Like faithful pilgrims, thousands from all over the world come to Utah to pay homage to "The Three Kings."

"I still don't know why anyone named them The Three Kings," says Marlin Pennington. "There are at least five of them up there."Still, they will forever be known as "The Three Kings" - the name of a prehistoric Fremont rock art panel done in a style unique to the Vernal area. It's a style so magnificent that artists and archaeologists have likened it to the work of the greatest European masters.

All of which has transformed Dry Fork Canyon northwest of Vernal into a rock art mecca.

But the pilgrims, who have been coming for more than 50 years, will be far fewer next year. Owners of the McConkie Ranch where the vast majority of the Dry Fork Canyon rock art - including "The Three Kings" panel - is located say they will close the ranch to the public next year.

"I feel just terrible about it," said Jean McKenzie, caretaker of the prehistoric heritage. "We just can't afford the liability insurance. And it always seems like there are one or two people who will sue over anything. The corporation voted not to take that chance."

McKenzie is the oldest daughter of original ranch owner Sadie McConkie, who for decades jealously protected the rock art panels from vandals. Today, they remain among the best preserved anywhere in the western United States.

Her preservation efforts were recognized by the state when it designated Dry Fork Canyon as a state historic area.

The McConkie family traditionally has welcomed visitors with open arms, even constructing a small museum and parking area for the more than 2,000 people who sign the register every year.

Many come carrying a 1980 National Geographic article titled "Utah's Rock Art Wilderness Louvre." As National Geographic gushed, "The Three Kings transfix onlookers with their regal stares from their perch more than 100 feet above the ground . . ."

And there are other panels equally impressive, but more than 90 percent are located on the McConkie Ranch.

"We were hoping the county (Uintah) would step in," McKenzie said. "We were willing to run it if they would take care of the liability. But they won't do it."

County Commissioner Nyle Bigelow, however, said it is not a matter of want. It's a matter of looking at the legal ramifications of what the county can or cannot do with private property.

"We are still looking at the options, but we will make no decision before we have a legal opinion," he said. "But there is no question we recognize it is a very valuable resource to Uintah County. It's not something you can go out and replace."

But McKenzie said the county for years has refused to get involved, ignoring the more pragmatic reality that most visitors to the ranch come from out of state, which translates into tourism dollars for Vernal and Uintah County.

"We recognize the tourism value," Bigelow said. "And we also recognize the value to history and our way of life in Utah. And that's just as important. But we have to look at all the legal aspects."

Despite closure to the general public, McKenzie said, ranch owners will continue to allow access to rock art researchers and to archaeologists, as well as to selected groups who made arrangements prior to the corporation's vote to close the ranch.