by Tommy Dykes
The Fremont peoples of pre-Columbian America ranged from very eastern Nevada, across Utah and into western Colorado. They outdated the more famous Anasazi, leaving few clues about their lives. No studies are conclusive as to why they abandoned their way of life and vanished, but they did leave us something quite remarkable, the petroglyphs and pictographs of Canyon Pintado.
I had lived in Colorado for 18 years before I first read about Pintado Canyon in Laurent Martrés excellent book, Photographing the Southwest Vol. 3 Colorado & New Mexico. The canyon is well off of the so-called beaten path even for those Coloradoans who have lived here their entire lives. I’ve asked several and they hadn’t heard of it, and oddly, most had been to Dinosaur National Monument. This desert canyon provides a major route to get to Dinosaur and they just drove through having no idea what they were missing.
Most of the petroglyphs and pictographs are located along either Colorado Highway 139, which stretches north from I-70 at Loma to Rangely, or CR23 also known as the Dragon Road. CR 23, which crosses Main Street in Rangely at the traffic light.
I made the drive up to Rangely departing home at 5am and arrived just before noon. My intention was to photograph both the Carrot Man and The Sun Dagger sites over a two-day trip, spending the night in my small camper. However, due to a problem with my foot that I had been dealing with, and after the first hike, I decided not to stay the night. Since I was already there, I wanted to ensure that I made a few images of both sites. In all I drove over 800 miles and did approximately 8 hours’ worth of photography in 22 hours.
All the near Rangely Colorado appears to be very accessible for most people. Regardless of my current inability to adventure too far on foot, I had little trouble reaching even the farthest site from the parking area; The is about 15 minutes’ walk, which was the longest of the day.
Arriving in Rangely I had decided to start the day on the Dragon Road and have a look at the site first. The drive down CR23 is very easy, even after it turns into a gravel road. Watching for the sign that I was sure was coming, I turned west onto the jeep road and in a moment found myself at the head of Moon Canyon.
I arrived at the canyon a little after noon and it was already very hot. Once you start down into Moon Canyon, you will find that there is very little shade and not even the slightest hint of a breeze. It only took me a few minutes’ walk down to the site to become hot and sweaty. Once at the site, shade can be found in the bat cave below the pictographs. The bat cave had a considerable amount of guano, but I didn’t see any bats.
The hike into Moon Canyon is easy and it was only a few minutes before I came to the pictographs. The pictograph is to the right of the trail, on the wall above the bat cave. I found the pictographs to be very moving, more so than I expected.
The Fremont’s have marked the wall with 6 characters drawn with a dark brown color that are the prominent features of the site. Below these main characters there is a seam or layering in the rock that divides the site into upper and lower halves. Below the seam there are 3 characters of a different shape or style if you will. These drawings have triangular bodies similar to the carrot men and are painted with a blue tint. On the upper section, just below the tallest character there is also one of the blue characters. The blue paint and the brown paint contrast nicely on the khaki colored sandstone wall.
I spent maybe one hour at the site on my first visit. It was high noon and the overhang above the wall kept the art in the shadow, which was a bit of a blessing since direct sunlight would have created an issue with my photography. My thought was that the warm light of the late afternoon would provide me with the beautiful light so typical of Colorado, I decided to return later and made the hike out of the canyon.
I returned to the site at approximately 5pm to discover that the setting sun was going set behind and to the left of the art. However, I did do some more photography. I think this might be a wonderful shoot in the winter, not only because of the possibility of snow fall, but the sun will have moved more to the south and may provide the warm light that I seek on to the rock face. The winter equinox may be the best time to try for better light.
After leaving the Carrot Man site I drove back into Rangely and over to Colorado 139, with a stop at .
While I found this site interesting, it was a bit unremarkable, or I may have expected too much after the carrot man site. Most notable was the pictograph of the rider less horse that carried the brand of General Crook on its front shoulder. This could have been a warning to the other Native Americans to look out for this horse. Maybe it was saying .
This petroglyph came several centuries after the Fremont’s, who created most of the work in the canyon. General Crook fought in both the Civil and the Indian Wars. Some historians have called General Crook the U.S. Army’s best Indian fighter, however, Crook was also known for his compassion with captured Indians.
