Pointing the Way to Water
The wind whistles through Parowan Gap. It twists and whistles and carries dust and summer storms. And it blows right past one of the most significant archaeological sites in the United States.
On a dry range of hills in the uneasy border between the high country of the Markagunt Plateau and the long vistas of the Great Basin, Parowan Gap was formed millions of years ago by a stream cutting through a gradually rising fault block mountain. The stream disappeared, though wind screaming in from the desert and freeze-thaw cycles continue to erode and straighten the canyon walls. This feature was duly noted by prehistoric Paiute and Fremont Indians, who peppered the steep rock walls of the Gap with hundreds of vivid, haunting drawings.
Whites discovered the Parowan Gap in the 1700s as they made their way along the Old Spanish Trail from New Mexico and the high hunting grounds of the Interior West to the Spanish missions near Los Angeles. The first firm record of white passage came just after New Year's Day, 1850, when a group of Mormon explorers under the command of David Fullmer rode west from their temporary camp in what would become Parowan city to see what lay beyond the mountains. From the Gap, which was about seven miles from their camp at the mouth of Parowan Canyon (which today leads up to Cedar Breaks National Monument and Brian Head ski area) the group traveled out to the Gap then southwest to Rush Lake, which today is usually dry, then further west for two days to the edge of a 'great Valley apparently a deasert' (sic) - the Escalante Desert. From here, with only a few horses and little prospect for water or feed, the troop headed towards the south and the safety of water.
Today, the Parowan Gap is only slightly better known than it was back then. A dirt road runs to it from the pleasant little town of Parowan and keeps going west from here out into the desert. Three small plaques describe the area, though one of the plaques ignores the petroglyphs and talks only about the Mormon explorers. There is a gravel pullout and a fence protecting the sites.
Drawings litter the canyon wall. Were they describing family lineage? Where they depicting historic events? Pointing the way to water or food or villages? Or - and this is something none of the plaques talk about - were they announcing that this was the best place to view the autumnal or spring equinoxes (the sun would seem to rise and set straight in to and out of the Gap)? We don't know a thing. You can stare at the walls all day and they will reveal no more, and no less, of a picture than when you arrived. It is a complete mystery.
I like that.
Getting to Parowan Gap
Parowan is in southern Utah along Interstate 15, about a 25-minute drive north of Cedar City. The route to the Gap is somewhat convoluted. The best way to find the site is to go to one of the gas stations in the center of Parowan and ask for directions. Most locals seem to know how to get to the site. The road to the Gap is in good shape and passable to all vehicles. Parowan has all services, though primitive camping would be possible near the Gap. Remember to respect the drawings as historical artifacts and rare pieces of art (i.e., don't write your dumb name on the rocks!).
People still send me letters. Click to read what people say (we screened out all the bad ones).
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