Nevada is a very rewarding state to explore - it is something of a pity that so many folks just seem to equate the state with Las Vegas and don't explore the rest of the state. Nevada has stunning national forests, ancient history, prehistoric lakes, and many ghost towns. Winnemucca Lake is a short drive from Reno and has what are believed to be the oldest petroglyphs in North America.
There are many ancient sites, petroglyphs, and other attractions within an easy drive of Reno. No trip to Reno is complete without a visit to the legendary Pyramid Lake (it's also great for fishing). The area is a great place to learn about Native American history as well as European American expansion into the region, with ghost towns and the old-timey mining town like Virginia City to explore.
Prehistory & The Massive Ice Age Lake Lahontan
The region was once home to the massive Ice Age Lake Lahontan, which covered much of the area, and Winnemucca Lake is a sub-basin of the Lahontan Basin. Today the lake is mostly gone (there are remnants like Pyramid Lake), and Winnemucca Lake is now a dry lake bed between Washoe and Pershing counties. Winnemucca Lake was still a shallow lake until the 1930s, when a dam and a road restricted water flow, and it dried out.
The petroglyphs are in the Pyramid Lake Indian Reservation. The reservation has around 1,300 residents and 2,300 enrolled members. It is located around 35 miles norther of Reno and is governed by the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe (made up of the larger Kuyuidökadö (Cui Yui Ticutta) ("Cui-ui-Fish-Eaters") and the smaller Tasiget tuviwarai ("Those who live amidst the mountains").
- Reservation Size: 1,922 km2 (742.2 sq mi) (Including lakes)
The Incredible Age Of The Petroglyphs At Winnemucca Lake
In 2013 The Journal of Archeological Science released a research paper dating them to between 14,800 and 10,500 years old. Even the younger date would make them the oldest known petroglyphs in North America. The Great Pyramid was built around 4,500 years ago, which means the petroglyphs are somewhere over 2x to 3x times older than the Egyptian pyramids.
- Age: Between 14,800 and 10,500 Years Ago
It is believed that the petroglyphs were submerged in water for a long period of time. It is thought that the lake level would have been low enough for the boulders to have been exposed between around 14,800 and 13,100 years ago and again around 11,300 and 10,500 years ago. Between those periods, the boulders would have been submerged.
The date of human migration to the Americas is a complicated and contended question, and new evidence is being debated all the time. While it may yet be decided that people arrived in America much earlier than previously thought, as it is now, the petroglyphs are so old that they would have been carved by some of the first people to call the Americas home.
The Petroglyphs And What To Expect
There are several boulders sporting petroglyphs etched into them from people who lived very long ago.
The petroglyphs have a selection of carvings that include simple petroglyphs (like straight lines and swirls) as well as more complex petroglyphs that include flowers, trees, and even the veins of a leaf. The meanings of petroglyphs remain unknown.
- Smallest: Around 8 Inches or 20 cm
- Largest: 3 Feet or 0.9 Meters
Unfortunately, it is not possible to visit the Winnemucca petroglyphs as they are on the Pyramid Lake Indian Reservation, and the tribe blocks public access because the site has been vandalized in the past. Anyone wanting to visit will need to get special permission from the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe (phone 775 574-100).
There are other ancient petroglyphs in Nevada that visitors are free to visit. One example is the Petroglyphs of the Sloan Canyon National Conservation Area. They are around 4,000 years old and are an easy drive from Las Vegas. They are accessed by the Petroglyph Canyon Trail, which extends for around 4.4 miles.
Pyramid Lake is just adjacent to Winnemucca Lake. It is the largest remnant of Lake Lahontan and is entirely surrounded by the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe Reservation. It is a stunning lake to visit and is home to a number of eye-catching geothermal features and attractions.