How to See Rock Art
Nestled along the United States-Mexico border in southwestern Texas and northwestern Coahuila, the Lower Pecos River Archeological region encompasses an area of about fifty square miles. Though this cultural region is fairly small, more than 2,000 archeological sites have been recorded. These sites cover a time span from the 19th century to over 10,000 years ago. Over 325 pictograph sites have been documented containing some of North America’s oldest and largest pictographs. These pictographs range in size from isolated motifs just a few inches tall to huge panels stretching more than 100 feet along the back of rock shelter walls. For readers unfamiliar with the region, or for those who want more in-depth information about archeological and historical sites throughout Texas, be sure to visit www.texasbeyondhistory.net.
Unlike other remote regions in the western United States, the vast majority of pictograph sites in the Lower Pecos River region are situated on private property and are therefore not open to public visitation. Over the years, many well-intentioned (and some not so well-intentioned) visitors have deliberately trespassed on private land to visit rock art sites that they had seen either on television or illustrated in books and articles. Many ranchers object to strangers wandering around on their property and may file charges against anyone caught doing so. However, there are still a few legal ways left for visitors to see the region's world-class prehistoric pictograph sites.
Seminole Canyon State Park and Historic Site, located nine miles west of Comstock, TX on Highway 90, offers rock art connoisseurs one of the most complete venues in the region featuring a bookstore, campground and interpretive center. Twice daily (Wednesday through Sunday) guided tours are offered to the Fate Bell and Fate Bell Annex pictograph sites. Contact the park for current tour schedules and fees. In 2006, more than 4,500 visitors took this one hour hiking tour. Additional guided tours to remote sites in the park are offered on an irregular basis for a nominal fee and require advance registration. Those willing to brave the eight hours of very strenuous hiking and climbing on the Presa Canyon Tour are rewarded with the rare opportunity to visit several of the park’s pictograph sites which are normally closed to the public. Another of the parks irregularly offered tours, known as the Upper Canyon tour, takes about two hours of moderate hiking and includes stops at two pictograph sites and several 19th century railroad sites. Those planning a trip to Seminole Canyon should call 432-292-4464 for more information.
The National Park Service manages over 540 miles of shoreline on the U.S. side of the International Amistad Reservoir. Amistad National Recreation Area has two major rock art sites open for public visitation; Panther Cave (which is jointly managed with Seminole Canyon State Park) and Parida Cave. Both sites were developed years ago and are intended to provide boaters with recreational opportunities that compliment Seminole Canyon’s land-based activities. A note to visitors: In recent years regional droughts have resulted in lowered lake levels, sometimes by more than fifty vertical feet. As a result, there have been times when both Parida and Panther Caves have been closed to boaters because of dangerous river conditions on the upper part of the reservoir. Anyone wishing to visit either site should check lake conditions prior to making a trip.
Parida Cave, once known as Painted Caves Station, was a welcome stop for travelers riding on the Southern Pacific’s transcontinental railroad in the 1880's and early 1890's. Though the station was only open for nine years, from 1883 to 1892, travelers had already painted graffiti over and adjacent to the prehistoric pictographs at the site. NPS excavations in 1967 revealed that, though horribly looted, the site still had deeply stratified and well-preserved archeological materials, portions of which date back more than 5,000 years. Today, Parida Cave’s expansive interior features more than 300 feet of designated trails, interpretive signage, a boat dock, and an unparalleled opportunity to experience the sights and sounds of a remote prehistoric rock shelter.
Panther Cave is the region’s most famous pictograph site. The rear wall of the shelter is covered, floor-to-ceiling, with hundreds of motifs which collectively form an uninterrupted panel more than eighty feet in length. The namesake of the site, a giant red-painted mountain lion or panther, is over ten feet long from nose to the tip of the tail. To reach Panther Cave boaters should launch at the Pecos River boat ramp; the boat ride is about twenty miles round trip. From the boat dock at Panther Cave, visitors climb a sixty-foot steel staircase up to the rockshelter. A steel fence and an elevated catwalk limits where visitors can walk and helps reduce potential damage to vegetation and buried archeological remains. The steel fence, designed to maximize photographic vantage points, was completed in 1996 by the NPS. Unobtrusive interpretive panels provide visitors with information about the pictographs, the prehistoric cultures that once lived in the reservoir basin, and the need to protect and preserve Panther Cave as well as to the other sites in the region.
In addition to the region's State and National parks, there are two private foundations that offer opportunities for visiting additional sites which are not on public lands. Membership in either of these organizations provides opportunities for a wide range of educational activities, including field trips, that can be found nowhere else in the region.
The Rock Art Foundation (RAF) operates a property known as the Galloway White Shaman Preserve, situated adjacent to the Pecos River near Seminole Canyon State Park and Historic Site. Established by renowned photographer Jim Zingtraff, the RAF sponsors numerous activities for its members, including field schools, conservation and research projects, and an annual rendezvous. It also offers regular trips to some of the region’s most famous rock art sites. The RAF has published several research reports including a detailed examination and conservation assessment of the Lewis Canyon Petroglyph site. Their most recent project has been to produce a CD-ROM featuring Lower Pecos Region pictographs. The RAF website (above) has one of the best pictorial presentations available on regional rock art available anywhere on the Internet.
The SHUMLA School is the newest foundation in the region and is dedicated to providing high quality educational opportunities for both the novice and the professional. The SHUMLA School, under the direction of anthropologist Dr. Carolyn Boyd, manages more than 1,500 acres of land adjacent to the Pecos River on the Harrington Ranch and is affiliated with the Department of Anthropology at Texas A&M University. Dr. Boyd has published extensively on the interpretation of regional pictograph styles and recently published a long-awaited book on the subject. The SHUMLA School completed construction on a 2400 square foot Education Center in 2003 and has recently added a multi-service center and library.
“Know Before You Go” should be the watchwords for anyone wanting to see the pictographs of the Lower Pecos region of southwest Texas. Seminole Canyon State Park and Historic Site is a sure bet if you have little time or are just passing through the area. For heartier folks, Presa Canyon and Upper Canyon tours offer the experience of a lifetime. If you have a boat, or want to rent one, the Panther Cave and Parida Cave trip provides the best that the region has to offer. Or, you can join one of the regional rock art foundations and make annual treks to participate in sponsored activities for many years to come. No matter what you choose to do be sure to check local web sites first to insure that “you know before you go.”
Did You Know?
With an estimated 1.4 million prehistoric artifacts in the park's museum collection, Amistad National Recreation Area has the 3rd largest collection in the National Park Service.