“Hmm. Are you sure it’s out here?” she asked.
To be honest, it didn’t look very promising, at least not yet.
“Yep, it’s up ahead a few more miles,” I responded, in a tone that likely overstated my own confidence.
We had already driven an hour from Phoenix to Gila Bend, then another hour west along Interstate 8, then turned off at an exit to seemingly nowhere, jogged back east a mile along the access road, then turned north on an unremarkable dirt road impossibly named Avenue 76½ E. Along this rough-at-times road, we had passed two desert squatter communities, an out-of-place boat shipwrecked on the top of a small hill, and miles of seemingly barren desert.
Some skepticism was probably to be expected. After all, I hadn’t exactly explained where we were going; I had just said that we’d find some rock art when we got there.
As it turns out, we were indeed on the correct road. A few miles further ahead was the Sears Point petroglyph site, an array of prehistoric and historic petroglyphs carved into a basalt ridge overlooking the floodplain of the once mighty Gila River. This is BLM land, a site well known by those who hunt rock art, but not a destination where you’ll find many tourists.
Finally, the road crested a small ridge, dipped towards the dry riverbed in the distance, and we could see our destination ahead. Ribbons of sandy driving routes spiderwebbed around tamarisk and mesquite clumps that dotted the lowland. I was glad to have my Subaru as we sloshed through deep pockets of sand and gravel, maintaining enough speed around the corners to avoid getting stuck. And just like that, we arrived at a patch of dirt sporting two informational kiosks and a some carsonite signs indicating the road’s end. We parked, stepped out of the subie, and immediately scanned the butte for the first sign of rock art.
“There’s some over there,” I said, nearly in code, and pointed towards a prominent panel gazing down upon us.
We grabbed some cold water from the cooler, donned our daypacks, and scrambled up towards the first panel with cameras in hand. And so began our rather impromptu visit to Sears Point.
The Sears Point petroglyph site
Archaeologists consider Sears Point to be one of the most significant rock art sites in the Southwest. In addition to more than 2,000 rock art panels incorporating nearly 10,000 petroglyph elements, the area contains a number of geoglyphs and other archaeological and historical features.
Simply put, there’s a lot to see out here. And you’ll need to do some exploring to see it.
Sears Point is just one of several other similar sites along the Gila River, including Quail Point, Hummingbird Point, and Oatman Point just a bit upstream. The only site signed from the interstate is Painted Rock, a now-defunct state park that’s since reverted to BLM management. I won’t get into what you’ll find at each of these sites, how to get to them, or what makes them special, but a quick google search will answer most questions one would have.
It’s important to note that while Sears Point is a named archaeological district, and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and is managed as an Area of Critical Environmental Concern by BLM, sadly none of these adds sufficient protection for this site or its neighboring ones.
The campaign to protect the Great Bend of the Gila
As a result, several organizations—led by Archaeology Southwest and the National Trust for Historic Preservation—have been campaigning to protect Sears Point and other important archaeological and historical sites upstream as the Great Bend of the Gila National Monument. It’s a good idea and the cultural resources here are definitely worthy of such a designation.
The short video below explains a bit more about the cultural heritage this campaign seeks to protect.
Some tips if you plan on visiting
- You’ll want an AWD or 4WD vehicle to drive to the parking area, though don’t attempt it if it’s rained recently. You could probably make the drive with a 2WD high clearance vehicle if you stopped short of the deepest sand, which starts about around here, roughly a mile from the main petroglyph panels. Either way, be prepared to extricate yourself if you get stuck no matter what you’re driving.
- Don’t go in the summer heat, and be prepared with water and shade. You’ll spend your entire visit scrambling over rocks while the sun beats relentlessly down on you, so please act accordingly. If it’s warm out, you might want to consider gloves to protect your hands from hot rocks.
- If you don’t have much time, check out the rock art panels near the top of the butte to the right. The largest panels and most easily accessible glyphs are found in that area, which will require some scrambling to get up to the faint trail that connects them. If you can, spend some time exploring the entire area, including the tops of the basalt mesas—there are thousands of petroglyphs, geoglyphs, rock alignments, and other artifacts in walking distance of your car. Stay alert to your surroundings and bring a gps to help you find your way back.
- Photographing sometimes faint petroglyphs on shiny basalt in the glaring sun can be a challenge, so keep this in mind as you plan your arrival and departure times. A circular polarizing filter can also be helpful in reducing shine and helping the rock art stand out better. An umbrella can both help keep you cool and shade smaller glyphs for better photographs. I wish I had considered these things before my visit.
- Practice Leave No Trace principles, and don’t touch the petroglyphs or do anything else that might impact the site. Once damaged, we can never get these resources back.
- Want to learn more about lesser-known archaeological sites the public hasn’t ever heard of? Here’s the very best way to do that.
- Do some research before you go, especially on other nearby sites, if you’d like to make a longer day out of it. There are many accessible places to explore in the surrounding area and within the Great Bend of the Gila proposal area.
How to get there
From Gila Bend, Arizona, drive west on I-8 towards Yuma for roughly 30 mins to exit 78, Spot Road. At the end of the off ramp, turn north and then right on the frontage road. Head back east for about 1 mile to Avenue 76½E, then go north along the dirt road for about 7 miles. When you hit the sandy wash, stay on the most used route and aim for the low buttes to the west. You’ll find a small dirt parking area and two kiosks; park here and explore the area on foot.