Many visitors to Capitol Reef National Park come for the hiking trails and incredible scenic drives. But fewer visitors know that the park is also home to an incredible piece of history; ancient petroglyphs.
Created between 600 and 1300 A.D., these stunning rock paintings tell the story of the Fremont and Ancestral Puebloan people who once lived in the area. While it’s impossible to decipher their exact meaning today. But it’s believed that the images depict their hunting patterns, their mythological stories, and even crop cycles in the region.
Visiting these incredible rock images is a must during your next visit to Capitol Reef. However, learning how to do so properly is also important. Like many parks, Capitol Reef has suffered from the effects of vandalism over the many decades that it has welcomed visitors. This damage sometimes comes in the form of graffiti. Other times, visitors may not realize the harm they are doing. However, whether they are hiking off of marked trails, touching delicate rock images, or carving their name into rock faces, the damage is still done.
Ready to visit Capitol Reef’s rock images, or other petroglyphs found throughout the American Southwest as a true archaeologist would? Keep reading to learn a few tips for doing so safely, so that future generations can enjoy these incredible works of art, too.
Stay on Marked Trails
Many petroglyphs in Capitol Reef as well as elsewhere across Southern Utah feature designated trails that help visitors get a closer look. However, many, like the Fremont Culture Petroglyphs located off Utah Highway 24, are still located a distance away from the trail. In this case, up a steep, rocky hillside, on the side of a sheer rock face. A raised boardwalk with railings allows visitors to get a closer look at the petroglyphs while still maintaining a safe distance.
This can make viewing them a bit more challenging. But it’s important to stay on the marked trail rather than climbing over the railing for an even closer look. The location of the trail is designed to keep visitors safe. It also helps to protect the rock images from damage. Straying from the trail could cause you to step on or damage other artifacts or images that you may not see.
In the case of petroglyphs that you can get closer to, avoid climbing on any boulders or rock faces located near the images.
Keep an Eye on Pets and Kids
While you might know that it’s important to stay on the trail, young children or pets hiking with you may not. Keep an eye on children while hiking, and remind them to stay on marked trails.
Pets are not allowed on hiking trails in Capitol Reef or most other national parks but may be allowed on trails in state parks or other areas where petroglyphs are located. Always keep them on a leash that prevents them from straying from the trail.
Show Your Respect
Some petroglyphs are located in places that once held religious or sacred meaning to the people that created them. And even if they are not, other park-goers may be looking to quietly contemplate these incredible, ancient images during their visit.
To avoid disturbing other guests, always practice respect while visiting petroglyphs. Keep conversations quiet, and avoid shouting or playing music while near them. In fact, it’s always a good idea to keep talking to a conversation level and avoid playing music while on hiking trails to keep from disturbing other guests’ experiences.
Bring the Right Gear
Having the right gear along can help you make the most of your trek to see ancient rock images. If you know that you’ll need to complete a rugged hike to get to the location of the petroglyphs, plan to wear good hiking boots and to pack plenty of water.
Even if the rock images are located on a more easily-accessible trail, there is still some gear you may consider bringing along. A pair of binoculars can help you get a closer look at the images without leaving the trail. And a guidebook can help you to better understand the images that you’re seeing, especially when cell phone access may be limited in the location of the rock images.
Never Touch on or Near a Petroglyph
Perhaps the most important thing to remember when visiting rock imagery sites is to never touch on or near the images. The natural oils in our fingers can quickly degrade the images, even after they’ve been there for thousands of years. Even touching near the images, rather than directly, can cause damage, as the oil can weaken the rock surface and cause it to crumble or give way over time.
Avoid Eating or Drinking Too Close to the Rock Images
In some cases, the location of the petroglyphs may still be considered important research locations for archaeologists. Even if you plan to pack out any garbage that you may bring in, eating or drinking near the rock images can still leave behind debris that can be a nuisance to scientists and researchers at a later date. Things like sunflower seed shells may become mixed with the soil near these sites and will need to be identified and removed during later excavations.
Pack Out Your Trash
Whether you’re visiting ancient petroglyphs or enjoying some of the park’s other hiking trails, always pack out your trash. Besides posing a threat to archaeological sites, trash left behind can also become a hazard to native plant and animal life.
However, be careful if you spot other “trash” near these archaeological sites. While an old tin can might look like garbage that should be removed, some items may still hold historical significance to researchers. Even “trash” left behind as little as a half century ago tells a story about the area, and should be left behind. In fact, removing anything that could be considered an artifact, even if it doesn’t come from ancient times, can be considered a legal offense.
Of course, if you notice trash that was clearly left behind by far more recent visitors, like candy bar wrappers, feel free to do your part to care for the park by properly disposing of it!
Visiting Capitol Reef’s and Other Petroglyphs Safely and Respectfully
Visiting the rock imagery sites of Capitol Reef National Park and others found throughout Southern Utah can be a great addition to your next trip. But understanding how to view them safely and respectfully is also important, as it can help not only keep you safe, but also preserve the petroglyphs for future generations to see.
Ready to experience these incredible rock images for yourself? Book your stay at Cougar Ridge to enjoy quick and easy access to Capitol Reef National Park during your visit. Right now, when you book 3 or more nights, you can enjoy a 20% discount off your entire stay!