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When I first learned of the existence of petroglyphs in Idaho I raised a questioning eyebrow. Ancient carvings right here in the Gem State? A quick search revealed two petroglyph sites within an hour of Boise: Celebration Park and Wees Bar.
Fall is the perfect time of year to explore the Snake River Canyon. My first stop was at the more family-friendly of the sites: Celebration Park.
Guffey Bridge, a historic truss railroad bridge spanning the Snake River, greets visitors.
Entry to the park is $2 per vehicle. The Visitor Center, open 10:00AM to 2:00PM from April to October, provides restrooms, knowledgeable park staff, and maps for the Petroglyph Trail.
The Petroglyph Trail winds through glacial boulders, called “melon boulders.” The melon boulders are covered in a dark sheen. That sheen, when removed by carving, reveals the lighter rock underneath. And thus, a petroglyph is born. Many of Celebration Park’s petroglyphs are between 10,000 and 12,000 years old, with some as new as 400 years old.
Historians don’t know exactly which native tribe carved the drawings, nor what they were communicating. Walking among the simple but painstakingly carved petroglyphs, their meaning hardly seems to matter. Keep your eyes open for local wildlife, like the Western fence lizards that skitter across the carvings, basking in the warm autumn sun.
Wandering out of the melon boulders a flash of flying metal caught my attention. I watched curiously as children stood on a wooden deck and threw spears at drawings of wooly mammoths. I walked onto the deck and found myself at the only atlatl range west of the Mississippi.
The use of atlatl’s began over 35,000 years ago. The atlatl, a tool which cradles a throwing spear, was used to hunt game. After listening to the park staff’s instructions on safely throwing an atlatl, I honed my arm and chucked spear after spear at the target. It’s a maddeningly addictive challenge. The atlatl range is fun for any age.
After a quick picnic lunch at Celebration Park it was time to head downstream and check out the petroglyphs at Wees Bar.
Swan Falls Dam and Wees Bar
Nineteen miles from Celebration Park is Swan Falls, a hydroelectric dam built in 1909. A historic landmark in its own right, tours of Swan Falls Dam are available from 10:00AM to 4:00PM every Saturday from April to October.
The trail from Swan Falls Dam to Wees Bar is just over twelve miles round trip, making it a perfect mountain biking adventure. Bring a fat bike in late summer and fall to glide over the dry, loose dirt that forms as the canyon bakes.
I found a parking spot in the shade and prepped for my ride under the watchful eye of the resident flock of guinea hens. Bring plenty of water and food as the canyon is warm year round.
Ride across the dam, keeping an eye out for pedestrians. I smiled with glee as my tires vibrated along the metal grating. After all, how often is it you get to ride across a hydroelectric dam?
Follow the trail briefly upstream before a sharp right switchback climbs over a knobby hillside. It’s a short climb, and one of the only climbs of the trip. I walked it, unable to get good purchase on the rocks, and admired the turquoise waters of the Snake River as I went.
There is no marked trail to Wees Bar, but the directions are simple: stick to the river. The first half of the ride is on crisscrossed double track. Take the track that seems the most solid, but continue along the river. There are a few times when a road or double track will lead up and out of the canyon – do not take those.
The canyon bottom is wide and open, so you can see where you’ve been and where you’re going.
I stopped to check out the foundation of what was an old homestead and its accompanying orchard. It’s amazing to see how fruit trees thrive long after the farm is gone.
Next you’ll come to a small gate that you’ll walk your bike through which narrows the path from two track to single track. Keep an eye out across the river (to the north) for a metal pipe snaking down the cliff wall of the canyon. Wees Bar is roughly across from that landmark.
Wees Bar is a wide open field covered in dark boulders. I dropped my mountain bike into the sagebrush, being careful to prop it up so I didn’t lose it, and wandered among the rocks. The petroglyphs at Wees Bar are similar to those at Celebration Park, though more dense and prolific. Everywhere you look there are more etchings, beckoning you further into the field.
After a brief exploration of the homestead close to Wees Bar I retrieved my bike and pedaled back to Swan Falls Dam. From Swan Falls it’s under an hour back to Boise, or pitch a tent at one of Idaho Power’s free campsites along the river.
I chose to stay, listening to the deep swirl of the Snake River under a blaze of stars. Maybe some of the carvings are maps of constellations – the very same constellations I admire as I drift off to sleep.
The petroglyphs at Celebration Park and Wees Bar are historical treasures. Like on all adventures, be sure to Leave No Trace.
All photos, including the feature image, are credited to Sara Sheehy.
Sara Sheehy seeks adventure in the mountains of Idaho and beyond. Follow her on Instagram at@sarasheehy.
Published on November 15, 2016