Uncovering the Art of the Ancients: Exploring the Controversial Black Dragon Wash Pictographs
The rock art of the San Rafael Swell's Black Dragon Wash offers a stunning glimpse into the past, featuring Barrier Canyon style pictographs attributed to the Archaic Period and ornate petroglyphs and pictographs ascribed to the Fremont culture. The can't pass up site is a fantastic visit and demands very little effort to view.
Trailhead elevation 4,318'
Don't miss the fertility scene petroglyph panel further down canyon
Hiking Black Dragon Wash
First, disregard the directions Google Maps gives you. They'll take you on a much longer route than is required. The quickest way to access the site when traveling westbound from Green River is to exit I-70 at mile marker 147 where there is an unsigned dirt road on the right side of the road. Within a hundred or so feet after exiting you'll encounter a locked gate.
As of 2023, the gate is locked with a simple chain and carabiner. After driving through the gate, close and lock it behind you. Another couple hundred feet later you'll encounter the split in the road shown in the photo below.
You can either cross the wash to the left here or continue right where the road eventually crosses the wash a few hundred feet later. Whichever spot you cross the wash makes no difference. In dry conditions both spots are very easy to cross, but in wet conditions it'll be whichever makes the most sense during your visit. After crossing the wash, follow the road for one mile before reaching a sign reading Black Dragon Wash. If you're in a sedan you should park here and walk the remaining 0.6 miles to the rock art site.
High clearance vehicles can continue down the road for as long as you're comfortable driving. Standard SUVs should have little issue. As you travel down the road, the canyon walls begin to tighten and the road becomes progressively more rocky.
There are at least three pull-outs between the parking area beside the sign above and the rock art site, so if you get to a point where you feel the road is too rocky you can always park in one of the pull-outs. The last pullout is 0.1 miles from the rock art site. As you approach the site you'll notice a fence with a walkthrough. The Fremont petroglyphs are inside the alcove and the Barrier Canyon style pictographs are left of that along the top of the modest rockfall in the photo below.
To the left you'll find at least five anthropomorphic figures, including one with hollow eyes, antennae, and outstretched arms. The photo below gives some context to the size of the figures.
Most of the images at Black Dragon Wash were outlined in white chalk in the 1940s by American archaeologist John Simonson, unfortunately. The close up photo below shows some of the detail in two of the depictions. The figures to the right of these are slightly more faded.
The image below can be found to the right of the six anthropomorphic figures. During Simonson's time researching the canyon's rock art he outlined the image claiming that the pictograph was a single image, that of a dragon. This image is what the site's name was derived from.
Shortly after this, the controversy over Black Dragon Wash began. After claiming that the depiction was that of a dragon, religious creationists who believe the Earth was created thousands of years ago, caught wind and made their own claims stating that the depiction was that of a dinosaur known as a pterosaur. In their view, if humans were depicting dinosaurs in their rock art, then humans and dinosaurs must have lived at the same time, the Earth has only been around for thousands of years, and so on. However, in 2015, researchers were finally able to decipher what the panel actually represents. Using a technology called Dstretch, which allows rock art images to be analyzed in ways that the human eye isn't capable of, researchers discovered that the panel is actually five separate depictions. Rather than a dragon or dinosaur, the panel depicts two animals, a long bodied anthropomorphic figure, a smaller anthropomorphic figure, and what appears to be a horned snake or other creature.
In person and with careful observation, the animal immediately left of the large anthropomorphic figure, the large anthropomorphic figure itself, the smaller figure, and the snake are somewhat easy to make out, but the far left animal figure is very challenging to decipher. Pretty interesting.
To the right of these depictions you'll find a tall human-like figure, as well as another animal depiction.
Inside the alcove to the right of the pictographs you'll find hundreds of petroglyphs that were created by the Fremont culture. The following four images are just a snapshot of what you'll find.
There is some vandalism in the alcove, but overall the rock art is in good condition.
What the majority of the depictions represent is unknown, but there are many concentric circles, often believed to depict the sun, as well as many human handprints, animal tracks, sawtooth panels, etc.
The rock art covers the upper portion of the alcove, including several images on its ceiling.
There is also an interesting petroglyph panel depicting a fertility scene 1,000' further down the canyon. If you'd like to find it, look for the large boulder on the right side of the road in the photo below.
On the right side of the boulder you'll find the depictions below. Two figures, one man and one woman, can be seen above a kokopelli, a fertility deity that is usually depicted as a humpbacked flute player. These are easy to locate and can be seen from the road.
I didn't find any other rock art in the area, but there is likely more. When you're done simply retrace your steps back to wherever you parked. If you plan on continuing westbound along I-70 from Black Dragon Wash, just head back to the gate that you passed through and hop back on the highway. If you plan on heading east, you'll want to drive back to the wash that you crossed on your way in and make a right into the wash. Drive through the wash, under the overpass, and on the other side you'll find a short dirt road leading up to the eastbound lanes. The photo below was taken on the eastbound side of the highway after passing through the wash and under the overpass.
That being said, you can access the site traveling either eastbound or westbound. Only attempt to drive up the wash if it is dry. If the wash isn't passable and you were to park at the gate you'd be looking at a 3.5 mile round trip hike to the site. Lastly, if you're traveling westbound from Green River, the Tree of Life petroglyph panel is right nearby and worth a stop if you have time.