How they managed to live out here, I’ll never grasp, I think, resting in a spot of shade against a boulder in the Superstition Mountains east of the Valley.
I’m on Hieroglyphic Canyon Trail with my folks, and though we’ve been chatting the whole way about day-to-day things, my mind keeps going to the long-gone people whose artwork we’re hiking to see.
Hieroglyphic Canyon is home to a collection of petroglyphs, drawings etched into stone by the Hohokam, according to every hiking guide I consulted prior to our trip. That civilization lasted from about 1 A.D. to 1450 in these parts.
On our way to the mysterious etchings, I wonder at their creators, who had so little to give protection or comfort from the pointy cactus, rocky terrain and intense sun. It’s not so difficult for us these days, with our hiking shoes, sunscreen and hydration packs. And “Hieroglyphic Trail 101” is rated easy on Tonto National Forest’s website. The gradual ascent up a well-marked path is do-able for families or occasional hikers.
About 1.5 miles up, the cactus- and creosote-covered slopes give way to a little canyon of smooth rock. It’s there that you begin to make out the petroglyphs, pecked into rock faces above several pools of water spotted with bright green algae. (The amount of water varies by season and precipitation.)
The drawings — what look to be people, geometric designs and perhaps bighorn sheep or deer — are bold in some places, faint in others. Unfortunately, more than a few have been marred by modern-day imitations scraped into the rock by nimrods with little talent and even less respect.
If you go, heed the advice of Arizona State Parks’ State Historic Preservation Office, whose “Archaeological Site Etiquette” guide reveals that “oils from even the cleanest hands can cause deterioration of prehistoric drawings and ruin the dating potential.” In short: Don’t touch the art. Capture it with your camera instead.
We hiked Hieroglyphic Canyon in little more than two hours, including some time at the top to rest in the shade, look over the petroglyphs and watch chipmunks scamper among the rocks. We also saw hummingbirds.
Books and online guides say it’s possible to continue past the petroglyphs, up the wash and to the Superstition ridgeline above, but the steep route is difficult to discern and requires considerable rock-hopping and bushwhacking. We opted to turn around at the slickrock, making our hike about 3 miles round trip.
I recommend starting early to beat hot temperatures in summer and increasing numbers of hikers as the day wears on.
To get to the Hieroglyphic Canyon trailhead, you’ll take a winding route through a neighborhood. Take U.S. Highway 60 five miles east of Apache Junction to Kings Ranch Road. Turn north on Kings Ranch Road, and go 1.6 miles to Baseline Avenue. Turn east. In 0.3 miles, turn north on Mohican Road. Turn west on Valley View Drive, then north on Whitetail Road. Turn east on Cloudview Avenue and follow until the road dead ends in the trailhead parking lot. Parking is free.
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