Preserving Ancient Art At The Sloan Canyon



Preserving Ancient Art: Sloan Canyon

Guarding Some Of The Finest Examples Of Ancient Petroglyphs In The United States, Preserved By The Bureau Of Land Management

A Panoramic View Of The Sloan Canyon [Courtesy/BLM]

Las Vegas attracts visitors from around the world to its casinos, shows and international food offerings. However, few of these guests realize that just beyond the bright lights are some of the finest examples of ancient petroglyphs in the United States, preserved by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) in the Sloan Canyon National Conservation Area.

“Sloan Canyon is just a 20 to 30 minute drive from the Strip,” Justin DeMaio, the BLM archeologist for the region, tells The Buzz. “It is very close to the southern edge of the city, although a lot of people who live here don’t even realize it’s there. But development is getting close. That’s one of the reasons it was selected to be protected.”

The other, major, reason is the canyon’s spectacular display of Native American rock art, tightly grouped in a single canyon. More than 1700 designs were carved on some 300 rock panels along the steep cliffs on either side, DeMaio says. Some people, after viewing the rock art at Sloan, have called it the Sistine Chapel of petroglyphs. Several Native American tribes in the region consider it sacred ground.

“You climb up several dry waterfalls to reach the main gallery,” DeMaio says. “We have every type of figure here - depictions of people and animals, curvilinear patterns that perhaps relate to the landscape, and carvings that show the atlatl, a prehistoric hunting weapon. Less common are the shield carvings, circular patterns decorated with various symbols. Some of the carvings probably date back more than 3,000 years.”

The most common figure found at Sloan, and one of the easiest to identify, is the bighorn sheep, a species still found in the area. “Some people believe that this was an area where the sheep were hunted,” DeMaio says. “That fits in well with stories preserved by the local tribes.”

One Of The Many Drawings At Sloan Canyon [Courtesy/BLM]
Desert Bighorn Sheep [Courtesy/Lake Mead NRA]

Gina Mele, a ranger at Sloan, says that the carvings of desert bighorn sheep are her favorites, especially one near a carving she interprets as a rainbow. “Most of the carvings here are dated to around A.D. 1000,” she says. “We believe the ancient Paiutes, the ancestral Puebloans and members of the Lower Colorado tribes all contributed.”

Before transferring to Sloan seven years ago, Gina was a park ranger for 10 years at Red Rock Canyon, another BLM conservation area located about an hour away, on the western edge of Las Vegas. Red Rock also has examples of petroglyphs, along with more developed facilities, including a campground, a scenic drive, and many programs for visitors. It also, Mele says, is much more visited, with several million guests each year. “Sloan averages maybe 30,000,” she estimates. “We expect numbers to increase thanks to the new development.”

Although designated a conservation area in 2002, until recently the Sloan area has been hard to access. However, in 2016 the BLM put in a paved road that connects to the trailhead nearest Petroglyph Canyon, as well as a visitor contact station offering information on trails and park features. Gina describes the Petroglyph Canyon Trail, which begins at the contact center, as a 4.5 mile hike that takes from 3 to 4 hours. “It’s very rugged,” she says.

Unlike Red Rock Canyon, where the rocks developed from sand dunes turned red by oxidation, the rocks at Sloan Canyon are grey and black. “It’s an entirely different geology,” Mele says. “The rocks at Sloan were formed by volcanoes. On the Petroglyph Canyon Trail you are actually walking into the remains of a volcano and can see the flow banding. It’s really amazing.”

Drawings On The Rocks [Courtesy/BLM]
Sloan Canyon Ancient Art [Courtesy/BLM]

Gina and other rangers at Sloan caution visitors to stay on the trail at the bottom of the wash, and not to try to climb the rocks or touch the petroglyphs. Right now the trail is self-guided, and people should sign in at the contact station before heading out. Many people, Gina says, come looking for the “E.T.” petroglyph, a figure which seems to be wearing a helmet that has been featured on “Ancient Alien” programs.

Beyond the petroglyph field, the Sloan Canyon conservation area covers nearly 50,000 acres and has 17 different trails, most of which Mele describes as “very intense. They will test your endurance level.” While the Petroglyph Canyon Trail is for hikers only, others, she says, are available for mountain biking and equestrian use. ORVs are not allowed on the trails.

“The McCullough Hills Trail is very bike friendly,” she says. “It’s about 16 miles round trip and made of hard compacted sand. Another popular hike is the 6.5-mile 101 Trail, where bikes are also allowed. Those two are among the best for seeing the desert vegetation.” Mele recommends a late April to May visit for those who want to see wildflowers in bloom.

While the wealth of petroglyphs which stand out in stark contrast on the black rocks are Sloan’s biggest draw, both Ranger Mele and archeologist DeMaio say that another rock feature on the Petroglyph Trail is their favorite. “Look up to the left as you enter the canyon,” DeMaio suggests. “You’ll see the outline of two tortoise heads peeking over the cliff. They are petroforms - rock sculptures - stacked to look like that. And they are old, probably the same period as the petroglyphs.”

Justin DeMaio says that without firm evidence, we can’t say for certain who carved the petroglyphs, when they were made or why they were put here. However, Sloan Canyon is a place that sparks the imagination and will certainly leave visitors speculating on the past.

Renee Wright

A graduate of Franconia College in Social Psychology, Renee has worked as Travel Editor for Charlotte Magazine and has written three travel guidebooks for Countryman Press among other writing assignments. She enjoys food and camping.

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