Rocks and Ancient People in Canyonlands

Tara poses in Wilson Arch

Tuesday morning I was up on the rock again before the sun rose. We all slept pretty well. It was only a little chilly but Arno and I are such outdoors people, that all five of us had warm gear. Arno went into get-going mode right away, and I let him. I sat and watched the silent desert, and caught the first sunlight fire orange on peaks to the West. The sun rose quickly and I stayed up there till sunbeams had crossed the valley toward our camp, and had nearly crossed the road to us. I had come to rest on a perch above Arno, watching him work for us. He looked up and spotted me, so I came back down into camp. Coffee was ready for the grownups, hot cocoa ready for the kids (none of whom had yet stirred). Breakfast was half-cooked and only needed me to turn the bacon. Hm, camping like this would be easy to get used to.

Me taking photos from Wilson Arch

Our big plan for the day was to get closer to Canyonlands National Park. We were camped at Sand Flats Recreation Area, situated close to Moab, just south of Arches NP. This is a great central location for vacationers into trail biking, dirt biking, quad running, and having a city nearby for water, ice, and beer. It’s not a great base camp for Canyonlands, however. So we packed up to make the 2½ hour trip south (it would have been 1½ hours, but we dawdled). We stopped first in Moab for ice, dry ice, and water. Arno brought a couple of 5-gallon jugs that we lived from.

It’s always interesting to camp with someone new for the first time (well, actually, Labor Day weekend was our first camp trip but it was at KOA and not real camping, so I don’t use that as a reference). Arno is willing to put a lot more effort into things. Since my car camping has evolved slowly from backpacking, I tend to do all things in mini-scale. Use only drops of water if possible, then re-use it. Re-use the same scant dishes, do without some things like actual dishsoap, because a person can actually survive without it. Arno, however, has the truck packed with everything five large campers could need, and then some! He uses the water he needs, the dishes he needs, and actually has a whole routine of dishwashing, drying, and putting away that is perfected.

A fun thing about the two of us is that we both believe that a person can eat well while camping. Of course, we acquiesced to one day for hotdogs (Tara and I brought canned biscuits for our pigs-in-a-blanket preference) and we brought fixins for s’mores. Other than that, we had tortellini, grilled asparagus, fried bacon and eggs, fajitas, etc. I brought my Asian chicken walnut rice salad, but it bombed with the kids, so that’s a mental note for the future. We roused the kids, fed them, and then cleaned up the breakfast stuff while hollering at them to help pack up. We left late morning to the great delight of a couple who had been circling the campground for some time, waiting for a spot to open up.

Arno and me on the rocks above camp

On the road south, I again had strange flashbacks from ages ago. Yesterday when we passed the entrance to Arches NP, I pointed it out to Tara, “Hey! You and I have been there!” She didn’t remember. Today I finally recalled the time when I was here before:  cross-country trip with my mother. Oh, gosh, I was so angry with her on that trip. Man, that woman was a world-class complainer. Tara and I were going to make the move from California to Massachusetts just the two of us, and bond. Tara and I travel brilliantly together, and always have. Mom begged and begged to come along (“It’ll be so much fun, the three of us girls, and I’ll get to know Tara better.”), and I finally agreed. She launched into blah, blah, blah non-stop about her friends, her house, her husband, her church, blah blah blah complain complain. She complained about sitting in the car all day. Complained about the hotels. When we came through this part of the country, she complained about the heat. Never stopped complaining. So, it went from a really fun road trip with my kid to trying to console my mother who carelessly ignored my Tara girl for thousands of miles. Arrggh. No wonder I had forgotten about having already visited these Utah parks!

Right there on the highway, we spotted Wilson Arch, and pulled over to explore our first arch of the trip. We girls had not yet had a chance to “get our rock legs” and were a bit wobbly and unsure on the slickrock. Slickrock, as I discovered in Oak Creek last summer, is best climbed by planting your feet flat against the slope and moving up by walking. Once you achieve the trust of your feet and the rock, it’s easy, but at first it is non-intuitive. We climbed around and through the arch and had some spectacular views of the wide open desert.

Newspaper Rock State Historic Monument

We left the main highway 191 and turned onto highway 211 toward the park. On the way, the views were captivating, and I had to drive in front, since it was easier for Arno to keep track of me and my many stops for photos. Our best stop was Newspaper Rock National Historic Site. Miguel was excited about it and wore his Newspaper Rock T-shirt in honor of the visit, but was still feeling very sick and not able to enjoy much of the journey or the sights. The rock is so-named because it is a large wall filled with petroglyphs. Ancient writing of course touches the anthropologist in me, and I can’t help but stare in awe. The petroglyphs were applied by different indigenous American people over a 2000-year time span, and so one can imagine they tell many stories together on one page. In the Navajo language, the rock is called Tse’ Hane’ for rock that tells a story.

Farther along the highway, we were treated to better and better views of North and South Six-Shooter Peaks. They are framed by sheer red cliffs and bound by blue skies above and silver grey winter trees below. What stunning country!

