Crafting this article about petroglyphs Grand Canyon has been challenging for me. I believe you will delight in the tales of my backcountry discoveries. So, on one hand, I’m eager to share the details of my solo adventure with you.
Table of Contents
However, wearing my hat as a concerned journalist, I wrestle with the worry of disclosing too much about a lesser-known locale. Numerous articles highlight the impact of Instagram and other platforms on serene and picturesque sites, and I am reluctant to contribute to that narrative.
After much consideration, I’ve opted to bring you aboard as a virtual companion on this journey.
Upholding my commitment to the ethical conservation of sacred sites, I’ll refrain from divulging the location or providing directions to these fragile sites.
However, I will guide you through a photographic expedition, offering a glimpse of the wonder and awe that filled my experience.
At the end of this story, I’ll reveal petroglyphs Grand Canyon on the beaten path that you are welcome to visit. But this is a story about remote pictograph sites in the middle of nowhere, outside the park in a protected wilderness area.
You can’t drive to view the glyphs because motorized vehicles and even bicycles are not allowed in wilderness areas.
Just getting to the backcountry trailhead to begin a hike into the seldom-visited wilderness is an adventure in itself.
But first, how did I learn about these ancient rock art drawings?
How Did I Get Wind of This Secluded Archaeological Treasure?
I first learned of these almost human-sized pictographs over 15 years ago and have been hankering to experience the isolated archaeological sites ever since.
That was back when I was a member of the Verde Valley Archaeology Center, The Arizona Archaeological Society, exploring arch sites with archaeologists Steve Lekson and David Wilcox and archaeoastronomer Bryan Bates. I caught wind of seldom-seen arch sites from these professionals.
As a member of these organizations and field trips, I learned the ethics of viewing and experiencing archaeological sites, which are genuinely non-renewable resources.
Serendipitous Encounter Right Before Petroglyph Grand Canyon Excursion
Earlier this year, I decided that if I didn’t schedule time on my calendar for the pictograph excursion to highlighted text, I would probably never do it.
The time scratched into my calendar was drawing near when I attended a Coconino National Forest trail maintenance event. I signed the release form at a makeshift camp at the foot of the San Francisco Peaks, and there, two names above mine was Neil Weintraub’s. I couldn’t believe my good fortune.
Archaeologist Neil Weintraub
Neil Weintraub is one of the archaeologists studying the pictograph and petroglyph Grand Canyon site I’d been researching for the past month.
Having difficulty finding scientific documentation on the site online, I considered calling his former office (Neil is now retired) to ask permission to view their government research files on highlighted text.
Although Neil and I had been Facebook friends for years, I’d never actually met him in person. And here he was, one week before I left for parts unknown. “I need to find him and introduce myself,” I thought while signing in.
Later, as a fellow trail worker heard my confession of apprehension to camp solo in the middle of nowhere, he overheard us. Neil came up from behind, saying, “I’ve camped at that trailhead dozens of times and never had a problem. You’ll be fine out there.”
I shook his hand, introduced myself and told him I needed his research help. He promised to email me links to documentation, and sure enough, he did!
I took our serendipitous meeting as a “confirmation” that I would proceed with this crazy notion of solo camping and then hiking 14 miles in remote high desert with no cell service.
Optional Backpack to View These Petroglyphs Grand Canyon
“You could backpack in and spend the night at the seven-mile mark,” he suggested. “Bring a water filter—there’s a spring out there.” Of course, there would be a natural source of life-giving water at such a large pictograph and petroglyph Grand Canyon site!
But I didn’t want to carry a pack heavy with a tent, sleeping bag and food for the night.
RELATED: Grand Canyon Trip Planner
4 Things That Set These Glyphs Apart From Typical Petroglyphs Grand Canyon
You might wonder how these pictographs got me under their spell for many years. What sets this rock art apart from typical petroglyphs Grand Canyon? What would entice me to trek 14 miles through the backcountry?
1.) Petroglyphs vs. Petroglyphs Grand Canyon
First, I was intrigued by the large and numerous rock art panels painted on the canyon walls. Painted glyphs, or pictographs, are different from petroglyphs, which are pecked into the rock.
2.) More Colorful than Pictographs in Arizona or New Mexico
From my research, I learned that these pictographs display more color than other pictographs in the Southwest. Some call them the most impressive and extensive in the state.
I’d seen pictographs at Chaco Canyon and Canyon de Chelly, but these in the back o’ beyond were larger, more colorful and older.
