The History of Petroglyphs at the Valley of Fire

If you find the lights and noise of Las Vegas a bit overwhelming after a couple of days, take an hour to head northeast of Las Vegas and explore the Valley of Fire State Park. With petrified wood, rock outcroppings, and 3,000 year-old petroglyphs, the Valley of Fire can be as interesting as the Vegas Strip. A visitor center offers explanations and interpretive displays of what life was like in the Nevada desert long before the first tourist ever yelled, “Jackpot!”

Shifting Dunes Create Rock Formations

The stunning red rock formations that give this area its name were formed more than 150 million years ago when dinosaurs still roamed the land. Major geographic shifting and erosion from wind and water turned the rock into the beautiful sculptures you see today. Ancient native drawings, known as petroglyphs, are abundant throughout the park and tell the story of what life was like long before the modern history of man. Some of the most unique rock formations include:

  • Beehives – layered sandstone mounds that look like their namesake.
  • Petrified Logs – very colorful fossils that are close to the road, but fenced off to keep away vandals and souvenir hunters.
  • Seven Sisters – a grouping of seven large boulders surrounded by sand that is a good picnicking spot.
  • Elephant Rock – located close to the east entrance of the park and is one of the most photographed rock formations in the park due to its resemblance to the large animal.

Petroglyphs Span 1,500 Years

Originally occupied by the Basket Maker people and Anasazi Pueblo farmers from around 300 BC to 1150 AD, the Valley of Fire rock formations offered protection from the weather as well as a primitive form of lodging. The petroglyphs tell the story of life during that time, including hunting expeditions, food gathering, and some detail regarding religious ceremonies. Some tools and weapons are also identifiable in the ancient drawings. Two main areas for petroglyphs, Mouses’s Tank and Atlatl Rock, are easily accessible and perfect for capturing a photographic record of your trip. Most rock formations are open to the public to climb on throughout the year, with a few well-marked exceptions. Named after a renegade Indian outlaw who hid there in the 1890s, “Mouse’s Tank” is one of the few rock formations that you cannot climb. It’s part of a sandy-trail loop that features the best examples of petroglyphs.

Perfect Day Trip From Vegas

Whether you choose to drive the approximate hour from Vegas or fly over Valley of Fire State Park in a helicopter, the sight of those sculpted red rocks will leave you feeling that you’re witnessing a site that few other humans have seen before. This 42,000-acre park has been used as the backdrop for many famous movies. It portrayed the surface of Mars in “Total Recall,” was part of “Star Trek: Generations,” and gave a place for the Autobots to cruise through in the original Transformers movie.

Spring and Fall are the Best Time to Visit

With temps in the Nevada desert climbing well north of the 100-degree mark in the summer, it’s best to visit the petroglyphs at the Valley of Fire in the spring and fall if you’re planning to drive. Winter is the rainy season, which can cut short your planned excursion. Along with hiking, mountain biking, and photography, you can also camp at Valley of Fire and spend your days rock climbing or trying to decipher the native art. More than 300,000 people a year visit the park to experience what life was like long before slot machines, Texas hold ‘em, and frozen daiquiris made the region a popular tourist destination.

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