Sometimes life takes you on adventures you never thought you would have and one such side road in Wyoming led me to a legendary trail of wonder. I was returning home early one morning traveling along Hwy 120, between Thermopolis and Cody, and noticed a small sign for an archaeological site which I had never noticed before. Since I was ahead of schedule and the morning was sunny and nice, I took the turn onto Hot Spring County Rd 10, following the little direction signs. The road took me at 5 miles, where another small sign pointed to turn right onto a gravel road, Cottonwood Creek Rd. I followed it at 2.7 miles, all the while thinking I was just headed out into the prairie, when it curved to the left and through a small gate. I continued along and soon the road headed downhill, where I noticed a new little log building and nice covered picnic area. There was no one in sight but a large RV was parked nearby and before long, a caretaker came out and greeted me, “Welcome to Legend Rock State Archaeological Site ... it’s a nice day for exploring.”
She invited me into the log visitor center, where she soon had me immersed in the history and information of this unusual and sacred Wyoming site. For centuries, this area has been a place where Native Peoples have come and carved images into the tall rock faces along the creek bed. These fascinating images provide a glimpse into the physical and spiritual lives of those who lived in the region. Sites like these are said to be sacred places, to be honored by the descendents of those who created the images. The petroglyphs here at Legend Rock are thought to be over 11,000 years old, surviving both the effects of weather and time. Many native peoples still believe that the spirits of the images, even now, reside here within the rocks.
I learned that the local ranchers in the area, knew about the petroglyphs for generations but kept the place quiet, partly because they really didn’t think people were interested and also to stop anyone from destroying the carvings. In the 1970s a group of people from Thermopolis who were interested in Legend Rock drafted a petition to make the area a Wyoming State Park. As a result of their efforts, in 1973, the property was put onto the National Register of Historic Places. In 1979, a portion was also designated as a Wyoming State Archaeological Site. In 2006 a multi-agency committee was formed to take up the tasks of protecting and preserving the site’s resources. This committee has achieved many of its goals, including the removal of graffiti, in-depth documentation, site management and the establishment of a visitors center. They now have educational programs, as well as continued consultation with the Native American Tribes.
Legend Rock is a rare archaeological site, where archaeologists are using three techniques to determine the potential age of the petroglyphs. The first is Radiocarbon Dating. Petroglyphs are made by pecking away the dark outer surface of the rock, called varnish, to uncover the lighter-colored stone beneath. Rock varnish forms very slowly in the arid Wyoming climate and as the varnish reforms over the pecked images, it captures organic matter that contains carbon, which can be analyzed by archaeologists using Radiocarbon testing. Another method uses an electron microscope to analyze the thickness and chemical makeup in the layers of varnish. Only a few microns of varnish forms per thousand years and this process is called Varnish Micro-lamination Dating. Cation-ratio is another test in which the archaeologists focus on the rate trace elements leach out of the varnish coating the sandstone rock. By dating the varnish around the petroglyphs, scientists can make comparisons and thus help determine the relative age of the images.
With my head filled with facts and interesting information, it was now time to take the one-third mile loop to the petroglyphs site. A well marked dirt interpretive trail took me out and around the hillside, where I soon came upon the first of 15 numbered marker posts. The numbers on each marker are described in a wonderful brochure handed out at the visitor center, with descriptions and diagrams of the petroglyphs.
The wonder of this place and the images on the rock panels are breathtaking. Walking all alone that morning, I could hear the creek below me and the rustle of the lizards as they scurried among the huge tumbled boulders beside the trail. As I quietly walked along, each image drew me in, captivating my imagination and making me wonder about the person who took the time to hammer away the rock to create these mysterious figures. Many of the images were creatures with horned headdresses, which are considered a symbol of medicine or power among Native peoples. Often the figures originate or end at cracks in the cliff, which many researchers believe indicates a transition from one world to another dimension. Several bison and elk or deer are visible at panel #8. The Shoshone and Crow tribes believe that the elk spirit could provide a “love medicine” and that it could also make a warrior stronger. It is believed that Shoshone Chief Washakie had this kind of elk power.
I saw images of turtles, cat-like creatures and bizarre-looking figures that seemed to have smaller creatures inside of their large round centers. A group of pecked figures included a thunderbird and a horned man, standing beside a long-tailed animal with clawed feet. There was also a very distinct image of a fat long-eared rabbit.
Walking back to the visitor center, I couldn’t help but believe that this truly is a sacred place, where human beings have come for eons to express their dreams and perhaps, touch the spirits of time. Just before I rounded the last rock outcropping, a sudden blast of wind tossed my hair out from under my hat ... and I remembered something I’d been told years ago while on a wagon train, “Walk softly among the spirits and listen, for their songs are but a breath away and you may hear them in the wind.”
Today, I heard it at Legend Rock. ❖