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Trips : Utah : Arches National Park : Sheep Rock Petroglyphs

For one version of Sheep Rock you can check out the Park Avenue tour. That Sheep Rock is a large stone formation that looks a bit like a bighorn sheep. This one is different.

This version of Sheep Rock refers to a petroglyph or "rock art" found near the beginning of the hike to the Delicate Arch. What are petroglyphs? Well, a "glyph" is often a picture, usually with some meaning associated with it. "Petroglyphs" are pictures that have been chipped out of the patina or "canyon varnish" that forms on the red standstone found throughout Utah. Another form of rock art that you may see are pictographs. A pictograph is made with paint rather than chipping away the outer layers of stone.

There are lots of explanations as to why the canyon varnish forms. Some say that it may be mineral deposits left after water evaporates. Others say that it is formed by bacteria. But whatever the actual reason was, the original civilizations that inhabited this area used it as a form of a billboard.

"Sheep Rock Petroglyph"
Arches National Park, Utah
Big Picture

This particular example is very striking, and extremely easy to get to. Start out on the trail to the Delicate Arch. You begin by passing Wolf Ranch. Next, you will cross a short bridge. Follow the trail for a few hundred feet. Just as the trail starts to rise there will be a side trail to your left. Take that side trail, walk about 500 feet and there you are.

Why is it here? What does it mean? Nobody really knows. We have not found a Rosetta Stone for this ancient form of communication, so all we have is speculation.

"Sheep Rock Petroglyph Detail"
Arches National Park, Utah
Big Picture

Here's a closeup of the petroglyph itself. There are lots of interpretations. Is this a story of a successful hunt? Was this a marker to show that this area had plentiful sheep? Was it just a way for a lonely or bored tribal artisan to show his (or her) talent? We will probably never know, as these glyphs often date back thousands of years or more. This particular sample has been dated much later than that, as it includes a representation of a man on horseback. The Spanish didn't reintroduce horses to this area until the 1500's, so this petroglyph obviously was created later than that.

Arches National Park, Utah
Big Picture

This next example of a petroglyph is not actually inside of the park boundaries at all. It's on a road that will take you from Moab to Canyonlands National Park. At one point the steep rock wall had a large pile of rocks at the base; when they put the road through the area they cleared out the fallen rock, leaving the rock art way up high.

This makes them more difficult to see and photograph, but also is a form of protection against additional graffiti or vandalism.

Down near the Needles District is one of the most famous petroglyphs in the area called Newspaper Rock. We'll have a picture of that uploaded soon.

If you are so inclined, you could make a lifetime out of searching out and documenting petroglyphs and pictographs. There are sites ranging from Texas up through Montana and all over the western states. Some symbols repeat, others may be unique to an area. Like the ancient heads of Easter Island and other unexplained mysteries, we can only wonder at the purpose and intent of these remnants of an ancient civilization.

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Click to buy Exploring Canyonlands and Arches National Parks from
"Exploring Canyonlands and Arches National Parks"
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Click to buy Guide to Rock Art of the Utah Region from
"Guide to Rock Art of the Utah Region"
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