During a visit to Durango last November, Craig Childs said archaeologists feel down the rope of time, one knot at a time. Rock art images are stories on stone that transport us back thousands of years.
The Moab area has an abundance of rock art sites. While most are in remote locations, the two moderate hikes presented here venture to petroglyph panels adjacent to Moab in the Behind The Rocks Wilderness Study Area.
The Hidden Valley site is accessible and well known. However, images carved into a sandstone dome locals call the Old Folks’ Home are rarely visited. The hikes originate from different trailheads but, with a shuttle, the Hidden Valley to Moab Rim traverse may be hiked in one long day.
Hidden Valley: From the trailhead on the south side of Moab at 4,580 feet, climb consistently for 0.7 mile up the east flank of the Moab Rim. The trail is impregnated with grounded sandstone boulders. The grade eases as the commonly traveled track enters Hidden Valley.
The landscape lifts softly bearing northwest. Reach a prominent divide at 2.1 miles, 5,240 feet. The vista opens at Finlandia! After visiting the rock art, go play around on the fins and domes.
On the divide you will find a well-established social trail that branches right/north. Follow it to a southwest-facing cliff. Pecked into the desert varnish are images primarily in Canyonlands Basketmaker II style (ca. 1,000 BCE to 550 CE). Some of the rock art dates from the Hunter-Gatherer period, from ca. 3,000 BCE in this area. The Canyonlands Ancestral Pueblo occupations continued until about 1,150 CE.
Over millennia, people left expressions of their thoughts on this long smooth wall – stories of bighorn, bear and deer, hunting scenes and human passage. Broad-shouldered anthropomorphs are densely pecked with hornlike headdresses and arclike arms.
The central and captivating figure is about four feet tall. A standing anthropomorph is contained within the belly of another. While it is tempting to interpret seemingly archetypal rock art imagery, meaning is buried with the vanished culture. A sense of mystery prevails; I feel grateful to be alive when these sacred images are still visible. Please, do not intentionally or inadvertently touch the rock art.
There are other rock art panels in this area. Look for them! For those returning to the Hidden Valley Trailhead, your turnaround is the divide. If you are doing the traverse, the Hidden Valley Trail continues northwest for another 1.2 miles to intersect the Moab Rim Trail at the Rim Overlook Road.
Moab Rim Trailhead to the Old Folks’ Home and Point 5,305’ Overlook: The Stair Master Trail and expert-only four-wheel drive track leave from the north end of the parking lot and parallel each other (and the Colorado River) up a slickrock ramp. The trail is at times steep and a little difficult to follow. No worries; just go northeast up slabs of Kayenta Formation sandstone. This shady approach can be frigid in winter.
Gather in the ruddy and rumpled stone surface of the earth from the edge of the Moab Rim at one mile, 4,880 feet. Look right through a window in distant Arches National Park.
The Moab Rim is the eastern boundary of the 12,635 acre Behind The Rocks Wilderness Study Area. Predominant are sandstone slabs, fins, domes, and knobs, alternating with sandy washes. Stay on the rough road as it swings around to the backside of the cliffs that rim the river and bears south. An arch may be seen to the east in a massive Entrada Sandstone structure at 2 miles.
Take a social trail into a wooded alcove on the left. On the south-facing wall behind a juniper is a Basketmaker petroglyph panel possibly 3,000 years old. The large bighorn is exceedingly handsome. Beside him is an anthropomorph bearing a spiral shield. The feeling is intimate and timeless.
At 2.7 miles, the road turns right and goes up a short hill. From here, another massive sandstone dome is revealed, the Old Folks’ Home. To visit the petroglyphs along its base, at 3.1 miles leave the road and cross a blackbrush plain. Walk northeast to the broken blocks at the north end of the dome. Snow protected the soil from our footfalls. If it is cryptobiotic, please use the Rim Overlook Road as access. A spectacular panel is pecked into desert varnish at the base of the northwest buttress.
Scramble onto a ledge to visually examine the Basketmaker images. There are anthropomorphs with feathered headdresses, connected spirals, bighorn, a snake with a divided tail, lizard, dragonfly, bear print, canines and geometrics. Standing to the side is a large solitary buck.
Contour east, crossing the head of two drainages on a thin sheet of limestone to reach the base of the southeast buttress. Two spires stand in front of the dome. At the base of the outer tower find a row of linked anthropomorphs, a snake, geometric line and deer.
Look up at the middle tower to see a cluster of images. Walk south of the standing rock and up a steep talus slope that terminates at the base of this panel. Find a line of horned spheres. These Basketmaker necklaces are prevalent throughout the Moab area.
Continuing around the base of the globular dome, pass a limestone block ruin. Intersect the Rim Overlook Road and turn left. As the track curves north, follow the Moab Rim sign to the precipice at about 4.6 miles. Step out on multiple towers lining the escarpment. The La Sal Mountains under their winter blanket captivate me. But then so do the Book Cliffs, the Colorado River canyon, Moab and ever onward flowing mounds of slickrock.
Return down the road to a signed three-way junction. This is where the Rim Overlook Road meets the Hidden Valley Trail and Moab Rim Road.
To return to the Moab Rim Trailhead, turn right. In 0.2 mile, go right at the split. On our return down the Kayenta ledge a weak winter sun shone in our faces. The temperature never got above freezing and the Colorado River was shimmering with tiny islands of floating ice.