Prehistoric Rock Art Lies Hidden Throughout the Grand Canyon

Rock art created by prehistoric Native American cultures exists all across the U.S., being most prevalent in the Southwest. Tracking down rock art sites in the Grand Canyon, however, can be a real challenge.

By Jack Knudson
Jun 19, 2024 6:00 PM
Esplanade
(Credit: Clint Clawdus/Shutterstock)

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The U.S. Southwest holds natural treasures that take top spots on a lot of people’s bucket lists, but there are some archaeological rarities that tourists would never know exist.

Rock art sites, for example, often go unnoticed as cultural destinations. While certain sites attract thousands of curious visitors, countless others remain hidden from public sight in remote locations. Rock art can be extremely challenging to find, especially in one of the most beloved national parks, the Grand Canyon. 

Finding rock art sites in the Grand Canyon region requires profound knowledge, careful planning, and an adventurous streak, as they are mostly off the beaten path. Those who take the journey to find rock art, though, get to experience a part of the park that few others have seen. 

Rock Art in the Grand Canyon

The majority of rock art comes in two forms, petroglyphs (carved images) and pictographs (painted images). Both forms can be found all across the U.S., but distinct regional styles continue to fascinate scholars who work to unravel their meaning. 

The primary style found in the Grand Canyon is known as the Esplanade Polychrome style. Esplanade refers to a sandstone landform in the North Rim, the more remote counterpart to the park’s popular South Rim.

Traveling through parts of the North Rim can be grueling for novice hikers. Arguably the biggest danger is the heat — temperatures can reach between 100 degrees Fahrenheit and 120 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer. Water, therefore, is an absolute necessity, the key for any hike in this area. Even for experienced hikers, witnessing the Esplanade’s beautiful scenery — and its rock art — only happens with deliberate preparation. 


Read More: Ancient Artifacts Have Been Found in the Grand Canyon, Going Back 12,000 Years


Defining Esplanade Rock Art

Few can say they’ve seen the Esplanade Polychrome style up close. Rock art expert Don Christensen is among those few, having described multiple sites in Rock Art of the Grand Canyon Region, a book he co-authored along with Jerry Dickey and Steven Freers.

Christensen studies rock art on the side, having committed to teaching full-time, and says that many professionals tend to avoid involvement with rock art because sites cannot be easily dated or interpreted.

Having explored the Esplanade region, Christensen is familiar with the art style found there. It usually features a variety of motifs and techniques that can be compared with Barrier Canyon rock art (another style largely found in southern Utah), although Christensen says there are differences in execution and subject matter. Regardless, Esplanade rock art is best experienced in-person.

(Credit: Dave Rock/Shutterstock)

“Even the best photography with enhancement cannot capture the details and nuances of prehistoric images,” Christensen says. 

The Esplanade Polychrome style is only present at less than 50 sites along a couple of northern tributaries, according to Christensen. The style likely originated in the Archaic period of North American history (about 8,000 B.C.E. to 1,000 B.C.E.) and features pictographs usually painted white or red. 


Read More: 5 of the World's Most Fascinating Cave Paintings


One example of a rock art site in the Esplanade area is Shamans' Gallery, a pictograph panel on a large rock overhang portraying multicolored, peculiar-looking figures of varying sizes and designs (several have no arms, and one figure appears to sport not just one, but three heads). The panel also includes markings of a few animals like sheep and deer, as well as multiple sun-themed motifs. Some believe the art had sacred significance for the Archaic era people who painted it, but these interpretations are purely based on speculation. 

The site appears to have been first reported in the 1980s, but any further details on Shamans' Gallery are scarce. This is probably due to the fact that it is located in Tuckup Canyon, a seldom visited area that the National Park Service (NPS) describes as a “remote, vast expanse of labyrinthine gorges.”

The NPS does not reveal the exact location of most rock art in the Grand Canyon, and hikers who have shared their personal experiences visiting Shamans' Gallery online will purposefully leave out specific details to ensure the site stays protected. 


Read More: Decoding the Ancient Secrets of White Shaman


Bright Angel Trail Pictographs

For those who don’t want to take such high risks to view rock art, a more accessible site can be found on Bright Angel Trail, considered the park’s most popular trail. On the trail, visitors will see a pictograph panel on a distant cliff showing multiple deer painted a deep crimson color — best viewed through binoculars. The panel was originally given the name Mallery’s Grotto after ethnologist and pictograph specialist Garrick Mallery.

According to the NPS, the site dates between 2,000 B.C.E. and 1,950 C.E., demonstrating just how tough it is to pinpoint a clear date for rock art. The pictographs have elements that are reminiscent of the Archaic period, but also the more recent Cohonina culture (existing south of the Grand Canyon from 700 C.E. to 1,175 C.E.). 


Read More: Humans Shaped Ancient History Across 3 Ages: The Stone, Bronze, and Iron Age


Visiting Rock Art Sites

Esplanade art sites like Shamans' Gallery are one of a kind, but novice hikers may want to check out other rock art styles first. This is simply because of how arduous hikes in the Grand Canyon can be.

"The Grand Canyon is like a giant layer cake,” Christensen says. “You have to understand the geological strata because that determines your ability to traverse through the layers and the resources they contain.” 

Christensen adds that sites with the Barrier Canyon style (in Utah’s Canyonlands National Park, for example) are worth visiting because they are easier to reach and more frequent. To see petroglyph carvings instead of pictographs, a site known as Nampaweap at the Grand Canyon-Parashant National Monument is the place to go. 

The cardinal rule when visiting rock art sites is to not touch the art, whether it’s petroglyphs or pictographs. Touching a surface with rock art will introduce oils from the hands, which can cause the art to deteriorate over time. 

The rock art sites that have been discovered in the Esplanade over the past few decades continue to perplex hikers and present prehistoric mysteries. With much of the Grand Canyon still unexplored by humans, there's no saying how many additional rock art sites may be out there.


Read More: Why Did Our Paleolithic Ancestors Paint Cave Art?


Article Sources

Our writers at Discovermagazine.com use peer-reviewed studies and high-quality sources for our articles, and our editors review for scientific accuracy and editorial standards. Review the sources used below for this article:


Jack Knudson is an assistant editor at Discover with a strong interest in environmental science and history. Before joining Discover in 2023, he studied journalism at the Scripps College of Communication at Ohio University and previously interned at Recycling Today magazine.

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