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The Nine Mile Canyon preserves the traces left behind from the Fremont Native Americans via hundreds of rock art panels.

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Hiking Utah's Outdoor Art Gallery

Nine Mile Canyon, Which Is Actually 40 Miles In Length, Portrays The Remnants Or 'Rock Art' From The Once Thriving Fremont Native American Tribe

Backpacker Looks Ahead On Her Journey Through Nine Mile Canyon [Courtesy/BLM - Green River and Canyon Country Districts]

Driving through Carbon County in Utah, it's likely to see pulled over vehicles and people with binoculars on the side of the road. Looming over the street is a 40 mile long canyon covered in spectacular rock art, over 2,000 years old. The hundreds of rock art panels found along the Nine Mile Canyon give present-day viewers a glimpse into the life of the Fremont Native Americans living in the canyon all those years ago... A connection to the past, allowing people to understand how humans got to where we are now. And what we left behind.

“One of the beauties of rock art is that it's a mystery,” said Lisa Bryant of the Bureau of Land Management for the Canyon Country District. “It gives us an opportunity to connect with this evidence that there were people here in the past. It's an entryway into experiencing and thinking about what it was like to be here. It provides an immediate connection with the landscape.”

While present-day man can never truly know the exact meaning behind the drawings, there are experts out there who work tirelessly to understand not only rock art, but the people who created it. One of said people is Nicole Lohman, an archaeologist from Price Field who has been working at Nine Mile Canyon for a few years.

“Rock art is very enigmatic,” she explained, “but it can be interpreted to an extent. Some give us scientific theories on how the Fremont in this area hunted.”

Lohman is referencing a panel known as The Great Hunt, one of the Nine Mile Canyon's most well-known pieces. In the piece there is a human-like figure surrounded by a group of animals. What sets it apart from the typical hunting scene that most people imagine when they think of cave paintings is the way the animals are depicted: They are connected by their feet and tails, circling the man.

“We believe it's tied to hunting magic,” said Lohman. “The shaman is doing something to increase the amount of game for hunting. There are also a fair amount of buffalo panels. Prehistorically there were some in the area, but this suggests trades were happening in the Plains area, where buffalo were more prevalent.” 

Pointing Out A Drawing From Thousands Of Years Ago Left By Fremont Native Americans [Courtesy/BLM - Green River and Canyon Country Districts]
The Great Hunt Depicted On The Canyon [Courtesy/BLM - Green River and Canyon Country Districts]

One panel that has stood out to Lohman is full of owls. She loves owls. But the reason she especially likes it is because it's a rare and interesting piece. She explained: “If you talk to a lot of tribes, owls are not a good sign. They're usually related to witchcraft, illness or impending death. You typically do not see them depicted anywhere. To see them on rock art is incredibly rare.”

Most of the rock art panels along the canyon were created by the Fremont Native Americans that lived in the canyon from 900 to 1200 AD. The Fremont had moved to the canyon because it had a permanent water source, even during a drought that was taking place at that time.

By 750 AD a village life had developed in the heart of the region, with a number of farming villages that consisted of semi-subterranean timber and mud pithouses and above-ground granaries, which are usually tough to spot, since the Fremont hid them to protect their crops from other people during the drought.

The remains of these villages and buildings have led archeologists to believe that the Fremont were very sophisticated when to farming techniques, even using irrigation.

There is one village site known as the Cottonwood Village. It contains a great example of a semi-subterranean pithouse, although it's larger than average. Lohman and her team – as part of a partnership with an archaeological consultant and local museums – will be excavating the pithouse around October of this year.

The excavation will be open to the public, allowing visitors a glimpse into how archeologists work and hopefully educating them on the history of the area. Archaeologists are curious to find out more about the area through clues they'll find inside the home, which could include artifacts if it hasn't already been looted.

Unfortunately, throughout the years the Nine Mile Canyon has fallen victim to looting and – even worse – graffiti. People from all over the world have covered up historical works of art with their own drawings and tags, which not only makes it harder to study the art, but takes away from the visitors who come to see the paintings. 

The Great Hunt Panel Stop For Visitors [Courtesy/BLM - Green River and Canyon Country Districts]
Mysterious Rock Art Found At Nine Mile Canyon In Utah [Courtesy/BLM - Green River and Canyon Country Districts]
Carbon County, Utah Is Home To The Historic Nine Mile Canyon [Courtesy/BLM - Green River and Canyon Country Districts]

“These sites need to be respected,” said Bryant. “Not everybody seems to understand the impact that graffiti has on these sites and what we would lose... The stories, the information they provide... As you're sitting there and experiencing this and connecting with the story and the ecology of the area, you have this real visceral, lovely experience... It's untouched. It gives you this sense of discovery. We want to pass on that sense of discovery to the next person.”

As an archeologist, discovery and preservation are very important to Lohman. And the Nine Mile Canyon is especially special to Lohman, since it's the first job she had back when she became an archaeologist in 2007.

Archaeology was an interest of Lohman's since sixth grade when she saw the film Indiana Jones & The Last Crusade. While she'd never heard of archeology before, the word stuck with her. The work seemed interesting. So she looked it up (“in an encyclopedia back then”) and found that it was a field full of discovery, blending multiple science fields to uncover the truth behind human behavior. It was a way to understand why people do all the things they do.

“My family did a lot of trips out west, so I was exposed to all of these different archaeological sites,” she recalled, “including numerous rock art sites I dragged my family to.”

And it all paid off.

Now, Lohman is studying “the world's longest art gallery,” as Nine Mile Canyon is often called.

“Seeing the artifacts and houses... The things that show that people were once here, it gives you a different perspective,” she said, “of how small you are in the grand scheme of things. You're a brief moment in the long history of people using the landscape. It's an interesting feeling. You're connecting to people who are long gone. But here's something that says they were here 2,000 years ago. They can speak to you over such a broad period of time.”

People who come to view the canyon usually start the tour in Wellington, Utah, exiting at Myton, Utah, a journey that's approximately 100 miles long. Some people also begin at the Nine Mile Canyon Day Use Area, a 20 mile ride. Off of the main road are many gravel and dirt roads for mountain bikes, allowing another perspective of the canyon and its impressive rock art panels. 


Olivia Richman

A graduate of East Connecticut State University in Journalism, Olivia has written for Stonebridge Press & Antiques Marketplace among others. She enjoys writing, running and video games.

 Green River KOA

Make Sure To Stay At:

 Green River KOA, which is located on I-70 Business Loop across from the John Wesley Powell River History Museum. Enjoy 80-foot pull thru sites, cable TV and 50-amp service available at some sites.

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