Feb 8, 2008

Petroglyphs and Dinosaurs

Merlin with McConkie Ranch PetroglyphsWe woke to overcast skies and an ominous cloud front lurking in the west. The Weather Channel promised rain. We packed quickly and drove towards Dry Fork Canyon, trusting a photocopied hand-drawn map from the motel lobby. Our destination- the Sadie McConkie Ranch Petroglyphs, one of the largest and most accessible collections of rock art in Utah. Dating back a thousand years, these petroglyphs are on private property with public access. The National Register of Historic Places lists this prehistoric site as Fremont Culture petroglyphs characterized by elaborately decorated anthropomorphic figures up to nine feet tall. It sounded astonishing. Well worth a Road Trip detour.

Utah NSHAt the edge of town the road joined the river plateau. Drivers in mud spattered ranch trucks waved at us, appreciating Merlin sniffing the passing horses. A hand painted wooden sign led us to an antler fence parking lot. The doorless welcome hut requested a $2 donation for parking. Painted arrows indicated a trail considerately marked with surveyor ribbons. A young cat greeted me in the hut, meowing to be petted. Merlin waited outside. I signed the guestbook, dropped all my change in the donation can, and visited the pink outhouse. The kitten boldly scampered by Merlin and up the path. Merlin on the Petroglyph PathMerlin trotted under an enormous antler gate and climbed the trail to the 200 foot high sandstone cliff. Excited to be free, he ran around the red rocks and dry plants, yipping. Then he let lose a loud happy bark, which echoed back and forth along the canyon. Listening to himself, he decided that was great fun, and barked some more, exciting distant ranch dogs to join in. I calmed him out of respect for the ancient people who revered this place for 1,200 years. Petroglyph KittenThe kitten reappeared and perched on a rock while I scanned the cliff face. I could not see any rock art but took a photo of the entire cliff anyway, knowing sometimes faint designs show up afterwards with a little levels adjustment. I had memorized a few of the petroglyphs from the wall map in the hut and knew a panther was supposed to be somewhere right in front of me. The kitten meowed and purred as I absently stroked it’s head. Then suddenly the rock art panther leapt into focus, five feet long.Petroglyph Circle Nearby was a faint face, a flowing circle, a small arrow. Once I saw the first subtle design, my brain recalibrated and petroglyphs began to appear everywhere. Always obsessed with prehistoric art since seeing photos of Lascaux as a little kid, I’ve visited Ice Age cave paintings in France, archeology museum collections in London, Paris, and Istanbul, Indian mounds in the American midwest, and rock art all over the Southwest. This was some of the best petroglyphs I’d seen anywhere.

Petroglyph RainThe three of us happily scampered along on the rugged cliff bottom, the kitten leading, Merlin herding, me taking photos. After an hour we crossed a gully and came upon amazing tall figures with elaborate headdresses and beaded collars. Several groups gestured to each other, water drops falling from their eyes as if they were crying for, or bringing, rain. There were heads, feet, circles and spirals, proto-labyrinths, depicting spinning energy.

Petroglyph SpiralWe returned to the car for drinks and snacks. I offered Merlin the dog food that had been sitting in his bowl since California. After our morning rock art romp, he was finally hungry. He nobly ate a few mouthfuls, then I tipped out his stale food for the gathered cats and poured him fresh kibble. He happily gobbled his new meal, sharing his water with the kittens. Perhaps he realized that he won’t have to live the rest of his life in the backseat of the car, so it was ok to eat. We stopped for a final photo as rain clouds gathered. Merlin found a lovely smelly rabbit carcass to roll in. This was turning out to be his best Road Trip day yet.

Vernal DinoWhen I first started planning routes for Merlin’s Road Trip, I spotted Dinosaur National Monument straddling Utah and Colorado. I couldn’t believe I’d never been to Dinosaur National Monument! That decided it. We drive. A proper road trip invites adventurous detours and the American west is the place for detours for dinosaurs.

The Dinosaur National Monument website warns that driving distances to the Dinosaur Quarry Visitor Center are very long: 6 hours from Denver, 4 hours from Salt Lake City, 9 hours from Yellowstone, 5 hours from Moab, UT. But the spectacular geology, Indian Petroglyphs in rock shelters dating from AD 200-1300, and remains of early homesteading and outlaws made it seem worth the effort. Besides, I could nip back into Vernal and turn north through Flaming Gorge, another ‘I can’t believe I’ve never been to’ destination, to rejoin Interstate 80 in Wyoming.

Merlin at Dino NMThe Dino NM website also states that pets are welcome at Dinosaur National Monument. However, they are apparently welcome only where cars are welcome, even if your pet is journalist Road Trip Merlin and you two are the only visitors in the parking lot built for 300 cars, 15 RVs, and 10 buses. Since Merlin couldn’t hike the trails with me and the Dinosaur Quarry Visitor Center with its 45 foot wall of 1,500 in situ bones closed in July 2006 (see what happens if you wait?), we purchased the 50¢ Auto Tour map and drove off. The paved road skimmed brilliantly colored rocks, from pale cream through flaming brick to hard black. Carved by the Green River, the canyon exposed 23 geologic formations, records of extinct ecosystems, the most complete fossil record in North America. The quarry is the world’s best window on the Late Jurassic dinosaurs from 150 million years ago. The Carnegie Museum has excavated bones and made casts for the world’s museums since 1909. I’ve meet several, including London’s Natural History Museum’s Diplodocus (double arm lizard), the longest land animal ever to live, and the four-story tall Brachiosaurus (arm lizard) in Chicago’s Field Museum. The Field Brachiosaurus is the largest mounted dinosaur in the world and now resides in Terminal One at O’Hare International Airport, relocated in 1999 to make room for Sue, the largest T-Rex ever found. The Allosaurus (other lizard) is the most commonly found Utah dinosaur and is the official State Fossil.

Green River RocksThe auto tour was a dead-end, so after an hour we reluctantly made a u-turn and headed back for the park exit. A stiff, frigid wind brought rain and lightning. Aware that we were the tallest object in the valley, I parked by the slightly taller park entrance kiosk trying to unsuccessfully photograph lightning strikes from the dry safety of the car. An official sign told us to unload all our firearms. After following a slow gravel truck with a responsible sign stating it was not responsible for broken windshields, we returned to Vernal to look for lunch.

Petroglyph WarriorDay Four Morning: Vernal, McConkie Ranch Petroglyphs, Dinosaur National Monument, Vernal. Six hours, 57 miles.


L.C.McCabe said...


Those pictures are so cool and that kitty is too cute.

It's weird but for some reason only a portion of your last picture showed up in Google reader. I don't understand why it should do that, especially since my own posts show all my photos without any problem. Perhaps it has something to do with using the setting to have text next to the photos. I have always chosen to use the photos separate from the text.

:shrugs: Or it could just be the whims of Bloggermort.

See ya soon!


Cindy Pavlinac said...

Merlin doesn't mind cats, unless they run, then he feels obligated by his canine heritage to chase. We might add a few 'honorary dog-cats' to his

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