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  • Writer's pictureDan Wagner

Unveiling the Elusive Solstice Snake: Moab's Best Kept Secret

Nestled deep within the Behind the Rocks WIlderness Study Area lies one of North America's most remarkable rock art sites. Crafted during the Basketmaker period, which spans from approximately 1500 BC to 750 AD, by an artist with a profound comprehension of astronomical events, the Solstice Snake petroglyph panel is an artistic masterpiece rivaled by few others in the region. This seemingly unassuming artwork initially appears as not much more than a seventeen-foot-long snake etched into the canyon wall. Although it's not unusual to find petroglyphs depicting snakes and other reptilian creatures in the region, the exceptional aspect of this particular panel lies in what occurs in the summer months every year. Several weeks preceding and following the summer solstice, when the sun ascends over the adjacent cliffs, it illuminates the left side of a shallow, concave fracture on the canyon wall, forming an arrowhead shape over the serpent's head. The formation of the arrowhead on the panel is a brief yet remarkable phenomenon. It takes approximately three minutes, from the moment the sun illuminates the fracture until the arrowhead is fully formed. Once fully formed, the arrowhead remains in perfect shape for roughly thirty seconds before gradually losing its definition. Solstice Snake is one of Moab's best kept secrets, but in this article you can learn how to access the site, as well as discover more ancient rock art nearby.


Moab Solstice Snake

Trailhead elevation 3,983'

Water None

Don't miss the formation of the arrowhead and petroglyph panels to the north of Solstice Snake



Hiking to the Solstice Snake

The route to the Solstice Snake begins at the Pritchett Canyon 4x4 Trailhead, located at coordinates 38.535000, -109.599679. The trailhead lies along Kane Springs Rd, roughly 4.6 miles from Rt 191 in downtown Moab. Here, hikers will encounter a cash-only self-pay station where, as of 2023, the fee was $3.


Pritchett Canyon Trailhead

Parking is not permitted at the trailhead. However, the Bureau of Land Management's Kane Creek OHV Trail offers parking just 500 feet further up the road. After parking at the Kane Creek OHV Trail parking area and heading to the Pritchett Canyon 4x4 Trail, follow the sandy and rock-strewn trail for 2.75 miles. During the initial 2.75 miles, hikers will encounter several large shelves, similar to the one shown below.


Pritchett Canyon Road

Hikers should stick to the 4x4 road and steer clear of hiking in the wash. After covering 2.75 miles, the trail reaches an almost hairpin bend where a faint foot trail can be found veering to the left, marked by a barely visible Bureau of Land Management trail marker. The view from the start of this trail, which is located at 38.5234205, -109.5677149, will be similar to that in the photo below.


Moab Solstice Snake trail

Hikers should continue along the foot trail for approximately 0.4 miles until it terminates at a wash located at coordinates 38.5244799, -109.5608880. Upon reaching this point, hikers should have the view in the photo below. From here, hikers should turn left, not right, into the wash.


Moab Solstice Snake trail

Roughly 200 yards after making a left into the wash, Dead End Arch presents itself high and to the right.


Moab Solstice Snake trail

Below is a zoomed in photo of the arch.


Dead End Arch Moab

Hiking through the wash is fairly slow going. There are large boulders, thick sand, and four dryfalls to contend with. The boulders and dryfalls are easy to work around and only minor scrambling is required to get through the wash, but your pace will undoubtedly slow. The photo below is what you can expect the majority of the wash to look like.


Navigating through the wash is a relatively slow process. It features an endless number of large boulders, thick sand, and four dryfalls that present minor challenges. Negotiating around the boulders and dryfalls is manageable, requiring only minimal scrambling to navigate through the wash. However, hikers should anticipate a decreased pace due to the terrain. The photo below offers a preview of what the majority of the wash looks like.


Moab Solstice Snake trail

The first dryfall measures around 10 feet and is easiest to pass on the right.


Moab Solstice Snake trail

The second dryfall stands at roughly 25 feet and easiest to pass on the left.


Moab Solstice Snake trail

The third dryfall measures roughly 40 feet and should be passed on the left.


Moab Solstice Snake trail

After scrambling up the left side of the third dryfall, hikers will find a fairly defined trail that leads to the fourth and final dryfall, which measures 10 feet high and can be passed on either side.


Moab Solstice Snake trail

After the fourth dryfall, the trail vanishes. However, following the sandy wash will keep hikers on course. Once the canyon opens up, hikers should locate the buttress in the photo below. This formation, which will be on the left side of the wash, is where Solstice Snake is located.


Moab Solstice Snake trail

Once hikers are fairly close to the left end of the buttress, they should exit the wash and ascend 300 feet or so up to its base. Solstice Snake can be found near coordinates. 38.5259532, -109.5423670.


Moab Solstice Snake

Those interested in watching the arrowhead form over the snake's head will need to start the hike fairly early. On May 24th, sunrise was at 5:59. I observed the arrowhead starting to take shape precisely at 10:53 AM, and within just 30 seconds, it had completely formed.


Moab Solstice Snake

About a minute after that, sunlight was cast further down the panel, washing out part of the petroglyph.


Moab Solstice Snake

As mentioned in the introduction to this article, the sun rises over the adjacent cliffs, forming the arrowhead over the snake's head. These cliffs are to the right of the petroglyph panel, as shown below.


Moab Solstice Snake

Feel free to calculate the timing based on your preferences, but anticipate that the route may require more time than the usual 4.75-mile hike. Keep in mind you'll want a sunny day to be able to view the formation of the arrowhead. Shade is limited along the route, primarily within the first mile and at Solstice Snake. As you return to the initial mile, areas that were shaded earlier will now be exposed to full sunlight.


Rock Art near the Solstice Snake

There are two other petroglyph panels nearby that are worth stopping at, as well as the remains of a kiva. If you're looking at Solstice Snake, follow the base of the rock formation down and around the corner to the left where a trail will eventually emerge. Follow this for 0.1 miles until it dead ends at the base of the cliff. Here, hikers will find sparse remnants of what was once a kiva.


Moab Solstice Snake trail

Behind a juniper tree that stands beside the kiva, there are two small petroglyphs.


Moab Solstice Snake trail

To the right of the juniper, there are more petroglyphs, including two warriors, a snake, concentric circles, a half moon, a shield, and others.


Moab Solstice Snake trail

Adjacent to these petroglyphs, additional ones are positioned above eye level toward the rear of an alcove.


Moab Solstice Snake trail

Scrambling up to the alcove offers views of more petroglyphs.


Moab Solstice Snake trail

Near the top of this panel there is a faint owl petroglyph.


Moab Solstice Snake trail

When you're done viewing all of the rock art, retrace your steps back to the trailhead. It's a good idea to download this area to offline Google Maps, so you can punch in the coordinates for Solstice Snake when you're close. You might also want to consider saving this article as a PDF to your phone for reference since there is no cell service along the route. Lastly, if you're interested in learning more about the panel, I highly recommend checking out this YouTube video.


Please remember to honor the artist who created this incredible work of art. Take only photos, leave behind only footprints, and let others admire the ancient artwork for many generations to come.

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