It's another July weekend with +115 degrees F temperatures in the forecast. I needed something that would satisfy my passion for exploring prehistoric ruins and rock art. I decided that the Painted Rocks Petroglyph Site, west of Gila Bend might fit the bill. This is a short, self-guided hike in an area ripe with history - but with a strange "ghost town" atmosphere today (more on this later).
Drove 104 miles from my Ahwatukee Foothills home to the "trail head" parking lot in less than 90 minutes (don't ask!). There is a $2 per vehicle permit required with an honor system fee box at the entrance. Walk through the trail entrance and behold the petroglyph site ' a massive jumble of piled boulders.
Along the loop trail, you will immediately encounter a series of interpretive plaques depicting cultural and geological history. There are also some "Rules of the Road" posted reminding visitors to stick to the trails and not to touch, move, or climb on the rocks since they are extremely delicate. You will find out that the Tohono O'odham people have called this area home for thousands of years. They believe they are descended from the people known as the Hohokam. These petroglyphs have accumulated over a broad reach of time estimated from 7500 B.C. to 1450 A.D. (not counting the recent graffiti punks!). Walk along the loop trail and see the various rock art depictions of animals, people, shapes, and events. There is also an abundance of lizards calling the site home.
You will discover that the petroglyph site is at the crossroads of many historic trails similar to the Butterfield Pass Trail. Juan Bautista de Anza led a group of Spanish colonizers from Tucson to San Francisco and camped near this site in the fall of 1775. The Mormon Battalion passed by here in 1846 on their way to fight in the Mexico-United States war. The Butterfield Stage route also passed by from 1858 to 1861 carrying the mail from St. Louis Missouri to San Francisco California. This corridor is also known as the Southern Trail or Arizona Trail in many history books. The geologic history is primarily volcanic. Evidence of lava abounds in all directions. Yes the area is rich in history, but to me the primary attraction remains the rock art.
There are many picnic tables located under shaded ramadas. Bring your lunch and spend some time. The maintained, 0.58 mile, self-guided, loop trail makes this a fine introduction to some southwest history for children young and old. The trail rounds the petroglyph site perimeter and has a cross-trail bisecting the middle with access to the top of the boulder pile. Remember not to climb on any of the rocks...
As a footnote, need to elaborate on the "ghost town" atmosphere at this site. I only encountered one visiting vehicle during my stay at the petroglyph site. I passed a total of zero vehicles on the road to and from the dam. The Painted Rocks Dam is located about 4.5 miles further North along Painted Rocks Road. The dam is closed with an abundance of "No Trespassing" signs and barbwire fences preventing any access to the area. Many maps indicate petroglyph sites in the general area behind the dam. Joe Bartels adds...
The BLM explains...
The former Painted Rocks State Park included a "Lake Unit" near Painted Rocks Dam approximately 4.5 miles north of the Petroglyph Site. This area included camping facilities and was a popular fishing attraction, but was closed to the public in 1989 due to unsafe levels of pollutants in the Gila River. Currently, there is no public access to Painted Rocks Dam or the Lake Unit.
It's only one of many issues associated with the mighty Gila River ruined by man.
Alan Alda quote from a gut wrenching PBS special (I believe filmed in the Sacaton community)...
These are the Arizona Pima, close cousins to the Mexican tribe. This community suffers from the world's highest rate of obesity and its common complication, diabetes. Half the adults here develop it. The puzzle is that, as the NIH study has shown, the Arizona Pima eat no more, and no differently, than most Americans. Yet their obesity rate is much higher -- 80 percent versus 30 percent nationally. The challenge now is to find out why these people gain so much weight. Until early in the century, these people were farmers. They call themselves Akimel O'Odham -- the River People -- after the Gila River, which sustained their crops. But that way of life, along with the river, dried up when the waters were dammed and diverted.
BLM Division Reports GENERAL INFORMATION: Painted Rocks Petroglyph Site, approximately 90 miles southwest of Phoenix, Arizona, provides visitors the opportunity to view an ancient archaeological site containing hundreds of symbolic and artistic rock etchings, or "petroglyphs," produced centuries ago by prehistoric peoples. There are also inscriptions made by people who passed through during historic times. Many well- known events in Arizona history occurred near the Petroglyph Site, including the expedition of Juan Bautista de Anza that founded San Francisco, the Mormon Battalion and the Butterfield Overland Mail. Formerly a unit of the Arizona State Park system, jurisdiction of Painted Rocks Petroglyph Site reverted to the Bureau of Land Management in 1989.
ACCESS: Exit Interstate 8 at Painted Rock Dam Road (Exit 102) approximately 12.5 miles west of Gila Bend. Travel north on Painted Rocks Dam Road (paved) 10.7 miles to Rocky Point Road (unpaved). Painted Rocks Petroglyph Site is 0.6 miles west of Painted Rock Dam Road on Rocky Point Road.
FACILITIES: Picnic tables, barbeque grills, steel fire rings and a vault toilet are provided for picnicking and primitive camping. A ramada is available for group activities. No potable water, trailer hook-ups or dump stations are provided--these facilities are available nearby in Gila Bend. During October through April, a Campground Host is on site.
MAPS: Painted Rocks Petroglyph Site is shown on most Arizona road maps as "Painted Rocks State Park."
* Painted Rocks Petroglyph Site receives the greatest visitation from October through April. At other times, the area receives little use.
* Winter Temperatures vary from freezing at night to near 80 F during daytime. Summer temperatures vary from near 70 F at night to near 120 F during daytime.
* Drinking water is not provided at Painted Rocks Petroglyph Site, so bring plenty.
* You may encounter rattlesnakes or other poisonous creatures; watch for them and be careful where you put your hands and feet. Do not harass reptiles. Most bites result from people playing with, collecting, or attempting to kill them.
* Help to preserve this important archaeological site by not climbing or marking on the rocks. Many rocks have been broken or tumbled due to people climbing on them and several have been defaced.
FOR MORE INFORMATION CONTACT:
Bureau of Land Management
Phoenix Field Office
21605 N.7th Avenue
Phoenix, Arizona 85027
WARNING! Hiking and outdoor related sports can be dangerous. Be responsible and prepare for the trip. Study the area you are entering and plan accordingly. Dress for the current and unexpected weather changes. Take plenty of water. Never go alone. Make an itinerary with your plan(s), route(s), destination(s) and expected return time. Give your itinerary to trusted family and/or friends.