Whizzing along Interstate 70 east of Green River, Utah, you’ll pass a rather nondescript off-ramp for the tiny town of Thompson. Doesn’t look like much, but if you take a few hours of your time to pull off the highway and drive a few miles north, you’ll come to some amazing ancient rock art nestled in the canyons of the Book Cliffs. You might be in a big hurry to get to that mountain biking weekend in Moab, but it’s definitely worth taking the extra time to check out this ancient art.
According to the BLM, Sego Canyon contains three culturally distinct styles of rock art: Fremont, Ute and Barrier-style. These panels are located right off of a good dirt road, so they can by enjoyed by the entire family. To reach the rock art, take Exit 185 off I-70 and head north on State Highway 94 through the quirky little town of Thompson. From the town, continue driving approximately three miles to the Sego Canyon rock art panels, which are visible from the road.
The first set of panels is off to the left; there’s a parking area and an outhouse. You can follow the short trails around the bottom of the cliff to get right below the drawings. For being right next to a main road, the drawings on these panels are in remarkably good shape. The three main panels of petroglyphs (carvings) and pictographs (drawings) represent three distinct time periods from 600 to 8,000 years old.
Starting from just behind the outhouse, the first petroglyph (the one where some idiot wrote “Jesus” over it) dates back to the ancient Utes (from 1,300-1800 AD). As you go from left to right along the cliff wall, the next set of petroglyphs are from the even older Fremont culture (600-1200 AD). If you look carefully, you can see the ghostly shapes of the ancient Barrier Canyon pictograms that the Fremont artists tried to draw over.
Moving further right along the wall, you step even further back in time to a spectacular panel of Barrier Canyon art, drawn by a culture that thrived in this area as far back as 8,000 years ago (600-6,000 BC). The eerie anthropomorphic figures, with their large,empty eyes, protruding “antennas”, and misshapen heads stare down at you from a distant past. As you gaze upon these well-preserved drawings, you wonder what it was that motivated the Barrier Canyon artists to draw these strange creatures in the first place.
A few yards down the Sego Canyon Road, you come to another Barrier Art panel on the right of the road and on the far side of a corral. As we didn’t want to go on someone’s private property, we just admired the drawings from a distance. These drawings are riddled with bullet holes and are not quite as well-preserved as the previous panels, but they are still impressive when you consider how long they have endured the ravages of time.
If you’re into more contemporary history, you can drive another mile down the road, where you’ll come to the remains of the mining town of Sego. This area, once a thriving coal mine up until the 1940’s, has only the stone-walled shell of the old company store, an old rusty car, and some smaller wooden buildings that have long since collapsed.
Our side trip to Sego Canyon took only a few hours, but it was well worth the diversion. You’ll find very few places that provide such a large window into the past in such a small area. So, the next time you’re heading down the empty country along I-70 in eastern Utah, be sure and check out these magnificent panels of ancient art and a well-preserved ghost town.