Monday, December 28, 2020

Hickison Petroglyphs

Hickison Petroglyphs
0.6 miles loop, 50 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy
Access: Good gravel road to trailhead, no fee required

The petroglyph site near Hickison Summit is just off of the Loneliest Road in America in the remote and desolate desert of Nevada's Great Basin. This short hike visits petroglyphs of abstract forms left by Desert Archaic peoples who lived in this desert as many as 8000 years ago (the petroglyphs themselves are likely younger). Unfortunately, there is a great deal of vandalism at the site that seriously detracted from my ability to find and appreciate true petroglyphs; still, the rock art was interesting and there was also a very nice viewpoint of the Toiyabe Range, one of the longest and tallest mountain ranges in central Nevada. This is a nice brief stop on the Loneliest Road but the less visually impressive nature of these petroglyphs may not appeal to all visitors.

I visited the Hickison Petroglyphs Recreation Area, which is run by the Bureau of Land Management, during a drive across Nevada on the Loneliest Road (US Route 50). The petroglyphs are quite remote: the closest nearby town is Austin, where there are few services. The site is about halfway between the more sizeable towns of Fallon and Ely, which are both over 120 miles away; this spot is about as lonely as it gets on the Loneliest Road. The recreation site is well labeled with a large BLM sign on the north side of US Route 50 and is thus easily reached by travelers going either direction on US Route 50. Upon taking the turnoff for Hickison Petroglyphs, I followed the good gravel road just under a mile to a cul-de-sac on the left side of the road with a vault toilet and parking for a handful of cars. There is a popular campground attached to this site but there's no water here.

The trail is a short, 0.4 mile loop with a 0.1 mile spur that leads out to a viewpoint of Big Smoky Valley and the Toiyabe Range. The BLM distributes interpretive brochures to help guide visitors through the site, but unfortunately there were no brochures at the site at the time of my visit. From the trailhead, I chose to do the hike clockwise, heading to the left. The trail traveled through a flat saddle between two hills; this side of the loop quickly approached some cliffs at the base of the hills on the eastern side of the saddle. The cliffs here were marked in many places, but most of the markings were recent graffiti and so it was difficult to recognize actual petroglyphs. However, I did find one panel of petroglyphs here that had an abstract and indecipherable design.

Hickison Petroglyphs
After 200 meters of hiking from the trailhead, a spur trail broke off to the left that led to the overlook. This flat trail led another 200 meters out to a rocky outcrop from which there was an excellent view of the Toiyabe Range to the west and Big Smoky Valley to the south. From here, I could see all the way down to Arc Dome and Toiyabe Dome, two major mountains in the southern part of the range; I had hiked Arc Dome, the highest peak in that range, the previous day. The Hickison Petroglyph Site itself lay at the junction of the Simpson Park Mountains and the Toquima Range.

Toiyabe Range and Big Smoky Valley from overlook
I returned to the loop, which turned and began heading back towards the parking area along another set of cliffs on the west side of the saddle. The cliffs here were covered with graffiti as well but I spotted another set of pecked symbols that appeared to be petroglyphs as well. The identity of Desert Archaic peoples who inhabited this landscape is unclear; they did so at a time when prehistoric lakes left by the last ice age were receding; the much wetter landscape then supported modes of substinence that may no longer be necessary in today's desert. Neither the creators of these petroglyphs nor the meanings of the pecked messages are clear, but these petroglyphs remain a communication between humans across millenia in this arid landscape.

Hickison Petroglyphs
As I approached the parking lot, I arrived at a massive boulder with complex etchings into its patina from multiple sides. Although their meanings were unclear, these final petroglyphs on the hike were quite impressive.

Petroglyphs on boulder
I liked this short hike both for the petroglyphs and the views, but I will also admit that this wasn't the most exciting hike in the Great Basin. Nonetheless, it's a good stop along the Loneliest Road if you're looking for a half-hour leg stretcher.

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