Experiencing Seven Mile Canyon Petroglyphs with
Author and Naturalist Craig Childs
Moments after finding my group of seven
fellow writers, we loaded ourselves into a passenger van
provided by the
Canyonlands Field Institute. None of us knew our
destination for a day of hiking and writing. Having
renowned author and expert on the desert southwest,
Craig Childs as our personal guide for the day made
those prospects even more exciting.
Heading north on
Highway 191, we crossed the Colorado River, then drove
through the notch of the
Moab Fault, a deep gorge that features the main entrance
to Arches National Park. Five more miles up the road, we
turned west on
State Highway 313, which leads to Canyonlands National
Park and Dead Horse Point, a Utah State Park.
Only a mile or two from that junction, our
van slowed and then our driver turned on to an unmarked
road-stub. We all piled out of the van, and then surveyed
the surrounding area. Knowing that Craig Childs had spent
many months of his life hiking in and around the Moab area,
we were curious why he would choose what appeared to be such
an undistinguished spot to start our day.
Not knowing what to expect, we crossed the
highway and walked west toward a canyon wall, where the
sunshine had begun to warm the morning air. Once we reached
a suitable place for our group to sit and listen, we quieted
down and Craig Childs, the master of the canyons, spoke.
talking about the area surrounding the spot where we sat,
Craig did not mention the sporadic traffic along the
highway, only fifty yards away. Instead, he began a lesson
in perception, inviting us to see these canyons as he sees
them. Juxtaposing Craig’s intimate description of that
landscape with the impersonality of what I saw as an
unremarkable roadside made me feel uneasy. I felt like he
could see things that I could not.
After cautiously placing myself into Craig’s
perceptual landscape, it became easier to see the uniqueness
of that place, which was one of an infinite number of
potential stops along that road. Having driven Highway 313
many times before, I knew that the landscape along that road
was itself a paradox. On one hand, the highway meets our
human needs to get somewhere. After passing photo spots of
drama and beauty, the road ends at the equally dramatic Dead
Horse Point. No one would dispute the beauty of the famous
attractions near the end of the road. Yet, if one stops
along the lower portion of the road, he or she will also
find an abundance of unique and beautiful
After completing our first small writing
exercise, Craig stood and invited us to follow him around
the far side of a large boulder. There, only a few yards
away, were many examples of
Native American rock art incised into the desert varnish
of the canyon walls. Unlike many of the pictographs and
petroglyphs that are visible from local roads, this great
art had remained untouched since its creation. According to
the style of that rock art, members of the
Fremont Culture created it sometime between 600 and 1250
CE. If one needed a better example of Craig Child’s
contention that there is unimaginable beauty available
throughout the Canyonlands area, this art gallery, created
by grand and ancient masters humbled me into recognition and
Soon, it was time to start our trek up the
broad, flat wash of
Seven Mile Canyon. Again crossing the road, we gathered
beneath a cottonwood tree. Although SevenMile Canyon is
open to both hikers and motorized vehicles, that morning we
saw no one other than our group for the first two hours of
our hike. With non-native bulrushes partially overgrowing
the entrance to the canyon, the driver of a full-sized
vehicle would scrape off a lot of paint in order to run that
gauntlet and pass through into the canyon itself.
While walking up-canyon, we began to feel the
warmth and dryness of the desert environment. Frequent
breaks for water helped facilitate our passage along the
soft sands of the canyon bottom. Stopping in the shade of a
cottonwood grove, Craig asked us to take off our shoes and
feel the canyon sands beneath our feet. Once barefoot, each
of us took off in our own direction. Our assignment was to
find a place to sit and write about the feeling of being in
touch with the canyon on that bright October morning.
a trailside lunch, Craig directed us towards a nearby, but
partially hidden canyon wall. After a scramble over some
boulders, we arrived at an intimate alcove, hidden from the
sun by a massive overhang of Navajo Sandstone. In such
places, one intuitively accesses a faith in geologic time.
If, in eons of time, this stone overhang had not crashed
down in a pile of rubble, why should let go as we walked
into this stone sanctuary?
When seasonal rains visit, the spot where we
stood becomes a waterfall and receiving pool of a size and
power that would drive any human back to a safe distance.
On this day, there was no water pitching over the precipice
and the receiving pool was dry.
As with our previous stop, we found one wall
of our secret canyon alcove
covered with both Fremont Culture and Archaic Era rock art.
Once again, we found no sign that anyone had visited this
sacred spot since the last of the
pre-Puebloan Indians chipped and painted their artwork
into these walls.
If you were to take the stone-age tools
available to the ancients and attempt to make your own mark
upon these walls, it is likely that you would quit before
you created anything of note.
Scientists estimate that each incised figure might take
several weeks to complete. For that reason, the defacement
of more accessible rock art is often in the form of bullet
holes or surface scratches across the face of the artwork.
How and why did members of these ancient cultures take the
time and put forth the incredible effort necessary to
decorate their home canyons?
Our theory is that before European contact,
there were times of lush abundance in the
Canyonlands. Being efficient hunters and gatherers,
good years allowed the ancients to fill their granaries with
enough food to take them through the harshest of winters.
In the best of years, their larders might be full by
summer’s end, leaving leisure time sufficient for the
ancients to pursue an activity that motivates almost every
human culture. That is a desire to tell their story to
other humans and other cultures who might later visit these
On a beautiful fall day, not unlike the one
we spent among their galleries, the ancients may have carved
and painted the story of their lives, their hunts and their
spirit guides into these sacred canyon walls. To me, it
felt like they had just been there, suspending their
chipping and carving as we approached. Hearing our voices,
had they retreated to be with their ancestors, waiting
patiently for us to leave before returning to their timeless
Thank you to Craig Childs and the Confluence
Organization for transporting our group to a special place,
where our contemporary world and the Canyonlands of our
pre-Puebloan Indian ancestors converge. As with so many
lessons in human life, we found that the similarities
between them and us are far greater than the differences we
so easily perceive.