Visit Ancient Rock Art in the Midwest 

Hartman Rock Garden

These rock carvings and paintings are a day trip away 

By Emily Wolfe

When most people think about rock art in the United States, they think about the Southwest and the canyons and bluffs of Utah and Colorado. You might be surprised to learn that there are plenty of significant rock art locations in the Midwest—well-worth visiting for their history, beauty, and a connection to the people that lived here thousands of years ago.  

Things to keep in mind while visiting rock art: 

  • Know your terminology. There are two main types of ancient rock art: Petroglyphs and pictographs. Petroglyphs were engraved or carved in rock, while pictographs were painted on rock with pigments made from minerals or organic materials. (By their nature, pictographs are easily destroyed by the elements, so in modern times, we have many more examples of petroglyphs than pictographs.) 
  • Be respectful. To many Native Americans, rock art sites remain sacred. A good rule of thumb is to generally behave the way you would in a cathedral, temple or mosque. And while it’s tempting to touch the petroglyphs, the oils in your skin will cause the site to degrade faster, so it’s best to stay hands-off while you take them in. 
  • It’s not just an ancient thing! Hundreds or thousands of years after these carvings were made, stone remains a source of artistic inspiration for humans—check out a more modern example like Ohio’s Hartman Rock Garden created by visual artist Ben Hartman in the 20th century. You can even get creative and make rock art of your own by setting up a simple rock garden or painting your own pictographs on rocks from the garden. 

Leo Petroglyphs in Ray, Ohio 

The sandstone slab at the Leo Petroglyph and Nature Preserve contains about 35 carvings showing humans, birds, fish and other common subjects of ancient rock art. The petroglyphs were likely carved into the sandstone by the Fort Ancient people, who lived in what is now southern Ohio and northern Kentucky 1000-1,500 years ago. In addition to the Leo Petroglyph, there is evidence that the Fort Ancient people built the Serpent Mound in Peebles—another site worth a visit. Allow 1-2 hours to hike the trail at the nature preserve and take in the art and wildlife. 

Sanilac Petroglyphs Historic State Park in Cass City, Michigan 

More than 150 petroglyphs have been preserved at this Michigan site, somewhere between 300-1,400 years old. In the Anishinaabemowin language, these petroglyphs are called Ezhibiigaadek Asin, meaning “written in stone,” and depict figures from the religious tradition of Great Lakes-area tribes. The petroglyphs themselves are located in a protective enclosure, which can be visited Wednesday-Saturday during the summer, probably opening shortly before Memorial Day—keep an eye on the Michigan History Center website for specific dates. They recommend allowing 2-plus hours to see the petroglyphs and the rest of the state park. 

Sanilac Petroglyphs

Jeffers Petroglyphs in Comfrey, Minnesota 

This Minnesota park contains thousands of petroglyphs and is one of the most impressive rock art sites in the Midwest. The earliest carvings, showing bison and early hunting tools called atlatls, date back at least as far as 5000 BCE, and the site was continuously used over the next several thousand years. Admission is $10 for adults and $8 for seniors, college students and children over 4, and the park will open in June. 

Roche-a-Cri State Park in Friendship, Wisconsin 

Located in central Wisconsin, this 300-foot bluff offers visitors the chance to view rock paintings—pictographs—as well as carved petroglyphs. The French name of the park means “screaming rock,” though it’s sometimes loosely translated as “crevice in the rock.” After viewing the petroglyphs, visitors can hike to the top of the bluff—which is also a roosting site for turkey vultures! 

Roche-a-Cri Petroglyphs