The ancient cave paintings of Lascaux, France, are probably the most famous rock art in the world. If I never get to see them, no big deal, because I’ll always have Nine Mile Canyon, Utah.
Nine Mile Canyon is a rugged natural corridor cut through massive red sandstone, but it’s also a unique outdoor art gallery — a sage-scented Louvre — containing hundreds of prehistoric art sites. About 60 have been deemed significant enough for the National Register of Historic Places.
The canyon is actually about 45 miles long — nobody seems to know how it got its name. It’s on BLM land and is accessible by a paved road in fine condition, but tourists weren’t exactly pouring in when my wife and I visited in September.
Our two-day head count, excluding ourselves: 7.
The highlight of our first day of exploring was the Great Hunt Panel, a magnificent scene of bighorn sheep confronted by hunters with bows and arrows. The hunters looked not-quite human — hunting deities, perhaps.
We were camping on a private ranch, the only tourist facility within the canyon, about 30 miles from Wellington, Utah, the nearest town. The campground manager, Carla, was happy to hear we were having a great time checking out the art.
“Did you find the Owl Panel?” she asked.
I was using a slim pamphlet from the Carbon County Office of Tourism, the only official info I knew of, plus some posts I’d found on the internet. None of it mentioned an Owl Panel.
“Park at Milepost 35,” she told us. “Not that easy to find, but you won’t want to miss it.”
The next day, we didn’t set out immediately to find the owls. We had other sites on our itinerary first. But we met two guys along the way, and one of them, pointing a camera at a glyph, said, “This site is all right, but you know about the Owl Panel, right?”
He repeated Carla’s tip about Milepost 35 and, like her, made it sound like we’d have to bushwhack and be a little lucky.
It sounded like a challenge. Not really what we had in mind. To that point, we’d been taking the mellow approach to art appreciation.
So what did we do? Of course, we hopped in our truck, drove straight to Milepost 35, and parked.
Then, going on the hints that the Owl Panel was hard to find, we began trekking up a dry, sandy wash toward nowhere, really. Hiking through sand is hard; therefore, we figured we were on the right track.
This led to about a half-hour of fruitless scanning of some rocks that the wash eventually curved to.
A day ago, we’d never heard of the Owl Panel. Now we were treating it like the Holy Grail, and our failure to find it was weighing on us.
Retracing our steps, I got the brilliant idea of investigating a rock pile that sat across from where we had parked. All we had to do was zigzag through about a football field’s worth of sagebrush to get to it.
I plunged into the thicket, then called to my wife to follow as I got closer to the sandstone blocks. I’d found the owls!
There were two of them, their wings outspread, suggesting flight. One was about twice as large as its companion.
Many other images competed for attention, including an exquisite bear claw and a rather ribald threesome of humanoids that I will euphemistically call fertility symbols, blushing as I write.
The Owl Panel was definitely cool, but not the true artistic masterpiece of all the sites we saw in NMC. That distinction goes to the Great Hunt, a composition of unity and grace.
The Owl Panel, in comparison, seemed more haphazard, like something that got added to over time by many people, as they used the site for ceremonies, meditation or whatever.
Rock art falls into two basic categories — petroglyphs, which are pecked or incised into the rock, and pictographs, which are painted. The Great Hunt and Owl Panels, like the vast majority of Nine Mile art, are made of petroglyphs.
My wife and I have been interested in rock art for about 30 years, since our graduate school days in New Mexico, its landscape flush with ancient outdoor art.
But we’d never seen anything like Nine Mile Canyon for sheer concentration of sites and variety of depictions. A dozen different animals, at least. Humanoid figures in many poses and sizes. A multitude of geometric designs, which could have represented clan boundaries, hunting routes, landmarks, mythic journeys, weather events, celestial objects ...
Present-day Ute and Pueblo elders aren’t even sure what their ancestors had in mind, but that doesn’t make the images any less fascinating to contemplate.
We loved having the art mostly to ourselves, uninhibited by barriers and with no guards watching our every move, as in a museum. Only the Great Hunt had a maintained path leading to it and was fenced.
Finding the art can be even harder than we made it, if you wish to explore every nook, overhang and side canyon. But parking anywhere along the main road and walking from one rock heap to another will usually lead to exciting discoveries.
At the owl site, we sat on a stone slab right under the glyphs and took a few minutes to watch some white clouds roll by. The road was hidden from our view. It could have been 1050, instead of 2017.
— Paul Hadella is a freelance writer who lives in Talent. Reach him at email@example.com.