Arrastra Spring Petroglyphs (Death Valley National Park)

Arrastra Spring - From the end of the road, looking back across Butte Valley.

Arrastra Spring – From the end of the road, looking back across Butte Valley.

 

In lonesome Butte Valley, there are several naturally occurring springs. These springs have been the lifeblood of people in this harsh, and remote valley since man first stepped foot here several hundred years ago.  The first known inhabitants were the Panamint Shoshone tribe, these resilient people would spend cool days on the valley floor, and hot days high in the Panamint or surrounding Mountain Ranges. Butte Valley would likely have been a middle ground, providing enough elevation to avoid the scorching heat of Death Valley in the summer, and low enough that feet of snow wouldn’t be encountered during the dead of winter. Many of the peaks surrounding the valley provide a decent source of Pinyon Pine trees, their nuts a staple of the tribes diet.

Arrastra Spring came by its name, not for the petroglyphs that adorn the cliff side along the spring, but rather for the Spanish style mill that operated at the spring during the Gold Hill Mining District extravaganza of the 1890s. An interesting tidbit of information regarding the mill operation, it was operated by Shoshone Indians, employed by the mines. While there is no documentation, one has to wonder if the Shoshone had still been living near the spring at the time of the valley’s mining inception.

Having come across a few very nondescript mentions of petroglyphs at Arrastra Spring,  I decided that it was time to check out this location first hand.

Arrastra Spring - The first sign of petroglyphs in the gully below the spring.

Arrastra Spring – The first sign of petroglyphs in the gully below the spring.

 

Arrastra Spring - Deeply pitted cupules on a small boulder in the gully.

Arrastra Spring – Deeply pitted cupules on a small boulder in the gully.

 

It was the last day of November, and a chill was in the air. I could clearly see that Telescope Peak was getting doused with a blanket of fresh snow. I left the floor of Death Valley just as daylight had broke, chugging away in “White Lightening” (my Jeep), making my way up Warm Springs Road, and past the abandoned mining camp of the same name.  Just as I entered Butte Valley, I found a spur road that branched off toward the north, it was clearly the road less traveled – and the one that I was looking for.

A quarter of a mile later, a fork in the road – one direction takes you to the old mines of the Gold Hill District, and the other to Arrastra Spring. I made my turn, and realized rather quickly that this road receives very little, if any traffic. There was no fresh tire tracks, and the desert has done one hell of a job taking the road back. During the two-mile trip across the valley, I couldn’t help but wonder if the road had been closed for wilderness restoration – I didn’t see any signs, and hadn’t read anything to that effect. By the time that thought had crossed my mind, I was within a hundred yards of my destination, and there was no turning back now. (NOTE: further information revealed that the road is OPEN).

Nearing the end of the road, I took notice to the hills around the spring – they were dotted with wild burros, all curiously staring at me. I opened my door, and set off a stampede of crazy asses, all running – stopping, then running again, only to stop and stare again. Some people think that these guys are smart, but they come across as being pretty stupid from my experiences. Nonetheless, I enjoy seeing them. They have become a symbol of our desert, despite not being an indigenous animal to the region.

The spring itself is tucked up a canyon from where the road ends. But first a short descend down into a gully. When I reached the bottom of the gully I noticed the first sets of petroglyphs on about a half-dozen scattered boulders. Part of me wondered if that was all that there was to see. I documented the few findings, and began my ascent up the steep canyon that I really didn’t feel like climbing. Somewhere in the last several months I had injured my right leg, and at times it likes to scream at me. I was having that kind of trip (the days previous jaunt up Johnson Canyon wasn’t exactly helpful), every step up the nearly one-thousand foot elevation gain, over a quarter of a mile sent a shooting pain through my leg.

Arrastra Spring - After some debate over my bum leg I decided that I had to head up the canyon to the source of the spring.

Arrastra Spring – After some debate over my bum leg I decided that I had to head up the canyon to the source of the spring.

 

Arrastra Spring - Midway up the canyon, this boulder with about a dozen petroglyphs makes an appearance.

Arrastra Spring – Midway up the canyon, this boulder with about a dozen petroglyphs makes an appearance.

 

Arrastra Spring - Close up of the above panel.

Arrastra Spring – Close up of the above panel.

 

Midway up the canyon, a large granite boulder contained about a dozen designs, giving me some relief that the climb wasn’t in vain. From here I could clearly make out a basalt cliff adjacent to the reeds growing at the spring. If I was going to find the motherload, it would likely be along that basalt cliff. Limping on, I would soon find my prediction to be correct. Just before the spring, I began to spot petroglyphs along the cliff side.

I climbed up the black volcanic rock, and onto the cliff side, and was immediately put in a state of awe.  There were hundreds of petroglyphs, of various sizes and designs scattered along the cliff for roughly an eighth of a mile. Some containing simple circles, others intricate abstract designs several feet long and wide. One of the most prominent designs, zigzag lines that is often thought to represent “water” or “rain”.  While a large portion of petroglyphs appear to be abstract there are several instances of stick-men, and an occasional animal motif. 

I spent several hours at Arrastra Spring photographing and recording what would turn out to be one of the nicest petroglyph sites that I have visited in recent memory. Despite the cold weather, and the pain in my leg, it was worth it.

Arrastra Springs - Zigzag lines are often associated with water. There are also human like figures, and a chain, among other things represented in this panel.

Arrastra Springs – Zigzag lines are often associated with water. There are also human like figures, and a chain, among other things represented in this panel.

 

 

Arrastra Spring - Deeply pitted, abstract designs.

Arrastra Spring – Deeply pitted, abstract designs.

 

Arrastra Spring - Another deeply pitted abstract panel.

Arrastra Spring – Another deeply pitted abstract panel.

 

Arrastra Springs - The sheer volume of designs is overwhelming.

Arrastra Springs – The sheer volume of designs is overwhelming.

About the author

Jim Mattern

Jim is a scapegoat for the NPS, an author, adventurer, photographer, radio personality, guide, and location scout. His interests lie in Native American and cultural sites, ghost towns, mines, and natural wonders in the American Deserts.

  • Desertbat

    great story and photos.

  • LAEVE

    Love the zig zag designs. I’ve never seen those pictured. Very cool.