Immerse yourself in Parowan Gap’s geology, petroglyphs and dinosaur tracks
Like many of Utah’s wonders, Parowan Gap and the Red Mountains are shrouded in geologic and historic significance. The 3-mile-long pass, located a half-hour drive north of Cedar City, tells a story of ancient people, offering hints about the lives they might have led in a beautiful, yet brutal environment.
As I walked through the 600-foot gap, I thought about the first person to use the fallen Navajo Sandstone as a canvas upon which to share their story. I imagined ancient people etching stories and memories into the impressionable sandstone surface. I could see bands of settlers, explorers, nomads and adventurers passing through on foot and by wagon, fascinated by the rock art.
Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, Parowan Gap hosts a collection of more than 90 panels and 1,500 carvings, carved onto Navajo Sandstone at The Narrows, with most thought to be carved by the Fremont approximately 700 to 1,500 years ago.
A two-lane road weaves through Parowan and the Red Mountains until it opens up to the breathtaking result of erosion. Millions of years ago, when two parallel fault lines sheared, a block of sediment emerged. Over time, this block continued to rise to became the Red Mountains.
While the mountains formed, a river cleaved the landscape. Through centuries of erosion, the river dried up, leaving behind a natural route for travelers. Now, this ancient highway has become a waterless wind gap, still used by adventurers.
The glyphs at Parowan Gap are not the only ancient etchings in the area, but they are some of the most unique. While some of the carvings depict animals and people similar to what the Fremont people painted or carved in Buckhorn Wash and Nine Mile Canyon, most of the petroglyphs at Parowan are of geometric shapes, which is considered incredibly unusual for the area.
The most significant glyph among the panels at Parowan is the Zipper Glyph. There multiple theories behind the Zipper: Some archeoastronomy researchers believe that ancient peoples used the glyph to track solar movement while others believe the glyphs track the movement and history of ancient tribes. Another idea is that the Zipper depicts the history of members of the tribe, such as famine, harvest, exploration and—potentially—tragedy.
There are 180 notches along each wing of the Zipper, and it’s theorized that they might signify the 180 days between each solar equinox. When placed on top of a topographic map, the wings of the Zipper align with the setting of the sun between the gap at different points of the year. Cairns spaced throughout the valley mark where viewers can watch the sun fall into a notch during equinoxes and solstices. On the summer and winter solstice, you can watch the Overseer, a rock outcropping on the eastern end of the gap, swallow the sun in the slit of its mouth.
However you choose to interpret the glyphs, we know that they portray significant events in the lives of those who etched them. The men and women who sat at the base of these boulders were devoted storytellers who encountered hardship, experienced joy and created a legacy to endure for thousands of years to come.
Further back in time
The petroglyphs aren’t the most ancient history near Parowan. About a mile east of the gap, pressed into the sandstone, are the immortalized tracks of an ancient Hadrosaur from the Cretaceous Period. The Parowan Gap Dinosaur Track Site was recently made into a BLM recreation site and is a quick, worthwhile stop.
The recent past
Reaching the gap through the small city of Parowan is a historic experience in itself. When Mormon pioneers reached Utah in 1847, Brigham Young commissioned explorers to find suitable settlements for church followers arriving from Missouri.
Parley P. Pratt led the first expedition south from Salt Lake City and discovered “Little Salt Lake” along with deposits of iron ore. He deemed the area suitable for settling, and two years later, in 1851, George A. Smith led a settlement party to create a city in the area. As the first white-settled southern city in Utah, Parowan adopted the nickname “Mother City of Southern Utah,” and, from there, sent settlers to California, Nevada, Arizona, Oregon and across southern Utah.
Directions from Cedar City: Head north on Main (or take exit 62 on Interstate 15) to UT-130. Continue north for almost 14 miles, then east for 2 ½ miles to Parowan Gap.
Directions from Parowan: Travel north on Main to 400 North (or take exit 78 on I-15). Turn left and travel the Gap Road 10 ½ miles.
For more information, visit: Geology.Utah.gov/map-pub/survey-notes/geosights/parowan-gap