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  • Writer's pictureDan Wagner

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'

Water None

Don't miss the fertility scene petroglyph panel further down canyon



Hiking Black Dragon Wash

First, ignore the directions provided by Google Maps as they will lead you on a longer route than necessary. The quickest way to reach the site when traveling westbound from Green River is to take the exit at mile marker 147 on I-70, where you'll find an unsigned dirt road on the right side. Within approximately a hundred feet after exiting, you'll come across a locked gate.


Black Dragon Wash

As of 2023, the gate remains locked with a basic chain and carabiner. After passing through the gate, remember to shut and secure it behind you. After passing through the gate and driving another few hundred feet, you'll come across the split in the road as shown in the photo below.


Black Dragon Wash

At this point, you have two options: 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. It doesn't matter which spot you choose to cross the wash. In dry conditions, both spots are very easy to cross, but in wet conditions, you should choose the most sensible option during your visit. After crossing the wash, continue following the road for one mile until you reach a sign reading "Black Dragon Wash."


Black Dragon Wash

For sedan drivers, it's recommended to park here and walk the remaining 0.6 miles to the rock art site. High clearance vehicles can proceed down the road as far as you feel comfortable driving. Standard SUVs should encounter minimal difficulty. As you advance down the road, the canyon walls narrow, and the road gradually becomes rockier.


Black Dragon Wash

There are at least three pull-outs between the parking area next to the sign mentioned above and the rock art site. If you reach a section where the road feels too rough, you can park in one of these pull-outs. The last pull-out is located 0.1 miles from the rock art site. As you approach the site, you'll see a fence with a walkthrough. Once inside the fence, an alcove can be found to the right featuring Fremont pictographs, while to the left, along the top of a modest rockfall, you'll find Barrier Canyon style pictographs.


Black Dragon Wash

Among the Barrier Canyon style depictions, you'll find at least five anthropomorphic figures, one of which has hollow eyes, antennae, and outstretched arms. The photo below provides perspective on the size of the figures.


Black Dragon Wash rock art

Unfortunately, in the 1940s, American archaeologist John Simonson outlined most of the images at Black Dragon Wash with white chalk. The close-up photo below highlights some of the detail in two of the depictions, with the figures to the right appearing slightly more faded.


Black Dragon Wash rock art

The image below is located to the right of the anthropomorphic figures. During Simonson's research on the canyon's rock art, he outlined this image, asserting that the pictograph represented a single image: that of a dragon. This image is the origin of the site's name.


Black Dragon Wash rock art

Shortly thereafter, the controversy surrounding Black Dragon Wash emerged. After asserting that the depiction resembled a dragon, religious creationists, who believe the Earth was created thousands of years ago, claimed that the depiction actually represented a dinosaur known as a pterosaur. According to their perspective, if humans were portraying dinosaurs in their rock art, it implied that humans and dinosaurs coexisted, suggesting a much younger age for the Earth, and so forth.


However, in 2015, researchers managed to decode what the panel truly represents. Utilizing a technology known as DStretch, which enables the analysis of rock art images beyond the capabilities of the human eye, researchers revealed that the panel comprises five distinct depictions. Contrary to previous claims of a dragon or dinosaur, the panel portrays two animals, a long-bodied anthropomorphic figure, a smaller anthropomorphic figure, and what seems to be a horned snake.


Black Dragon Wash rock art

To the right of these depictions, you'll encounter a tall human-like figure, as well as another depiction of an animal.


Black Dragon Wash rock art

Inside the alcove to the right of the Barrier Canyon style 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.


Black Dragon Wash rock art

There is some vandalism in the alcove, but overall the rock art remains in good condition.


Black Dragon Wash rock art

The meaning behind the majority of the depictions remains unknown, but among them are numerous concentric circles, often interpreted as representations of the sun, along with various human handprints, animal tracks, sawtooth panels, and so on.


Black Dragon Wash rock art

The rock art covers the upper portion of the alcove, including several depictions on the ceiling.


Black Dragon Wash rock art

There's an intriguing petroglyph panel illustrating a fertility scene located 1,000 feet further down the canyon. To locate it, hike along the road in the same direction as you were driving and after a bend in the road, keep an eye out for the large boulder situated on the right side.


Black Dragon Wash

On the right side of the boulder, you'll discover the depictions below. Above a kokopelli—a fertility deity typically portrayed as a humpbacked flute player—you'll see two figures, one male and one female. These figures are easy to spot and visible from the road.


Black Dragon Wash rock art

Once you're finished exploring, simply retrace your steps back to your parking spot. If you intend to continue westbound along I-70 from Black Dragon Wash, return to the gate you passed through and rejoin the highway. However, if you're heading east, you'll need to drive back to the wash you crossed earlier and turn right into the wash. Drive through the wash, under the overpass, and on the other side, you'll find a short dirt road leading 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.


Black Dragon Wash

Only attempt to drive up the wash if the conditions are dry. If the wash is impassable and you need to park at the gate, you'll face a 3.5-mile round trip hike to the site.

1 commentaire


Invité
29 nov. 2023

Unfortunately you will find that many pictographs are "chalked". Outlined in chalk to create contrast. It is like outlining the Mona Lisa. The practice has pretty well died out.

Thomas Kavenaugh

Curator of pictographs of the southwest.

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