Glyphing is a Hiker's Tour of History

Embark on a treasure hunt to find rock art—and clues of the past.

Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.

Wedged into a vertical crevice, I reach up with my camera, trying not to backflip 12 feet onto the canyon floor. It’s the only way I can get a good photo of the enigmatic engraving gracing the cliff face. Below, my companions wait for their turns.

We’re exploring an area near Holbrook, Arizona, that a friend and fellow glypher recommended. He’s here along with three other obsessives who like nothing more than getting scratched, sunburned, and blistered while hiking off-trail in the remote desert of the Colorado Plateau, searching for rock art and signs left behind by the region’s ancient inhabitants. Some 8,000 years ago, Desert Archaic foragers created the area’s very first rock art. About 6,000 years later, Basketmaker people added their own marks. More recently, ancestors of present-day Hopis, then Navajos, and later still, cowpokes augmented these sandstone chronicles.

Like the region’s ruddy, layer-cake strata, its prehistoric artifacts tickle my curiosity. Who were these desert dwellers? What were their routines, their beliefs? How did they survive in these arid lands? Rock art—a ceremonial stocktaking, not merely “art”—offers more profound clues to their myths and visions than any ruins, bones, arrowheads, or potsherds. For true glyphers like us, crumbling Proto-Puebloan condos are simply a bonus, an appetizer in the form of architecture.

My contortionist camera shot captures an image of concentric spirals and orderly rows of dots. Having studied the Southwest’s prehistoric cultures and its peoples’ movements for more than 20 years, I’m confident that the former markings are symbols of migration and emergence; the latter are probably calendar tallies. The Ancient Ones clearly cared about more than just water holes and vittles.

I wonder what Morris Wolf might think about this particular panel. Wolf, my mentor in amateur sleuthing, moved to southern Utah decades ago to spend his golden years ferreting out rock art. A sprightly, blue-eyed septuagenarian with closely cropped white hair and a mustache, Wolf started sharing his knowledge and favorite finds after giving me a lift when I was hitchhiking. Luckily, he saw something in me that he liked, because since then I’ve learned that information sharing is not a given among members of our sect. We swear even close friends to secrecy, asking them not to pass on directions before we reveal little-known, extraordinary, or especially fragile sites. Because of the risk of damage, camping near or touching rock art are big no-nos.

“Leave No Trace” for us is literal and includes “Leave No Tracks,” as even unmarked footpaths betray cherished locations. Discovery of a panel is its own reward, and the discoverer often names it, largely for reference. That means several names can exist for the same location, which is confusing to casual searchers. Hints of territoriality and competitiveness notwithstanding, the wish to protect sites drives many tight-lipped rock-art buffs. Trampled cryptogamic soil, online GPS coordinates, and spray-paint graffiti, or “idiot glyphs,” are all too common today.

None of those travesties affect this gully—yet. We stroll down the quiet defile, oohing and aahing at almost every bend. As always, our pace is exhaustively slow—people with short attention spans or weak calves don’t make good glyph hounds—and we stop often to inspect and decode the terrain. Morning sun in our faces makes it hard to detect patterns pecked into the blue-black, metallic slickrock varnish, and we linger over choice petroglyphs. We discuss their styles and snap photos before climbing up benches or into nooks in the rock. Our voices ring faintly in this natural echo chamber.

Thankfully, recent rain did not glut the canyon with mud pits—this is as easy as our off-trail exploring ever gets. It often involves creek wading, snake dodging, gunk-holing, heatstroking, or free soloing. Scarred shins tell the story of our exploits, as do our scribbled-on maps. Once, pulling myself into a band-shell alcove, I lacerated my palms on razor-blade beargrass and had to be careful not to sully the pictographs with my blood as I pointed out details in the panel to my wife.

A pour-off puts an end to today’s outing. We thrash through greenery that screens some foul red runoff pools before climbing to the rim. Migrant sandhill cranes honk beyond pinyons and junipers while we follow the canyon’s jagged lip back to where we parked our trucks.

Along the way, I spot two petroglyphs invisible from the bottom. A few more emblazon a boulder below. What else, I wonder, might we have missed?  

Trending on Backpacker