Black Canyon and Inscription Canyon are very special to me, these were the first places that I encountered Native American petroglyphs. Prior to visiting these beautiful canyons, I had focused all of my energy on visiting ghost towns, and mines – how quickly that changed after the ancient designs carved in the black basalt canyon walls also became etched in my mind. My fascination grew into an addiction overnight, to the point that I will endure anything, just to be able to see “rock art” first-hand, and document it for my own purposes.
Neither of these canyons are big secrets, for many years the BLM have advertised them as “public rock art sites.” Private map makers such as AAA and Rand McNally have included them on their maps as well. I have included at the end of this article a map, showing the route from Hinkley – through Black Canyon, to the parking area for Inscription Canyon. It is very important for you to realize that you can NOT make this trip in a car, or low clearance vehicle. I would even caution anyone without 4WD, there are sections of Black Canyon Road that are very sandy – if you were to become stuck, it could be days before help would come by.
There is more to the history of these canyons than Native American history – the stagecoach from Panamint City in the Panamint Mountain range traversed this canyon. We’ll take a quick look at all that there is to visit along the way.
The adventure begins in Hinkley, CA. The town was made famous world-wide in the movie Erin Brockovich, featuring Julia Roberts as an attorneys assistant, fighting PG&E over the ground water contamination in Hinkley. Hinkley has had 196 cases of cancer found in their residents over the past 12 years, as a direct result of PG&E’s contamination. Driving through Hinkley, don’t blink, or you might miss it. This small town doesn’t have much to it, it does however have a small gas station and market, providing you the perfect opportunity to fill up on overpriced gasoline and snacks.
Next stop is Harper Dry Lake, one of the largest dry lakes in the Mojave Desert. In the 1940′s and 50′s the dry lake was used by the aerospace industry as a landing strip. Today it is a popular site for parasailing, camping, and off-roading. There have even been talks of a power plant or even a commercial spaceport being constructed here, none of which have come to fruition.
From the dry lake, I highly recommend a side trip to the marsh. There is a road bearing to the left before the dry lake, follow it for 2.72 miles to a “Y” in the road. Take a right, and continue 1.30 miles. The marsh is a sanctuary for many birds including but not limited to White-faced Ibises, Snowy Egrets, Great Blue Herons, White Pelicans, Tricolored Blackbirds, Black-crowned Night Herons, warblers, sparrows, bluebirds, Northern Harriers, Bald Eagles, Golden Eagles, Peregrine Falcons, Prairie Falcons, and Ferruginous Hawks. Besides birds, you will also find other wild-life at the marsh including multiple lizard species, coyotes, jackrabbits, bobcats, desert tortoise, and the Mojave Ground Squirrel.
Once across Harper Dry Lake you enter Black Canyon. Here will want to begin to pay particular attention to the basalt walls around you. You will immediately start to come across petroglyphs, they are scattered throughout the canyon – higher concentrations in some areas than others. Archaeological evidence reveals that this region had humans living here for over 8000 years. Many of the geometric petroglyphs in this canyon are carved in the Great Basin curvilinear and Great Basin rectilinear styles and are traced to the Shoshonean Period of the Western Great Basin, AD 1000 to historic times. Some of the other petroglyphs have a higher amount of re-varnishing and are traced to earlier hunter/ gatherer times. This area is known to have been inhabited by the Shoshone, Southern Paiute and the Kawaiisu.
Several miles past the mouth of Black Canyon are the ruins of the Black Canyon stage stop. The stage stop was used in the mid-late 1870s, during the mining boom at Panamint City. Because of the violence, and chance of stage-coach hold ups in the area, Wells Fargo refused to service Panamint City. This caused the mine owners to create their own stage service to deliver ore to the train bound for Los Angeles. The route that they utilized, went through Black Canyon, and the reason that this stage stop was built. It is said that once the stage stopped running through the area the building was used as a home for miners. All that remains of the building is the lower portion of the walls.
Roughly one mile from the ruins of the stage stop, you come upon Black Canyon Well. It is unknown when the well was dug, or by whom. It first appeared on a map in 1915, but is likely to have been dug in the 1870′s when the stage-coach ran through. Water is still in the well, but I highly doubt that it’s consumable based on its appearance – it has also become a favorite watering hole for aggressive bees.
From the well, you still have several miles before reaching Inscription Canyon. Continue to play close attention to the black basalt walls of the canyon, there are many opportunities to see scattered petroglyphs along the route.
Once reaching Inscription Canyon there is a parking area; vehicular access has been blocked off, but you are free to walk through the canyon. Inscription Canyon is relatively small in comparison to Black Canyon, however close to every square inch of it is covered in petroglyphs. There is also one very illusive pictograph, that took me several visits to find – tucked up in a small cave in the volcanic flow. There has been a good amount of vandalism from years of unrestricted access and little education in regard to proper etiquette when visiting these archaeological sites. If you are new to visiting such sites, please take a moment to read: Hands off the Petroglyph! Etiquette for Visiting a Petroglyph / Pictograph Site.