Trackers Take a (Dusty) Road Trip to Rock Art Ranch
January 05, 2024
By Sara Stiffler, Lisa Critchlow, and Linda Warren
The shaded veranda extends out above the canyon walls of Chevelon Creek, near Winslow, AZ - home to thousands of pictographs that are nearly 7,000 years old.
Driving north on SR 89A in mid-November, we were struck by the beauty of the last days of the fall foliage. The yellows, oranges, the reds. But on that particular Wednesday, we weren’t heading for a hike in the canyon. We were traveling to Winslow for an excursion with the Sedona Westerners’ Trackers group. We traded the beauty of Oak Creek Canyon for another canyon - where the Chevelon Creek runs year-round. Our vehicles kicked up clouds of dust as we drove the long ranch road and the back windows of the cars were pelted and caked with the red-brown dirt. Our destination was Rock Art Ranch, a privately-owned, working cattle ranch with an impressive collection of petroglyphs that date back some 7,000 years ago. The rock art fills the walls of the canyon in an area where the Anasazi Indians could easily access the creek for water.
Our tour was arranged by Tracker Boss, Linda Warren, along with her husband, Jim. We began at the museum with warm greetings from the owner of the ranch, Brantley Baird. A true Arizona cattle rancher Baird has explored the land and canyon while working the property since 1948. He started picking up artifacts that he found on the ranch when he was eleven years old, and continued over the decades, amassing a unique and valuable collection, including such rarities as a clovis point, and a square pot. He recognized the cultural significance of the site and has protected it and today his daughter and granddaughter – and the family dog – help Baird host tours of the property. The tour starts in the “old West” museum - with his impressive collection of ancient Native American as old saddles and spurs reflecting life in the early cattle ranching days. Baird’s extensive knowledge of the property and its history was delivered in a pleasant, folksy manner that was fresh and clearly conveyed his lifelong dedication to stewardship of the land and preserving the history of it for future generations.
Down the road, a pathway littered with thousands of pieces of broken pottery led to a structure that contains and protects ancient ruins excavated by field archeologists from NAU. Two Hogans (traditional Navajo dwellings made of wood posts and packed mud) and a sweat house give visitors a sense of what life was like for the native residents. These are still used occasionally by tribal members for rites and celebrations. The logs are extremely valuable as they were often removed from other structures and transported from place to place. Then they were stacked upright (tepee-like) so air could circulate readily around the timbers, slowing decomposition. Standing in the vast remoteness and dryness of this land one wonders how people survived and thrived in such an environment. Baird confirmed that life was hard here.
The pièce de resistance here though is what gives Rock Art Ranch its name: the rock art (petroglyphs) in the canyon. A small herd of cattle watched us as our dusty vehicles pulled into the parking area near the canyon. Ours was among the largest groups to tour the rock art together, but that wasn’t a problem. We quickly spread out. While some took a quick lunch break on the shaded veranda overlooking the canyon, most of us headed down a set of non-uniform make-shift stairs that descends into Chevelon Canyon. Once down, the group wandered through high reeds, across a foot bridge, leapt across small waterways, and generally scrambled everywhere they could to view the magnificent rock art, which is located high and low and on both sides of the creek.
We found a large wall with dozens of petroglyphs. The largest figure was of a woman with two hair buns (think Princess Leia) called the Birthing Mother. Nearly everywhere you looked there was another piece of art. The experience felt like a super-sized version of “Where’s Waldo?” Images seemed to suddenly appear on the rocks as one after another came into focus. One of our favorites was a group of several figures in a row that looked like a dance party, the middle couple holding hands. Another, called the Cinderella Panel, was a woman wearing a long full dress, which at closer examination looked like a bear claw. Others represented various animals, and human figures including footprints, and geometric shapes. While we created stories in our minds as to what each image was, the true meaning and significance of the art can only truly be known by the artists themselves.
Over the years, representatives from the Smithsonian, the Heard, and Arizona State University, have studied the site and concluded that it is one of the premiere rock art sites in the world.
Our Trackers group slowly began to dissipate. We were told we could stay all day if we liked, but to be sure to close the gate across the road when we left – and the last person out would need to lock the gate and call Baird or his granddaughter to let them know we were done. We didn’t blame them. It was nearly five miles the other way back to the museum down the dusty road.
A few of us had purchased T-shirts in the museum. “A Thing of the Past” along with images of the petroglyphs are printed on the shirt– to remind us of a special place and a special day.
As we drove back along I-40, we could see the San Francisco Peaks in the distance, and we thought of the petroglyphs and tried to imagine what life was like for those ancient artists and felt grateful to the Baird family for taking on the responsibility of protecting and preserving these archeological treasures and for giving us the opportunity to see the amazing rock art.
To learn more about the Sedona Westerners Hiking Club, view this season’s hiking schedule, or to become a member go to www.sedonawesterners.org. The hiking season runs through May 9, 2024, and the membership fee is only $30 for the whole season