Unveiling the Elusive Solstice Sake: 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.
Trailhead elevation 3,983'
Don't miss the formation of the arrowhead and petroglyph panels to the north of Solstice Snake
Hiking to the Solstice Snake
Start off by making your way to the Pritchett Canyon 4x4 Trailhead at N38° 32' 06", W109° 35' 59", which is located along Kane Springs Rd, 4.6 miles from Rt 191 in downtown Moab. Here, you'll find a cash only self pay station, which as of 2023, the fee is $3.
You can't park at the trailhead in the photo above, however the Bureau of Land Management's Kane Creek OHV Trail parking lot is 500' further up the road. Pay the fee at the trailhead, drive over and park at the Kane Creek OHV Trail lot, and then walk back to the Pritchett Canyon 4x4 Trailhead. From the trailhead, hike along the sandy and rock strewn 4x4 road for 2.75 miles. Along the way you'll pass a number of giant shelves that that 4x4's must negotiate when driving the road. The photo below shows one of several ledges that vehicles must overcome along the stretch of road that you'll be hiking.
Stay on the 4x4 road and avoid hiking in the wash. At 2.75 miles you'll come to a bend in the 4x4 road and find a foot trail to the left with a very faded Bureau of Land Management trail marker. The coordinates for the foot trail are 38.5234205, -109.5677149. The photo below is what you'll see when you reach the foot trail. The trail marker is on the left side of the photo, tilted to the right. The rock formation in the center is a good reference point.
Follow the foot trail for roughly 0.4 miles until it dead ends at a wash at 38.5244799, -109.5608880. The photo below is what you'll see when you arrive at the wash. Make a left and enter the wash.
About 200 yards after making a left and hiking in the wash you'll find Dead End Arch high above and to your right.
A zoomed in photo of the arch is below.
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.
The first dryfall measures around 10' tall and is easiest to get past on the right.
The second dryfall is roughly 25' tall and easiest to get by on the left.
The third dryfall is about 40' tall and should definitely be passed on the left.
After scrambling up the left side of the third dryfall you'll find a fairly well-defined trail that leads to the fourth and final dryfall, which is around 10' high and can be passed on either side.
After the fourth dryfall, the trail vanishes and the canyon eventually opens up. Continue up the wash until the buttress in the photo below appears on your left.
Once you're fairly close to the left end of the buttress, exit the wash and begin the 300' ascent up to the base of the formation where at coordinates 38.5259532, -109.5423670 you'll find Solstice Snake.
If you're interested in watching the arrowhead form over the snake's head, you'll need to start fairly early. On May 24th, sunrise was at 5:59. I observed the arrowhead begin to form at 10:53 AM and within 30 seconds it had fully formed.
About a minute after that, sunlight was cast further down the panel, washing out part of the petroglyph.
As mentioned during the introduction to this article, the sun ascends over the adjacent cliffs, forming the arrowhead over the snake's head. Those cliffs are to the right of the petroglyph panel, as shown below.
You can do the math for yourself to determine what time you should be there on what day, but plan on the route taking you a bit longer than it would normally take you to hike 4.75 miles. Keep in mind you'll want a sunny day to be able to view the formation of the arrowhead. The only shade that you'll find along this route is within the first mile and at Solstice Snake. By the time you get back to the first mile on your return, what was once in shade will be in full sun.
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, you'll notice little remains of what was once a kiva. It's more pronounced in person than in the photo below.
Behind you'll find a juniper tree behind you. To the left of the juniper you'll find two small petroglyphs, shown in the photo below.
To the right of the juniper you'll find more petroglyphs, including two warriors, a snake, concentric circles, a half moon, a shield, and others.
To the right of these petroglyphs you should be able to spot the petroglyphs in the photo below. These will be located above eye level in the back of an alcove.
If you were to scramble up into the alcove you'll also find the petroglyphs in the photo below.
Near the top of this panel you'll find a fairly faded owl.
When you're done viewing all of the rock art, return the way you came. 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. There is no cell service along this 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.