A forewarning: The Bellows Falls petroglyphs were dangerous to find and to be honest, I am not even sure if visiting them is legal. I would not advise bringing small children. With that said, my oldest son now thinks this was the coolest thing he has ever done and that his mom is totally rad for letting him do it.
I first heard of the petroglyphs from Atlas Obscura, which is a really interesting website filled with weird, quirky random places to visit and I love weird, quirky and random. Their instructions were really simple and I thought it would be easy to find. We were basically just told to look off the south side of the Vilas Bridge and they would be right there.
Seeing as how the petroglyphs are on the National Register of Historic Places, we expected to find a sign or something. Anything. When we arrived at our destination the first thing we found was that the bridge was closed. Has been for years. We looked and looked for the petroglyphs to no avail. I even had to drive back up into town to get better cell service to research it more.
We went back to look again and noticed a dirt road leading down along the river. Knowing we couldn’t be the only ones to ever come looking for these petroglyphs, we started walking keeping an eye out for a well worn trail that might lead us to a lookout. Sure enough, just about 75 feet down the dirt path, we found just that.
Still, we couldn’t find the petroglyphs and didn’t even know which direction to look. We were looking over the edge of a rocky gorge with the Connecticut River rushing down below. With remnants of teenage parties and beer cans strewn about, I started feeling like it wasn’t the best place to be with an 8 year old. Just then, I heard a branch break behind me and I shrieked like a chihuahua that had just been stepped on, which caused the teenage boys sneaking up behind us to do the same.
We all laughed and once I caught my breathe, I asked if they knew about the petroglyphs. Lucky for us, they were locals and were there for the same thing. So we set off with our new friends down the steep rocks back in the direction of the bridge.
Not long after, we found the first set. A bit farther down to the bridge was a second larger set. They are just amazing to see and it was mind blowing to me that this ancient wonder is just hidden away, seemingly forgotten. The only marker is a dash of yellow paint above them to mark their location.
It is believed that these petroglyphs were made by the indigenous people who originally inhabited this region called the Sokoki Abenaki. Petroglyphs are rock carvings created by using a stone chisel and a hammerstone. You can just imagine the work that went into making them. The southern panel has eight figures and the northern panel has sixteen. Some of the heads appear to have antennae leading to some extraterrestrial conspiracy theories.
Abenaki lore dictates that west is the direction where a soul travels after death. Seeing as how their burial ground was discovered nearby, I think that the best theory is that the petroglyphs may be wayfinding signs, pointing the way home to a newly departed spirit.
The petroglyphs are estimated to be 300- 3,000 years old although the locals were adamant that they were 8,000 years old. The boys explained that a farmer tried painting the petroglyphs in order to make them stand out more. Over the years, people have tried carving out the faces to make them more pronounced, which only made dating them more difficult.
From the center of Bellows Falls, drive down Bridge Street until you see the Bridge closed sign. Cota and Cota will be on your left. If you are facing Vilas bridge from the Vermont side, you want to head down the dirt road to your right. The petroglyphs are 55 feet south of the bridge, but you can’t see them from that vantage point. About 75 feet down the trail, you will see a well worn trail where people go in and out. Please be careful. It is steep and the rocks are slippery, but there were no signs urging you to turn back.
Finding the Bellows Falls Petroglyphs was more adventure than I was expecting. It as one of those trips that I made my son promise not to tell his dad about.