/ The Phoenix Traveler
Phoenix — By Heather Wright Schlichting on January 6, 2010 at 6:12 am

Phoenix Preserve Showcases Petroglyphs Dating Back to 5000 BC

The hummingbirds are buzzing, the jackrabbits stirring. It’s late afternoon, and the desert has come to life at the Deer Valley Rock Art Center where you can explore evidence of past human activity and learn about its connection to life today. It’s a family-friendly museum, nature preserve and archaeological site with the largest concentration of Native American rock art in Phoenix.

Petroglyphs, More Than Just Squiggly Lines
You’ll learn that petroglyphs are the oldest type of rock art, with designs made by carving or scratching away the dark layer of rock varnish on a rock’s surface to reveal the lighter rock underneath. There are several techniques for making petroglyphs. Striking one rock with another is called direct percussion. Indirect percussion refers to pecking the surface of one rock by holding a second rock as if it were a chisel and striking that with a third rock. A third technique, resulting in various line depths, is to scrape at the surface of a rock.

deervalley_rockPetroglyphs were made by hunter-gatherers whom archaeologists call Archaic. Dating rock art is tricky, but some of the images here date back 5,000 years ago. The Archaic nomads were followed by the Hohokam, who lived in the Salt River Valley, and the Patayan, a group that lived north and west of the Hohokam.

Pictographs, the second type of rock art are designs made by painting or drawing on rocks or in caves. Natural paints derived from colorful plants and minerals were made by grinding the plants and stones and mixing them with a binding agent such as plant juice, egg yolk or saliva. Then paints were then applied to rock surfaces using paintbrushes made from local plants, sticks, fingers and hands.  I guess this is where finger painting originated.

It is believed that many rock art designs are probably symbols that meant something to the people who made them. Rock art may tell a story, mark a trail, have religious significance, ensure successful hunting or keep track of the seasons. Even within a single group rock art may mean different things to different people.

Deer Valley Rock Art Center and Hedgpeth Hills


"Javelina Making a PB and J" by Jay Schmetz

The visitor’s center offers interpretive displays that examine the process of petroglyph production, preservation and interpretation. You will learn about the many Native American people of the region, the marks and petroglyphs that they made and how they are connected to the religious teachings of those tribes today. The displays provide very simple, straightforward information that teaches you what the petroglyphs mean, who made them, and how. 

Currently, they have a special exhibit on javelinas and the love/hate relationship these desert animals have with humans.  Unfortunately, javelinas get a bad rap for being aggressive pests in yards and gardens.  Despite their bad reputation, I love them and think that they are fascinating creatures that you don’t see in other places around the country. 

The exhibit both educates and celebrates through paintings, sculptures and informative pieces that honors these curious critters.  My favorite is the painting by Jay Schmetz of a javelina making a PB & J.  How could you not love these guys?

Once you exit the back of the museum you enter the 1/4 mile outdoor path to view the petroglyphs.  The hillside known as Hedgpeth Hills is covered with volcanic rock called basalt featuring in upwards of 1,500 ancient petroglyphs. 


A hillside filled with over 1,500 petroglyphs

The museum provides a trail map to each guest that offers quite a lot about the history of the site, the building of the museum and the desert wildlife.  Each viewing point is numbered and the guide tells you what petroglyphs, animals or plants can be seen at each location.

The center is also a great activity for kids.  They will learn about desert plants; varieties of cactus, native foods, medicinal plants and the animals indicative of the Sonoran desert.  Every child upon entry receives a clipboard with drawings of petroglyphs that they can find on the petroglyph trail. I could hear parents interacting with their children to help them find each figure.  They all seemed to enjoy the museum and finding petroglyphs became a great game to keep them interested.


A rock squirrel enjoying a treat.

As I mentioned, an incredible variety of desert plants are found throughout the 47-acre park and along the trail there are roadrunners, quail, rock squirrels, ground squirrels, cottontails, jackrabbits, javelina, hummingbirds, great horned owls, Harris hawks and red-tailed hawks. I bent down to get a clearer view of a rock squirrel munching on his lunch, but I suggest that you tiptoe through the rattlesnake habitat (clearly marked) or in my case run.

How the Rock Art Center Came To Be
The center is a part of Arizona State University and overseen by the School of Human Evolution and Social Change. 

In the 1970s, runoff in washes and creeks was so unpredictable in the area that the Army Corps of Engineers built a dam across Skunk Creek.  The dam site was just upstream from the rock art and, after much research, consulting and planning, the corps agreed to build a museum. The center, designed by architect Will Bruder, is built over a canal that takes the overflow from the dam. The building practically melts into the landscape, and most of the rock art is where it was found centuries ago.


1/4 mile outdoor path to view petroglyphs.

In addition to the permanent and temporary exhibits, the center also houses the American Rock Art Research Association’s archives.

The Hedgpeth Hills Petroglyph Site is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and only the second archaeological site to be listed on the Phoenix Historic Property Register.

The Deer Valley Rock Art Center merges past, present and future. It’s a unique and relatively inexpensive way to learn about nature, geology and native people. 


Deer Valley Rock Art Center
3711 W. Deer Valley Road, Phoenix (map)

Tip:  Bring your binoculars, sunscreen, water and wear comfortable shoes.  

October through April:
9 am – 5 pm   -  Tuesday to Saturday
12 pm – 5 pm  on  Sunday

May through September:
8 am – 2 pm  -   Tuesday to Sunday

Trail closes 30 minutes before the museum closes.
*Closed on New Year’s, Easter, Independence Day, Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.

Directions and Map

Adults   $7
Seniors (62+)   $4
Students   $4
Children (6-12)   $3
Children (5 & younger) and Museum Members   Free
10% discount on admission for AAA Members.

Group Tours:
Adults   $6.50
Seniors (62+)   $3.50
Students   $3.50
Children (12 & younger)   $2.50

How to Schedule a Group Tour:
Tours must be reserved at least two weeks in advance by phone or e-mail. Tour size is limited to 60 people.
Contact Casandra Hernandez, Education and Programs Manager at 623-582-8007 / E-mail: casandra.hernandez@asu.edu

Photos from personal collection and the Deer Valley Rock Art Center.

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