3.) Distinctive Depictions
I’d learned that the place I was going was on the frontier of the Fremont Complex (ca. 300–1300 A.D.), which also left behind enormous, colorful glyphs. But they weren’t quite the same. They were a distinctive blend of Fremont and Ancestral Pueblo rock art.
4.) Eye-Level Pictographs and Petroglyphs Grand Canyon
Unlike other pictographs and petroglyph Grand Canyon panels, the pictographs at highlighted text are at eye level. Experts say that eye-level glyphs were created to be seen by those passing by.
“ highlighted text was used as a corridor between the Grand Canyon and the Kaibab area for thousands of years,” Neil told me.
“But why were the people traveling up and down this corridor that leads to the Grand Canyon?” I asked. “What was going on here?”
“The Grand Canyon was a spiritual place—it still is,” the archaeologist said as he picked up his long-handled trail-building tool and walked up the pathway.
Having considered the spirituality of the Grand Canyon, let us now shift our focus to this side canyon, a revered site that has long served as a corridor for seasonal human migration. Could it be a place of pilgrimage?
Place of Pilgrimage?
If this were a corridor for people going to and coming from the Grand Canyon, then I have to imagine it was a place of pilgrimage.
My theory is backed by experts who speculate this locale could be a spiritual place because most glyphs along the corridor depict anthropomorphs—human forms—rather than animals.
The emphasis on people differs from hunting scenes portrayed by pictographs and petroglyphs Grand Canyon found in other parts of the region.
Having explored what makes this place so exceptional, let’s don our virtual backpacks and head out on this photographic expedition.
Virtual Expedition to Remote Pictographs and Petroglyphs Grand Canyon
Some highlighted text rock art panels are sacred to modern Native People, particularly the Southern Paiute. For those specific sites, I walked on by and did not photograph them.
In a video about highlighted text, Glendora Homer of the Kaibab Band of Southern Paiute said, “[Our people] weren’t drawing pictures here. The deities you see on the wall have meaning. Great significance. Those things need to be preserved.”
What piqued my interest were other panels, still significant to Native Americans but dating to Archaic and Basketmaker times. These alcoves marked with pictographs still hold mystical reverence, and I wanted to experience and connect with the art before I got too old to make the journey.
Neil suggested I hike seven miles to “The Grand Finale” of the rock art panels before stopping and photographing each one. Then, on the return, I could take my time to photograph the glyphs while hiking the seven miles back to camp.
However, by the time I got to mile six, the weather looked to be turning, and I didn’t want to be caught in a deep gulch if rains were to flood it.
I figured if I turned around at mile six, I would get back to camp by 4:30 pm. If I hiked the extra mile, that could add an hour, and I didn’t want to get back that late.
If I turned an ankle in one of the obnoxious ground squirrel holes my foot kept falling into, I might not have enough light to hobble back to camp.
The thigh-high Russian thistle, healthy sage and Cheatgrass slowed my pace and made the trail difficult to follow. The reports I’d read described “excellent arable soils,” and the thriving invasive species were indicative of that. All the rains we’d experienced in late summer made for an unexpected boom crop that slowed me down.
Fortunately, I’d been advised to wear gaiters, and they helped protect my lower legs and socks.
Reluctantly, after surveying the cloudy skies, I turned around, only one mile from “The Grand Finale.”
Pictographs to Experience In highlighted text
Please be aware that what I see and experience is filtered through a Western lens. Some Native Americans like Glenora offer other interpretations.
The highlighted text typology that dates from the Basketmaker period (300 B.C.-A.D. 800) includes:
- Triangular bodies,
- Flat heads,
- Headgear with feathers on top
- More elaborate body decorations (sometimes indicating nomadic people who wear their wealth as they move)
- Feathers on one elbow
- Use of colors: green, red, blue, black and white
- Human forms are grouped as couples or twins and groups of families.
I noticed that the human forms were often painted underneath cracks in the limestone cliffs, sometimes so close to the gap that the feathers had to be painted on the alcove’s ceiling.
Was that somehow indicative of water or springs that might seep from that crack in another place just down the trail? Or were they painted there to absorb some sort of power thought to be emanating from the cracks?
These, of course, are only questions because there is really no way to know what motivated the creators of these glyphs.
In any case, the anthropomorphs, including many individuals with long arms and family groups, were decked out in polychrome finery that I had not seen on petroglyphs elsewhere.