I reached Colorado 139 through Rangely and proceeded south to the . The site’s location has a very fine rest area with vault toilets and covered picnic tables. Here there are several sets of pictographs and petroglyphs to see on a loop trail, with the highlight being the . Depending on how long you spend at each site, expect to walk for about an hour to complete the entire loop.
The Sun Dagger itself was much smaller than I had expected it to be, maybe 2 feet by 2 feet. It faces to the east with an observed view up a hill until the scene meets the horizon at a distance of about a mile. This wide open view is puzzling to me, since the Sun Dagger would have required a structure, most likely of stone, to shape and cast the shadows and light needed to create the dagger of sunlight that would be required for any type of astronomical measurements.
It consists of three set of concentric circles. The largest set of circles is the center of the piece, and has two smaller sets that are tangent to the center piece at the 12 and 3 o’ clock positions. The circles were painted with white and brown pigments. While all are faded, the center set appears to have been created with only white pigments. In the 2 smaller sets both white and brown pigment is apparent with the upper circle the best preserved. If this sun dagger were similar to others throughout the southwest, Chaco Canyon and Fajada Butte, for example, the dagger of light would have traveled slowly across the pictograph with the transiting sun, and on certain calendar days aligned with the center or edges of the pictograph. An ancient “Farmer’s Almanac” if I could be so audacious.
Continuing around the loop trail there is also a “ with many petroglyphs. It was interesting in that they were not drawn in any particular order or pattern, but as if someone just came by and left their mark.
The “” and “” were the highlights of the area. I arrived back at the truck and struck out to the south along CO 139.
The next stop was at the large Kokopelli on the west side of the road where the Kokopelli comes into view before the signage. The Kokopelli is 6 feet tall and is painted up on the rock wall above the desert shrubbery. Unfortunately, the rock face appears ready exfoliate off of the wall, and a thick steel cable has been bolted horizontally across the image in an attempt to hold it onto the wall or at least catch it when it does fall, preventing it from shattering on the ground below.
To the right of Kokopelli is a large anthropomorphic figure that at first appeared to be an owl. It is rectangular in shape and has well defined ears. It wore what seemed to be a necklace, which is what led me away from the idea of an owl. Also, the image appears to be standing either in front of or behind a circle, or maybe it is a shield. No matter how you read this faded pictograph, it is interesting none the less.
But the Kokopelli site did not end there. To the left of is a panel that appears, to be telling the story of an important event. In an area of maybe 5 feet by 5 feet there is a petrograph that I believe to be showing a scene from their lives. There are several different elements including, growing corn and an animal (a dog perhaps) plus several different anthropomorphic figures with one that is quite large. Most striking is the diagonal line with arrows pointing down and starts in the upper left corner then crosses to the lower right, which seems to represent something falling from the sky. Does this document aliens coming to earth while these peace full peoples were farming the land?
I had one more site that I wanted to visit, and the day was getting short. Continuing to the south, I arrived at the Waving Hands site and like the Kokopelli site, the rock art was only a few steps from the parking. The Waving Hands were unique in the fact that they are much different than the other rock art that I had visited today. The hands were painted in white and then outline in red, which provide a lot of contrast from the wall.
To the left of the Waving Hands was a small figure, all alone, with antennas drawn on top of its head and both hands up in the air as if surrendering. Other than some modern graffiti, this wall seems to be in a remarkable state of preservation.
Walking along the path to the right of the hands, you come to another very remarkable piece. As matter of fact, when I saw it I was pleasantly surprised! It’s similar to the character that I mistook for an owl back at the site, only that this one has much more detail! Thanks to some research in the days after I got home, I now know this to be called “The Guardian”. It is even older than most of the art that I had visited all afternoon and is neither Fremont nor Barrier Canyon (a style of rock art from the archaic period), but possibly a transitional style from about 1,500 to 2,500 years ago.
The Guardian stands on two feet with its arms stretched out wide with its mouth agape showing teeth and sports two antennas that are more like the ossicones of a giraffe. The Guardian has a more nightmarish feel to it.
The Waving Hands was the last site to visit today. My foot had taken a beating, but I had managed to see and photograph some remarkable rock art. What were these people thinking, seeing and feeling that made them create such amazing art throughout the canyon? Who where they and where did they go and more importantly to me, why did they go.
It was a long dark drive home across northern Colorado, just me and thoughts of dreams I may have tonight; a Kokopelli playing his flute to appease to archaic creatures of the Paleo-Indians.