sign (“Indian Writing”) to guide you to them.
Golf Course Rock Art
Take U.S. 191 south to the Moab Golf Course, which is about four miles from the corner of Main and Center Streets in downtown Moab. Turn left and proceed to Spanish Trail Road. Approximately one mile past the fire station, turn right onto Westwater Drive. Proceed 0.5 mile to a small pullout on the left side of the road. An area approximately 30 by 90 feet is covered with human and animal figures, including “Moab Man” and what is popularly referred to as the “reindeer and sled.”
Kane Creek Boulevard
Kane Creek Boulevard (south of downtown Moab; watch for the McDonald’s) follows the Colorado River and leads to a number of excellent rock-art sites. From the junction with U.S. 191, turn west and proceed 0.8 mile to the intersection of Kane Creek Drive and 500 West. Keep left and continue along Kane Creek Drive approximately 2.3 miles to the mouth of Moon Flower Canyon. Along the rock cliff just beyond the canyon, you will see a rock-art panel behind a chain-link fence (vandalism has been a problem). Continue another 1.2 miles to another rock-art panel, where a huge rock surface streaked with desert varnish is covered with images of bighorn sheep, snakes, and human forms.
For a unique rock-art image, continue on Kane Creek Boulevard past the cattle guard, where the road turns from pavement to graded gravel road. After traveling 1.7 miles from the previous site (a total of 5.3 miles from the intersection of Kane Creek Drive and 500 West), watch for two pullouts. Down the slope from the road is a large boulder with rock art on all four sides. The most amazing image is of a woman giving birth.
Although this site is located within Arches National Park, it is accessed from a parking lot off U.S. 191 just north of the Colorado River bridge, one mile north of Moab. A 0.5-mile hike leads to the panel, which is almost 19 feet high and 52 feet long. It has both pictographs and petroglyphs, with figures resembling ghostly humans, bighorn sheep, scorpions, and a large beaked bird.
A Rock Art Auto Tour brochure is available at the Moab Information Center (25 E. Center St., at Main St., Moab, 435/259-8825 or 800/635-6622, 8am-7pm Mon.-Sat., 9am-6pm Sun. early Mar.-Nov.).
Excerpted from the Sixth Edition of Moon Zion & Bryce.