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Signs of Life from Long Ago

By: Karl Samson

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June 30, 2014

Follow in the footsteps of ancient cultures at petroglyph sites and cliff dwellings throughout Arizona.

About the author

Karl Samson

Karl Samson

Although he lives in Oregon, for more than 20 years Karl Samson has been escaping his home state's rainy winter weather to dry out in sunny Arizona. He is the author of the Frommer's Arizona guidebook and has also written about Arizona for Sunset magazine.

It’s the first day of spring at V-Bar-V Ranch Heritage Site outside of Sedona, and a shadow is creeping slowly across a rock wall etched with ancient petroglyphs. As the sun rises high overhead, the shadow highlights several concentric circles that were long ago etched into the rock by unknown hands. Are these carvings part of a planting calendar, or is the position of the shadows merely coincidence? 

Whatever the answer, this and other petroglyph sites around Arizona offer opportunities to admire rock-art images both familiar and fantastic.

And the people who left these images? How did they live? Find out for yourself at any of the state’s numerous well-preserved cliff dwellings. In sometimes massive, shallow caves, native peoples erected entire villages of multi-story stone apartments. Because of the protection offered by overhanging cliff walls, these structures are among the best-preserved pueblos in the region.

National Monuments and More in Central and Northern Arizona

The Deer Valley Rock Art Center outside of Phoenix is arguably the best place in Arizona to learn about rock art. This archaeological site and museum preserves more than 1,500 petroglyphs and also provides historical context and interpretation of the site’s many rock-art images through hands-on activities. 

Across the valley and into the mountains to the east, explore two of the southernmost cliff dwellings in the nation at Tonto National Monument. The architectural styles and materials found at both sites represent Hohokam and ancestral Puebloan traditions.

In Northern Arizona, the sacred Tutuveni petroglyph site boasts more than 5,000 Hopi clan symbols and reflects 1,000 years of Hopi history and culture. The carvings tucked into a 200-foot tall red rock ridgeline at Dawa Park are even more ancient, dating to the Basketmaker peoples from 2,000 years ago. Individual and group visits are permitted with a guide who holds a valid Hopi tribal permit.

Few areas of Arizona offer more opportunities for exploring cliff dwellings and searching out rock-art sites than the triangle formed by Camp Verde, Sedona and Flagstaff. Within this region, amateur archaeologists can gaze up – via a paved trail – at the ruins of Camp Verde’s Montezuma Castle National Monument and wander in and out of the narrow cliff dwellings at Walnut Canyon National Monument near Flagstaff, believed to have been inhabited in the 1100s. 

At Palatki Heritage Site, west of Sedona, visitors marvel at well-preserved pictographs while exploring a modest cliff dwelling during docent-led tours. If you’re up for a desert adventure, search out the Red Tank Draw petroglyphs south of Sedona and not far from the V-Bar-V petroglyphs.

Hidden History Deep in Canyon Country

Two of the largest cliff dwellings in the state are preserved at Navajo National Monument in Northern Arizona, where both the Keet Seel and Betatakin pueblos can be visited on free ranger-led hikes during the summer. 

While there are numerous ruin sites within Canyon de Chelly National Monument in Chinle, only White House Ruin via White House Trail can be visited without a guide. Among the rock art within this canyon are some of the state’s most impressive pictographs.

Privately owned but open to the public, remote Rock Art Ranch, between Winslow and Holbrook, is considered by some authorities to preserve one of the most extensive and diverse groupings of rock art in the world. The countless images here were likely left by numerous cultures over thousands of years.

Petroglyph Art in Southern Arizona

At the Painted Rock Petroglyph Site, west of Gila Bend and southwest of Phoenix, petroglyphs by the hundreds cover jumbled boulders that form a low hill. This Bureau of Land Management site also has an adjacent campground, which makes this a good place for immersing yourself in the past. 

Just as the spring and autumn equinoxes are great times to visit V-Bar-V Ranch, sunset is the time to follow petroglyph-dotted Signal Hill Trail in the west unit of Saguaro National Park near Tucson. As the light of the setting sun turns to a golden glow, a large spiral, pecked into a hilltop rock eons ago, catches the day’s last light, signaling the end of the day. So too does this impressive sight signal the long ago end of an era, when American Indians tracked water, wild game and the seasons by leaving a bit of writing on the walls and rocks of the Arizona desert.

Editors note: When visiting these historic sites, please remember that many of them are sacred to American Indian tribes. Leave petroglyphs and cliff dwellings as you found them. Do not damage or remove any artifacts, rocks or plants, or climb on walls. Oil from fingerprints can harm the site, so refrain from touching rock art. 

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