At the park gate we found that we were too late to get a campsite inside the park, which had been our goal. There are 26 sites and people in the know show up first thing in the morning to lay claim to them. We toured the campsites anyway, and found that at least 10 of them were roped off, supposedly “under construction,” though what was being constructed was impossible to tell. We backtracked to BLM land a few miles outside the park and found a campsite at Hamburger Rock. This turned out to be a serendipitous event, because we all loved the campsite and the excellent Hamburger Rock. Originally our plans had been to pack up early the next morning and try once more to camp inside the park, but we discarded that idea in exchange for staying put.

Tara peeks into the roadside ruin

We ate lunch and then went into the park to try a trail or two in the remainder of the day. We stopped at the Roadside Ruin, which appears to be a reconstructed grain bin of some kind, made of rocks mortared into a large container under a rock ledge. Arno and I agreed that if reconstructed (it looks brand-new), the granary is not compelling. Even if it’s modeled exactly after an actual ruin, or in the same exact spot. It just isn’t the same. The fascination of an actual ruin is that ancient people actually touched those stones; placed them precisely in that spot.

Ferns drop from a sheltered crack in the wall where water seeps out

Then we took a walk along the Cave Spring Trail. This short trail (1/2 mile) packs a ton of fascinating things into a easy walk and must be swarmed with families at busier times of the year. At first we saw the Cowboy Camp, and though I have always enjoyed finding old remains of relatively recent peoples, it’s fun to see that others find it fascinating too. This camp comes from the days when white pioneering men were trying to make a living out of driving cattle across these wide deserts. Cave Spring trail has a sheltered spring that must have been Life Itself for cowboys working hard in the sun all day. Under the ample shelter of an overhanging rock ledge, we saw a couple of old work tables, benches, boxes to store things, and beside the fire pit was some kind of metal cook stove jerry rigged together with imagination and resourcefulness that makes up the core soul of any Westerner. There were empty tin cans, horseshoes and other tackle, and several large wooden bins for storing food. The Cowboys had copied the Indians there, using wood instead of mortared stone.

pictographs above the spring

Around a few more bends in the trail, we reached the spring, and we could actually taste the moisture in the air. A trickle of water seeps from one long horizontal crack that follows the path in the cliff wall beneath a huge overhanging rock ceiling, making a flat pool that seeps across the rocks. Wet sand stretches away from the sheltered cave-like area, and ends at the inevitable dry sand after only about 10 feet. Where moisture seeps from the horizontal crack, fern fronds dangle in a lovely and unexpected green curtain of freshness and life in that dry world. Stark red pictographs adorn the cold stone walls around the spring. Doubtless there because of the spring. Some ancient person’s thanks and recognition to his Deity, and probably in hopes of invoking further watery blessings in the future.

Diego contemplates grinding grains

Mere steps beyond the moist cool air was another sign of people long gone: troughs worn into stone, likely by Indian women grinding grain into flour. Diego was compelled to touch the indentations. He must have had the same thought as I: a long time ago, someone ancient and beyond reach touched this same stone.

ladders are part of the trail

The trail incorporated ladders as well, to help us gain the top of the rocks. Arno showed off his climbing skills and did not use the ladders. We stood at the top awhile and gazed out across the stunning landscape, then continued down the other side, and back to a sandy trail still sheltered by a wide rock overhang.

On our way back to camp, the setting sun culled deep reds and bronze oranges from the rocks, requiring many more photo stops for me – by this time annoying most of my travel mates. At camp Arno again leapt into meal preparation mode, and I climbed to the top of the rocks with the kids and watched the sun go down. I had my camera on a tripod and managed to get some nice sunset photos as the fiery globe sank from sight.

View from the top of the trail
Tara and Miguel hold up the rock ceiling with their heads
Three-quarters of a reflected sun
Last glimpse of light across the desert horizon

2 thoughts on “Rocks and Ancient People in Canyonlands

  1. Considering the depths of the grinding ‘paths’ I wonder if they were intentionally used that way? The deepest for the largest size grain then as the grain began to break down it was transfer to the smaller groves. Just a thought… I am like Diego, I would have put my hands on them and felt the vibrations of the grinding.
    I spent a little time at a petroglyphs site in Nevada. I am in awe with the communication. I would have delayed the trip considerably had I been along with you, reading the Newspaper would have required an entire day for me! I am a slow reader and I savor everything.
    Looking at some of your landscape photos, I can’t help but think that at any moment I’m going to see a scene from one of John Ford’s westerns. I know that you are not in Monument Valley his favorite setting. However, you have captured the beauty of Utah and you’ve allowed my imagination to run wild. Thank you!

    1. yeah Cuz, if you and I travelled anywhere, we’d have to double the trip time because BOTH cameras would be clicking. We counted six toes on many of the feet on Newspaper Rock. We tried to guess if there were many six-toed people back then, or if that was for bears, or what. Thanks for your compliments. Coming from another photographer, they are especially welcome.

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