With over 300 rock art panels containing 1,700 design elements, Petroglyph Canyon is the showcase of the Sloan Canyon National Conservation Area. About 25% of the petroglyphs in Petroglyph Canyon appear in the slide show on this page.
What they don’t tell you is that the Petroglyph Gallery area, just a couple miles beyond the trailhead, is not obvious. The maps say the gallery is a loop. I discovered this loop starts at the first split-off of the Cowboy Trail (the right or West side of the loop) and ends where the Cowboy Trail reconnects with the Petroglyph Trail at the upper side of the loop.
The main area of the Petroglyph Gallery begins after ascending 3 dry waterfalls on the Petroglyph Trail just beyond the lower connection with the Cowboy Trail. Curiously, there is a petroglyph that seems to show the figure of a person who fell. The third dry waterfall would be a good candidate for that ancient tragedy as it is a 10ft or more very slick, steep dry waterfall. Another petroglyph shows what looks like a person who ascended 3 levels and with arms outstretched is elated to be at the top. Indeed, after the third dry waterfall you’ve made it. The trail opens up and the petroglyphs begin.
Watch carefully. This is not like Mouse’s Tank Trail in Valley of Fire State Park where there are large obvious cliff face panels of petroglyphs. In this case the petroglyphs are mainly on 100s of small 3-4ft high boulders scattered to the right (or West) lower side of the wash, within about 10-20 feet of the base of the wash. It appears there was an ancient trail to the right just above the wash and the petroglyphs were meant to be seen by the native Americans who passed up and down the wash as they were traveling from the lower Las Vegas Valley (Winter home base?) up Petroglyph Canyon to the higher regions (Summer home?).
Look very carefully at the boulders to your right after you top the third scary dry waterfall. I totally missed ALL of the petroglyphs on my first pass and only discovered them on the return trip when I began to look closely as the small boulders. Then they began to appear everywhere like stars on a clear dark starry night.
For an excellent scholarly study of Southern Nevada petroglyphs download the 74-page Master of Arts Degree in Archaeology thesis “Valley of Fire Petroglyphs: A New Perspective On An Old Idea” by Eric Pacl. Also downloadable from the Petroglyph Research button near the top of this page.
There are a number of potential approaches to Petroglyph Canyon including 3 separate trailheads. The first, the Petroglyph Canyon Trailhead is the closest, about 2 miles from the petroglyph site. The others give you more of an experience of the Sloan Canyon area. Click the map buttons above to view the trailhead locations.
On this day I took the first set of directions to the Petroglyph Canyon Trailhead, but quickly got lost when I did not see a sign for Raiders Way off of St. Rose Pkwy. That sign may not exist, so I ended up using the Google GPS map guide on my smart phone. This guide took me through a huge maze of roads and new housing construction which I never would have figured out without the guide.
Finally, at the intersection of Democracy Dr. and Nawghaw Poa Rd, I found the road to the canyon gated off until it’s official opening at 8:30am. Since it was about 7:30, I traveled down Democracy Rd. to a side street about 1/4th mile away and parked. The walk to the gated-off Petroglyph Trailhead parking area was only about 1 mile. Not bad, and I was there to enjoy the solitude of the canyon before anyone else arrived. You’ll note that no mountain bikes or dogs are allowed on the Petroglyph Canyon Trail.
Petroglyph Canyon Trailhead from I-215 on the Southern End of Las Vegas:
Hidden Valley Trailhead Access to Petroglyph Canyon from I-15 South:
Shadow Canyon Access to Black Mountain Trail to Petroglyph Canyon:
Find the trailhead at the upper left end of the parking area. Just beyond the trailhead rise to a high point with great views of the Las Vegas Valley, Frenchman Mountain, Gass Peak, the Sheep Range, the Mt. Charleston Wilderness, La Madre Mountains Wilderness, the Rainbow Mountains on the Western border of Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area and Potosi Mountain. The Las Vegas Strip is in full view along with much of Sloan Canyon from the McCullough Trailhead just beyond a communications tower hill to the far left to the Anthem Trailhead and then all the way to the Petroglyph Canyon Trailhead.
Continue along to where the trail descends into the actual canyon. There are some easy access stairs carved into the rock descending about 30ft down into the canyon. Head up the canyon. The lower area of the canyon is pretty wide open and only narrows later on. The surface is very good for hiking or running. This is pristine Mojave Desert landscape. There are a few scattered desert plants, but for the most part it is barren. Have lots of water (at least 2 liters per person recommended in the Summer; one liter would be fine in the Winter). The Petroglyph Gallery Loop officially begins where the Cowboy Trail (West side of the loop) splits off to the right.
Continuing to the left on the Petroglyph Trail, eventually you reach the first of 3 dry waterfalls in fairly quick succession. The first is very tame, only a couple feet high. The second a bit more challenging. However there is a bypass trail to the left. The third is the doozy! It’s around 15ft high. That doesn’t sound too bad. However, that’s 15 very steep feet up a very smooth, nearly polished rock face with scarce, shallow, polished rock holds. Definitely don’t attempt this in your dress shoes! My trail running shoes had enough of a challenge to find any secure holds. And the holds were not very secure. Keep moving and don’t linger. 15 feet is not a lot, but if you slip you could bang yourself up pretty bad and possibly break something! You’ll know you’re at this 3rd most challenging dry waterfall if you find yourself thinking, “Should I attempt this or should I turn around and go back?” I decided to continue on up because I knew this was the only way to get to the gallery, many had made it before me and I didn’t see any broken or dead bodies at the base of the dry waterfall.
At the top of this challenging dry waterfall, the canyon again opens up. There are no more dry waterfalls. Look at the scattered boulders very closely, especially to the immediate right of the canyon wash floor. Petroglyphs will begin to emerge on small scattered rock panels. You might also see sections of a very faint ancient trail to the right and just above the base of the wash. The petroglyphs appear on the boulders along this ancient trail. I checked out the higher cliff faces above the left of the wash. I did not find any petroglyphs up high, and very few near the left base of the wash.
If you want to take the Petroglyph Gallery loop, take a right onto the Cowboy Trail at the top of the loop. You’ll rise to another incredible view of the Las Vegas Valley and surrounding mountains. After about 1/8th mile the trail descends and loops around to reconnect with the Petroglyph Trail about 1/4th mile below the dry waterfalls. I did not take the Cowboy Trail side of the Petroglyph Gallery Loop, so I cannot say whether there are petroglyphs along this trail, but it is a part of the loop. In addition, it MAY be a way of getting to the Petroglyph Trail Gallery above the dry waterfalls without having to ascend that third scary dry waterfall. I’ll scope out this trail in the future.