Canyon Pintado—priceless gift from the past
Grand Junction, Colo.
What treasures lie at our doorstep here in northwestern Colorado. One of those least viewed and appreciated is Canyon Pintado, (Painted Canyon) so named by the Escalante/Dominguez expedition on their travels through the Douglas Creek valley in 1776. Guided by Ute Indians, the group was awed by the myriad pictographs and petroglyphs left by earlier Fremont cultures. We now know these prehistoric peoples inhabited the area for as long as 11,000 years – roughly from 600 to 1300 A.D., the same time the Anasazi were flourishing in the Four-Corners area, and the two cultures shared many similarities, such as their penchant for rock art. Much of this rock art is still visible today, although it is under constant siege from vandals, who, in their ignorance, care nothing for these priceless cultural treasures and the legacy they represent.
An art gallery of more than 200 sites within 16,000 acres, accessed by 17 miles of highway and several miles of foot trails, the Canyon Pintado Historic District is located along Highway 139 between Loma and Rangely, Colorado. As you head north, the drive over Douglas Pass is breathtaking. Be sure to pull out occasionally and look back at the view. It’s open range here, so keep an eye out for wandering cattle.
The first stop is Waving Hands Site (Mile Post 53.5). A few steps from the tiny pullout, two white hands and a white bird can be seen under an overhanging ledge. These pictographs have been painted onto the rock surface using color found naturally in minerals. Other figures contributed by later Ute tribesmen can also be seen, such as drawings of horses, an animal introduced by Columbus hundreds of years after the Fremont people disappeared.
On the west side of the road at Canyon Pintado Site (Mile Post 56), can be seen a large Kokopelli, the familiar humpbacked flute player of Anasazi mythology. His unique presence in Canyon Pintado indicates some kind of tie between the Fremont and the more civilized cultures of the Four Corners area. Like the Anasazi, the Fremont planted corn, beans, squash, and raised domesticated turkeys, but they were not as dependent upon agriculture for their subsistence as the Anasazi. They supplemented their domesticated crops with plant gathering and with seasonal hunting of deer, elk, and bighorn sheep, indicated by the numerous depictions of such animals in their rock art.
At White Bird Site, a half mile down the road, a steep but short climb to the viewing platform reveals numerous bird figures, something that resembles a strange, multicolored “carrot,” and other interesting but indecipherable images.
Next comes Crow Canyon Site (Mile Post 57.8), where you can turn off onto a gravel road and follow the signs to panels of humanoid and abstract designs seen on your left. These designs are scratched or tapped into the darker rock surface to reveal lighter colored rock underneath; they are called petroglyphs. Many of these figures have large, trapezoidal-shaped bodies, stick-like legs, trapezoidal heads, and in many cases they are adorned with necklaces. Designs like concentric circles, snake-like lines, hands, corn plants and rows of dots are also often found in Fremont art.
Back on the main highway, at State Bridge Site (Mile Post 59.7), you will find a boulder-strewn ridge to the south of the parking area decorated with deer trail designs and more small, bizarre humanoids.
If you’re looking to stretch your legs by this time, East Fourmile Draw (Mile Post 67.6) will give you a good opportunity to do so, and it’s one of the best stops. A 40-minute loop trail takes you to Sun Dagger Site, where painted concentric circles and daggers use shadows to denote the summer solstice. Along the cliff to the left of the remnants of an old line shack, you will see an exceptional panel of petroglyphs at ground level. Other archaeological sites along the path are explained on informational signs. The Hanging Hearth Site here was continuously occupied for 3,000 years, which makes our short history as a nation seem trivial.
The rock art of Canyon Pintado is a fragile remnant of people who occupied northwestern Colorado over one thousand years ago. The figures depicted on these rocks hold clues as to what Fremont people considered important in their lives. Although we don’t understand what all the figures mean today, we do know that they are precious gifts to us from our past. This art is worthy of protection from vandalism, theft and destruction, and we should treasure and preserve them for all generations to come.
Exploring Canyon Pintado is a moving experience. Unstructured and informal, there are no entry fees, no guided tours, no billboards touting its wonders, and often no other visitors. In the isolation and quietude, you will discover a sense of timelessness, a bonding with another culture and with the haunting echoes of our own primitive past.
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