4 Interpretive Sites Where You Can Visit Petroglyphs Grand Canyon
As promised, I will reveal places where you can experience ancient petroglyphs and petroglyphs Grand Canyon at interpretation sites. Here are a few:
1.) Bright Angel Trail Pictographs
The ancestral canyon people used the deer pictographs seen just off Bright Angel Trail near the South Rim to signify their route into the side canyon. Additional symbols and images are visible with the aid of binoculars at the site, known as Mallery’s Grotto.
The grotto showcases elements from both the Archaic period and the Cohonina culture. Historic charcoal inscriptions found here are credited to the Havasupai people. The Havasupai, who once resided and cultivated land at what was formerly known as Indian Garden—now Havasupai Gardens—used this route into the canyon.
Directions: From the Bright Angel Trailhead on the South Rim, head down into the canyon. Upon traversing through the first or upper tunnel, take a moment to pause and cast your gaze above the sloping cliff to your left.
High above, you will observe pictographs rendered in red, embellishing a band of rock situated beneath an overhanging ledge.
Learn more about the Bright Angel Trail Pictographs.
2.) Descending Sheep Petroglyph Panel at Horseshoe Bend
You can see the Descending Sheep Petroglyph Panel, estimated to be 3,000 and 6,000 years old, when rafting or kayaking the Colorado River above Lee’s Ferry. The panel is at Horseshoe Bend, not far from the river’s edge.
Directions: Some kayak outfitters will drop you off with your kayaks right at the Descending Sheep Petroglyph Panel. Then, you paddle downstream back to Lee’s Ferry. Easy peasy!
3.) Tanner Petroglyphs Grand Canyon
When rafting Grand Canyon, you can stop at Tanner Rapid (river mile 68.5) and take a 0.7 mile/ 1.1 km out and back hike to a boulder said to be an ancient birthing chair. (I have seen no documentation on this, fyi.) The boulder is covered with petroglyphs.
4.) Laws Springs Historic and Petroglyph Site
Situated a quarter to a half-mile hike from a Forest Service Road, Laws Spring is a well-frequented access point for the Beale Wagon Road Historic Trail, owing to its historic and prehistoric petroglyphs Grand Canyon and original road segment.
The historic trail, once a 1,240-mile route from Fort Smith, Arkansas, to the Colorado River in the 1860s and 70s, continues to offer as much to the modern traveler as it did to the ranchers and immigrants of yore.
Visitors are kindly requested not to touch the petroglyphs at Laws Spring, as oils from fingers can cause damage.
Directions: From Exit 171 on Interstate 40, drive north on FR 74 for about seven miles to FR 141.
Turn right and continue on FR 141 for a half mile to the intersection with FR 730.
Turn left onto FR 730 and go about two miles /3.2 km to FR 115. Turn left on FR 115 and follow it for about two miles / 3.2 km to FR 2030.
Travel on FR 2030 for a little less than 1 mile to the parking area.
See a video of this petroglyph site less than 50 miles / 80 km from the South Rim of the Grand Canyon.
Book about Petroglyphs Grand Canyon
For further reading, I recommend Rock Art of the Grand Canyon Region by Christensen et al., 2013, as a comprehensive book about the petroglyphs Grand Canyon.
I enjoyed reading about Polly Schaafsma’s study of Shaman’s Gallery and the illustrative photography. I was honored to meet Polly on a field trip to explore petroglyphs in New Mexico.
Conclusion Petroglyphs Grand Canyon
So ends our virtual journey to petroglyphs Grand Canyon. My hope for you is that, having read this article, if you ever stumble upon petroglyphs in the wild, you’ll be able to approach them with a deeper, more personal sense of understanding and reverence.
If you would like to add your thoughts, please comment below.
There are plenty of things to do in the Grand Canyon, so make sure you stop by our Grand Canyon Trip Planner, written by locals who offer authentic Grand Canyon experiences.
UNSTOPPABLE Stacey was NOT provided with accommodations, meals or other compensation for the purpose of this guide. The Arizona travel writer believes in full disclosure of all potential conflicts of interest.
In addition, this blog, UNSTOPPABLE Stacey Travel, contains affiliate links. If you make a purchase through these links, Stacey earns a commission at no extra cost to you. These commissions help reduce the costs of keeping this travel blog active.
Further, as an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases. Thanks for reading.
Enjoy this article? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below. Please share this article with the red- and blue-colored social media buttons.
To get more FREE travel tips and inspiration, simply subscribe below and updates will be delivered directly to your email inbox.