by Tom Garrison
© 2017 Tom Garrison
My wife Deb and I have visited numerous rock art sites in our 25+ years of desert exploring. They are appealing—art pecked into stone (petroglyphs) or in some cases painted (pictographs). The art takes many shapes: humanoid, animals, geometric symbols, and abstract lines and squiggles. What do they mean? Do they tell a story? Are they directions? Maybe just doodles? And who carved them? While it is unknown who carved the petroglyphs at Keyhole Canyon, scholars agree that the Mohave, the Paiute, and the Anasazi/Pueblo were the main groups in the region thousands of years ago.
Keyhole Canyon is located at the foot of the Eldorado Mountains on Bureau of Land Management land. There are no fees or permits necessary for this hike. The canyon is about ten miles in a straight line from the Colorado River. The life blood of southern Nevada is the 1,450 mile long Colorado River winding its way through Black Canyon and the Mohave Valley. The river flow is controlled by a series of dams providing recreational opportunities, water for human and agriculture use, and hydroelectric power.
We began our journey in mid-March. From St. George, Utah we drove south on Interstate 15 to Las Vegas and then took Interstate 515/95/93 south to Henderson, about a 2 1/2 hour drive. Since it was our anniversary (35th, I know a lot), we spent the night at a Henderson casino, won some money playing video poker, and had a nice dinner.
Early the next morning we returned to Interstate 515/95/93 south and drove about eight miles to the junction with Highway 95 south. After 10 miles from the junction we came to the Highway 165 turnoff to Nelson, don’t turn here. The unnamed dirt access road to Keyhole Canyon is 5.8 miles past the Nelson/Highway 165 turnoff (and 15.8 miles past the Highway 95 junction) on the left (east) side. Look for a road intersection sign and carefully cross the divided highway.
Once on the access road, we drove east for 2.1 miles to a T-intersection. Turn right (south) at the intersection onto a private road with public access (read the sign at the intersection). Stay on the private road for 1.8 miles then turn left (east). This last spur road goes .3 mile to the parking area/trailhead at the canyon mouth. (There are two other short spur roads just south of the first. All three lead to the trailhead. The one we took is as good as any of the three.) While a regular sedan should make it to the trailhead, I recommend a high clearance vehicle. No telling what the weather may do to dirt roads.
The sky was a deep blue with wispy clouds and the temperature in the high 60s as we reached the trailhead/parking area. No water is available, so make sure to bring plenty. The trailhead elevation is 2,734 feet with only a 165 feet elevation gain during the hike. We walked through an opening in the parking area barrier and up the wash to the canyon mouth. Boulders and the rough canyons walls on both sides are marked with rock art, although the north canyon wall had more. We did some rock scrambling to get a better view of the petroglyphs. Although some petroglyphs are near the canyon floor, many are high up the canyon walls, you might want to bring the best binocular set that you can afford for the trip. We were careful with our footing when climbing so as not to step on any rock art. After less than ¼ mile we reached an impassable water polished 50-foot dry fall.
Most of the petroglyphs in Keyhole Canyon are geometric or abstract—simple lines and circles to more complicated symbols. There are some recognizable figures such as humans and bighorn sheep we discovered. We wandered around the canyon admiring the art and then explored the area to the north and south around the canyon mouth for a couple of hundred yards finding more petroglyphs.
Petroglyphs and pictographs are fragile, non-renewable cultural resources that, once damaged, can never be replaced. Look and observe, but don’t touch. Even a small amount of the oils from our hands can erode petroglyphs and pictographs and destroy the patina (color) of the carved, pecked, or painted image. Don’t remove rock art. It is against the law (fines and potential jail terms) to remove items from prehistoric or geologic sites.
This was our kind of hike—wilderness and we saw no other people during our 1.5 hour, less than 1.5 mile journey. Whether it is your anniversary or not, Keyhole Canyon hike is an easy, short adventure in a wild canyon with Native American art.
772 words in text body March 2017
An avid hiker for more than 25 years, Tom’s latest book, Hiking Southwest Utah and Adjacent Areas, Volume Two was recently (September 2016) awarded 2nd place in the non-fiction category of the League of Utah Writers published book contest. It is available at Amazon.com and the Desert Rat outdoor store in St. George. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Bird and Hike.com website. “Rock Art at Keyhole Canyon.” Last modification April 19, 2012. http://www.birdandhike.com/Glyphs/LAME/Keyhole/_Keyhole.htm
Pesek, Margo Bartlett. “Keyhole Canyon holds archeological treasures.” Las Vegas Review-Journal. January 11, 2015.