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To access this remote site, you used to need a key.

Not long ago, visitors would have to track one down at Hot Springs State Park, Thermopolis Chamber of Commerce, the Washakie Museum or Meeteetse Museums. They’d need directions, too, because there weren’t any signs directing people from the highway to the petroglyphs.

That has all changed. A visitor’s center now stands on the site. Last year, someone manned the site most days of the week in peak season. This year, a volunteer is there every day this summer and through September, keeping the gate open 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. so anyone wanting to get a look at the petroglyphs can come in.

Legend Rock State Petroglyph Site outside Thermopolis is home to more than 300 petroglyphs pecked and incised into the cliff face, some dating as far back as 11,000 years. It is believed that American Indians made spiritual journeys to the site, where spirits were said to reside in the sacred rocks. Early American hunters and gatherers are thought to have made some of the earliest images during the Archaic Period.

It’s one of the largest petroglyph sites in the U.S., and it’s right here.

Located about 30 miles outside Thermopolis — with picnic tables and restrooms on site — Legend Rock makes for a perfect day trip. Pack water, lunch and hiking shoes and you’re good to go. A simple walk will take you right up to the petroglyphs, and the hike is easy enough for small children to handle.

Since access and the site itself were recently beefed up, I thought it would make the perfect final installment of the Star-Tribune’s summer One Tank Trip series.

To find it, take Wyoming Highway 120 west toward Cody for 21 miles and follow the signs. Much easier than it used to be.

I know. I went the other way. The way that takes you through Hamilton Dome oil field and gets you hopelessly lost and eventually leads to your needing to stop and ask a foreman, “I’m looking for the petroglyphs?”

Nevertheless, I made it. Although I would highly recommend the easy route.

At the visitor’s center, you can pick up brochures for a guided tour. (And buy water, in case you forgot.) Interpretive panels there explain the history of Legend Rock. The first written documentation of the site was made in 1913 by the U.S. Geological Survey.

It was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1973 and became a state archaeological site six years later. A committee formed in 2006 to create a plan for preserving and protecting the site, including graffiti removal, construction of a visitor’s center, educational programming and further documentation of the petroglyphs. Managed by State Parks, the site runs solely on donations.

Archaeologists documented the petroglyphs in 1988 using radiocarbon, cation-ratio and varnish micro-lamination dating techniques. They found a range of artwork on the rocks, including anthropomorphic human forms, zoomorphic animal figures and Euro-American and abstract images.

Besides religious practices, the petroglyphs could have been used to record events and track animals and days of the week. Some could have been meant purely for artistic expression.

I was lucky enough to walk the cliff face with Kevin Skates, superintendent of Hot Springs State Park and the Legend Rock site, and assistant superintendent John Fish.

Archaeological digs made near the site never uncovered permanent dwellings, Fish explained, which suggests the spiritual nature of the cliffs. Legend Rock would have been meant as a vision quest site rather than a place where people lived.

“That’s what’s so important about it,” Fish said. “This is a very sacred area.”

Warriors could have come here to prepare before battle. Women could have come to seek help with fertility. Those who visited Legend Rock would have made private journeys here, Fish said, taking only three or four other people with them as attendants.

Through repetitive dancing, starvation or ingesting certain poisons, those on a vision quest could transport themselves to an out-of-body experience, Fish said.

Look closely and you’ll find images of spirits, hands pressed forward, climbing out of the rocks. Some petroglyphs are thought to represent ninimbe, or little people, who could help bring people into the spirit world, Fish said.

“This is a Native American portal to the underworld,” Fish said. “This was like their church.”

Some petroglyphs show animals — a jackrabbit, elk, owl — and others suggest the “water woman” spirit, shown with the turtle that served as her go-between between the water and land worlds, Fish said.

Since the visitor’s center was built, a volunteer on site, Skates said Legend Rock has seen less vandalism.

“The only way to protect it is through education,” Fish said.

Some 8,820 people visited the site last year. This summer, site volunteer BJ King has met visitors from across the U.S., France, Switzerland, Germany, Thailand and South Africa.

“It’s such a magnificent treasure that can’t be duplicated,” King said.

It was hot and sunny the day I visited Legend Rock, but Fish recommends coming on an overcast day. Viewing is best when clouds cover the sun; the petroglyphs seem to pop out of the rocks.

Fish said visiting in the winter can be great, too. However, there’s no one on site at that time. From October to April, you’ll need to track down that key.

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Reach features reporter Margaret Matray at 307-266-0535 or margaret.matray@trib.com.

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