Earth Notes - Picture Canyon

Flagstaff, AZ – Earth Notes: Picture Canyon

The Colorado Plateau is a treasure trove for petroglyphs. Ancient peoples of the Southwest carefully carved and chipped their art into dark rock, exposing the lighter rock beneath.

One hot spot for rock art is the weathered basalt of Picture Canyon in east Flagstaff, where some 700 designs on more than a hundred rock panels line the sides of the canyon. In them archers hunt, and deer, bighorn sheep, and lizards play.

The designs also include intricate rectilinear spirals and waterbirds. They were made by the Sinagua people, who lived in the area from around the year 600 to the 14th century.

The artwork probably served dual purposes: it relayed information about the area, and related spiritual stories from the dreamtime of shamans.

Picture Canyon, with its rich riparian habitat, was a good place to live and to visit. It attracted an array of wildlife, from porcupines, foxes and elk to colorful warblers, sandpipers, ducks, and great blue herons.

But the canyon was more recently a neglected dumping ground. The Flagstaff wastewater effluent that runs through the canyon foamed and smelled, and an artificially straightened channel was cut to move it through faster. Invasive plants thrived, and garbage accumulated.

Now local volunteers and government officials are working together to clean up the canyon. They've upgraded water quality and are restoring stream meanders and a small wetland. They've removed garbage including abandoned cars and invasive plants. In time, this small cultural and ecological gem right inside Flagstaff's city limits will shine once again.

-Mark Herz