Rock Art Ranch
When: Year-round; closed Sundays and holidays.
Where: About 13 miles from Winslow. Reservations are required; directions will be given once they’re made.
Admission: $35 per person for up to three people; $30 per person for four to 10 people, $25 per person for groups of 10 or more. Additional discounts for larger groups.
Details: 928-386-5047, 928-288-3260.
By Roger NaylorSpecial for The Republic
Tue Oct 30, 2012 4:22 PM
Under an achingly blue sky, a herd of buffalo grazes on the shortgrass prairie. A shaggy bull stands off by himself, facing the bunkhouse of the old-time Hashknife cowboys. A lanky cowboy squints into the sun’s haze as the big animals amble across the plain.
The scene feels frontier fresh, like it could have been plucked from the 1880s. So it seems perfectly natural to suddenly hear the strains of “Home on the Range.” But it’s just the ringtone for the cowpoke’s cellphone. Brantley Baird takes the call and gives directions to another group of travelers eager to step back in time with a visit to the Rock Art Ranch.
Rock Art Ranch has immense archaeological significance, with researchers from the Smithsonian Institution, Heard Museum and other museums and universities visiting regularly. Each summer the University of Arizona School of Anthropology conducts a five-week field school to study and excavate pueblos and other significant sites on the property. Baird also opens Rock Art Ranch to visitors.
“If you want a cowboy experience, or if you want to see Indian culture or pioneer life, this will be the highlight of your trip,” Baird said. “If you don’t, there’s no need to waste your time.”
Chevelon Canyon is a narrow, steep-walled gorge carved by a perennial creek. The only access to the canyon for several miles occurs at the ranch, where a break in the wall creates a sort of natural stairway. At these steps — supplemented by a few man-made ones and hand rails — guests climb down into the heart of the rock-art displays.
Petroglyphs can be seen throughout a 2-mile stretch of canyon, with the highest concentration covering a quarter-mile section flanking the entry point. You’ll spot the first markings as you descend the steps. Upon reaching the creek, continue straight ahead to see one of the most dramatic images, believed to be a fertility symbol. Archaeologists dubbed it the “birthing panel.”
Petroglyphs are created by carving or incising a rock surface. In this case, the images are scratched into the black patina covering the sandstone walls of the canyon. They are not to be confused with pictographs, which are images painted on rocks. The Rock Art Ranch petroglyphs date from 6000 B.C. to 1400.
Baird gives visitors an overview of the rock art and the culture of these ancient people, but he doesn’t guide them into the canyon.
“I want folks to go down on their own. This should be their experience,” he said. “They can take all the time they want. And I always tell them not to worry, we haven’t lost too danged many.”
All Baird asks is that guests call his cellphone when they’re out of the canyon so he can drive over and lock the gate.
The lush canyon bottom is easy to navigate, with sandy paths curving through willows and mesquite. A couple of small foot bridges help with the stream crossings, but for the most part the water level is low and presents no problems as you move from panel to panel. There are large groupings of petroglyphs as well as solitary drawings. There are humanoid and animal figures, a variety of abstract designs and enough alien-looking creatures to get a sci-fi fan’s blood pumping.
“Whatever you think they are, that’s what they are,” Baird said. “Archaeologists don’t know what these symbols mean. They’re trying to figure it out, same as us.”
What you’ll also find in the canyon is a measure of serenity. It’s a sheltered oasis in a quiet place, and that only enhances its allure. On the canyon rim, Baird has built a covered observation deck and furnished it with long tables. Guests can bring a picnic to enjoy here or in the canyon. Just remember to pack out trash. A restroom is nearby.
The petroglyphs are the main draw, but allow time to rummage through the ranch museum, too. The big, steel-framed building is filled with baskets, tools, pots and other artifacts. Baird points out how tools were made and used, as well as how their design and construction indicate the era of origin.
He can do the same for the ranch equipment and furnishings in the museum, much of which has been handed down through generations of his family.
“My grandkids ask if we had running water and I’d tell them yes,” Baird said. “We’d take the bucket and run to the well. I never have told them why we had a Sears and Roebuck catalog in the outhouse. I guess they just thought it was reading material.”
Back in the day, Rock Art Ranch was part of the vast holdings of the Aztec Land and Cattle Co., commonly known as the Hashknife Outfit because of the shape of its brand. The Hashknife Outfit claimed a range nearly 90 miles long and 40 miles wide, stretching from Holbrook to Flagstaff. A bunkhouse built in about 1900 and full of original furniture is the last standing structure of the Hashknife and one more treasure that makes a visit to the ranch remarkable.
“I opened the ranch to the public and started giving tours 17 years ago,” Baird said. “It’s important to let people know how special this place is and how rich in history. And I want to keep that way of life alive. I brought in the buffalo 10 years ago. I love the buffalo. They’re so beautiful on the range. And people love to see them. They want to see the Old West, and we’ve got it all right here.”