Rough ride to rock etchings worth the trip

Sloan Canyon National Conservation Area contains one of our region’s most important and unspoiled sites, boasting plentiful petroglyphs, or rock etchings, presumably left there by Native Americans over many centuries. Yet relatively few people today have actually seen these petroglyphs. That’s partly because they were rather a secret until 47,438 surrounding acres were designated a conservation area in 2002 but also because getting there required driving a very bad road.

Lately, though, a new and somewhat friendlier route has become possible, putting it in easy reach from Las Vegas and Henderson. That should be reason enough to seize the opportunity to visit before the rising temperatures of summer becomes a very good reason not to.

In the past, the easiest access road to the site, rough though it was, started from Las Vegas Boulevard South. The new route will save a lot of time, though a high-clearance vehicle with off-road tires is still required. The route is not well-marked, so refer to the directions list.

At the Sloan Canyon Petroglyph Site, you will find more than 1,700 petroglyphs on about 300 panels. It is believed much of this rock art was made by Ancestral Puebloans in the archaic period, although later peoples have added more in the historic period, which is less than two centuries around there.

The old people and the more recent ones had the same techniques to make petroglyphs: Using some hard object to peck or scratch a design through the natural desert varnish covering a rock face. The unweathered rock beneath is a lighter color, making the design stand out in contrast for many years. Passing centuries, though, gradually cover the more recently exposed rock and make the petroglyphs appear more subtle, nearly the same color as the surrounding stone.

To reach the most impressive area of petroglyphs, it will be about a one-mile hike from the trailhead. The trail starts at 2,855 feet in elevation and gains about 200 feet, so it’s not a strenuous walk, but in a few places, you will have to do some rock scrambling.

Wear hard-to-rip britches and sturdy shoes with soles that will grip bare rock and loose gravel.

From the trailhead, walk up the wide, sandy and gravel wash for about three-quarters of a mile.

After this, you will find the canyon walls rise and the drainage narrows. It’s along there, in about three places, that you’ll have to do the rock-scrambling, but it’s easy as scrambling goes.

After this, you will find a 10-foot-high choke stone blocking further progress. The easiest way to get around this is backtracking about 15 feet and heading up the wash’s left side, then dropping back into the wash once you’re past the blocked part.

After this, the canyon takes a left turn, and the next 100 yards are where you will find the highest number of panels.

Both sides of the canyon have them, but they are highly concentrated on your right side as you travel up the drainage.

You will find obvious symbols there such as bighorn sheep and lizards, but most remain a mystery of what they depict. Many of the designs are thought to be related to seasonal hunting trips the Native Americans made to the area.

On your return from hiking up the canyon, you will be sure to see more petroglyphs that you might have missed, including one on your right that appears to be a man on a horse with a broad-brimmed hat.

Since modern horses came to America only with the white man, this petroglyph is one of the reasons it’s thought the petroglyph writing continued into historic times. It’s anybody’s guess whether the rider is one of the Spanish priests who explored the Southwest, a mountain man, a soldier, or one of the early Utah Mormons who traveled to the West Coast by way of Las Vegas.

While in the canyon, always stay in the drainage.

Never touch any of the petroglyphs or disturb the rocks or boulders they are on. Bring binoculars to get a closer look at the ones high on the walls.

If rain threatens, postpone this hike to another day, as flash flooding is possible in the canyon, and the access roads can become impassable.


Deborah Wall is the author of “Great Hikes, A Cerca Country Guide” and “Base Camp Las Vegas: Hiking the Southwestern States,” published by Stephens Press. She can be reached at deborabus@aol.com.