Not far from Williams, Arizona, on Historic Route 66, lies a spot where nature and ancient history converge. The Keyhole Sink features both millennium-old petroglyphs and, at times, a picturesque waterfall.
The location is a box canyon — which is shaped like a keyhole, in case you were wondering how that figures in — that water carved into the surrounding basalt cliffs, which were left behind by lava flows from an ancient volcano. According to the Kaibab National Forest, visitors to the spot left glyphs depicting bear paws, deer, frogs, lizards, people, suns, and snakes on the walls of the oasis between 700 A.D. and 1100 A.D. These were likely left by the Cohonina people, now the Havasupai, Hopi, Hualapai, Navajo, Quechan, and Zuni.
If you’re, say, a deer, it’s hard to escape from the watering hole if someone is guarding the exit and entrance. As such, and because of the petroglyphs, archaeologists believe that the canyon was used as a hunting ground and a place to conduct religious ceremonies. However, it doesn’t seem as though anyone ever actually lived there for any length of time, which is surprising, because it’s a big ol’ source of fresh water in a pretty arid region. When it’s full, the pond below the falls holds about 60,000 gallons of water.
The ancient hunters’ homes — or at least one of them — can be found at the Clover Ruins at the Williams Ranger District station, about 13 miles west of Keyhole Sink. Archaeologists can tell that Clover was a dwelling and Keyhole was not, because the Cohonina left their stuff (projectiles, axes, pots and grinding stones) at the former and not the latter.
They moved out of the immediate vicinity and to the east with good reason, though. Around 1085 A.D., Sunset Crater, a cinder cone volcano on the other side of what is now Flagstaff, erupted. Ash and cinders rained from the sky and set the forest aflame. Most of the area’s inhabitants moved far enough away so that the changes to the landscape would be less of a disruption to their way of life.
If you could somehow travel back in time a decade, many of the petroglyphs would be much easier to see. Unfortunately, in August 2010, two asshats by the names of Ace and TJ, judging by what they chose to write, vandalized the rock wall, painting over the petroglyphs with aluminum roofing cement. Banksy, it was not. Three months and $6,000 later — an expert had to be flown in from Atlanta — the Forest Service was able to remove the graffiti, but the ancient artwork it was covering is noticeably duller and harder to make out.
The destination used to be accessed by a road that provided parking within 100 yards from the site, but people visiting were being destructive and trashing the place. To prevent this (or at least slow it — as 2010 showed it’s still possible to carry roofing paint up there, apparently) the Forest Service closed down a couple roads in 1992 and built an easy ¾-mile trail through the ponderosa pines. They also put up some interpretive signs to teach people about the area.
Unlike the area’s national parks and monuments with similar cultural attractions, the Keyhole Sink is completely free — there’s no fee involved with stopping and hiking there. It’s also open to snowshoeing and cross-country skiing if you find yourself in northern Arizona in the winter.