Burro Canyon Petroglyphs (Mojave National Preserve)

Petroglyphs in Burro Canyon. This panel is by far my favorite panel in Burro Canyon. Notice that some of the elements have been "scratched" over top of.
Burro Canyon - Looking north from a ridge line in Burro Canyon

Burro Canyon – Looking north from a ridge line in Burro Canyon

 

The Mojave National Preserve is still very much a wild place, a vast majority of it’s 2,403 square miles remains highly undocumented (at least in the public sector), and rarely visited. For years, I have enjoyed visiting the Preserve over any of the other California desert parks; mostly because you can spend days out bumping along dirt roads or hiking, and never see another soul. Perhaps that is why it remains off of the radar for most people; no food, no gas, and no hotels are a big turnoff to most folks. In the spirit of Grumpy Cat, “Good…keep the people out.”

Long before white settlers began to travel through via the Mojave Road, the Mojave and the Chemehuevi Indians had already called this land home for centuries. In many parts of the Preserve the evidence remains as vivid as if they had just been there yesterday. This evidence can be found in many forms, “rock art” (petroglyphs & pictographs), cave dwellings, mortars, matates, arrowheads, pottery sherds, lithic scatters; and the list goes on.

Trudging across open desert, the basalt cliffs are our first objective.

Trudging across open desert, the basalt cliffs are our first objective.

 

The first basalt cliff...

The first basalt cliff…

 

Climbing up and down and all around, I only managed to find two small petroglyphs.

Climbing up and down and all around, I only managed to find two small petroglyphs.

 

Petroglyphs #1

Petroglyphs #1

 

Petroglyphs #2

Petroglyphs #2

 

On this warm summer day in August, I had my sights set on a section of the Woods Mountains, it had piqued my interest over a year ago, while studying satellite imagery of the range. My wife and I set off on foot that morning at around 10am at a Wilderness Boundary that has closed vehicular access to this portion of the range. The first mile and a half was across flat, but highly vegetated desert…and by highly vegetated, I mean lots of pointy and aggressive cactus, and yucca plants. After stopping several times to remove cactus needles from our shoes and pants, we arrived at a basalt cliff.

This basalt cliff was not our intended destination, but I see all basalt as an opportunity to find petroglyphs. While my wife rested in the shade, I crawled all over the fallen basalt in search of messages carved in the stone. Across the entire 425 foot outcropping, I only managed to find two petroglyph designs. While not a great start, it was at least proof that I was onto something.

Rounding the northern bend, after a brief break in the basalt flow, I spotted a cave in the next small basalt outcropping. Climbing up toward it, I didn’t notice any petroglyphs; but I wanted to inspect the ceiling of the cave for any signs of painted elements.  Standing at the mouth of the cave, I looked down and saw a petroglyph on the boulder in front of me, then I looked at the wall of basalt beside the cave, and there was another. I turned around to see yet another directly behind me. I climbed up into the cave to inspect it, but there was no evidence of pigment, just a very large rats nest made of grasses and cholla cactus balls.

I went back to collect Meghan from under the yucca, that she had managed to find a nice bit of shade under. I took her up to the cave, giving her the opportunity to see it as well.

Cave in the basalt. This cave likely provided shelter for Native people.

Cave in the basalt. This cave likely provided shelter for Native people.

 

Inside the cave, nothing but a large rats nest.

Inside the cave, nothing but a large rats nest.

 

From inside the cave, looking out across the valley at Wild Horse Mesa.

From inside the cave, looking out across the valley at Wild Horse Mesa.

 

Petroglyph on the wall, left of the cave.

Petroglyph on the wall, left of the cave.

 

Sheep petroglyphs, below the cave.

Sheep petroglyphs, below the cave.

 

Petroglyphs, outside of the cave.

Petroglyphs, outside of the cave.

 

Looking at the GPS I realized that Burro Canyon was directly on the opposite side of the small mesa that we were already half way up. I suggested that we continue up to the top of the mesa, and down; as opposed to trudging another three-quarters of mile up the wash to the mouth of the canyon.  We reached the top of the mesa with ease; across the top of the mesa there was plenty of plant life, including, vibrant green grass popping up around the baseball sized basalt stones that covered every inch of the flat top. Evidently this portion of the Preserve has seen its fair share of monsoonal precipitation this summer.

Once across the mesa we found ourselves staring down a 25ft vertical cliff. It takes a few, but we eventually manage to find a safe passage down into the canyon. Oddly enough it was around this same time that we a could hear a burro honking in the distance, despite never seeing it. 

From the top of the mesa, looking north into Burro Canyon.

From the top of the mesa, looking north into Burro Canyon.

 

Finally, down in Burro Canyon. This is a wide portion of the canyon, it ends up narrowing significantly.

Finally, down in Burro Canyon. This is a wide portion of the canyon, it ends up narrowing significantly.

 

Petroglyphs in Burro Canyon.

Petroglyphs in Burro Canyon.

 

Petroglyphs in Burro Canyon.

Petroglyphs in Burro Canyon.

 

Petroglyphs in Burro Canyon.

Petroglyphs in Burro Canyon.

 

We dropped down into a wide section of the canyon, and began heading north. Several feet up canyon, there was a choke, and the canyon tightened. Here is also where we found several petroglyph panels along a south-facing wall of basalt. There was also a nice shaded area, which provided nicely for a short, but much-needed break from the midday sun.

Continuing on, the wash made for some difficult trekking. It was boulder jammed at all times, and I was beginning to feel it in the soles of my feet.  Basalt cliffs surrounded us however, and we came across several sporadic panels of nicely preserved petroglyphs. We continued north for a little over a mile from our entrance point before the “rock art” began to peter out.

We returned the way that we had come, but decided to skip climbing the mesa, and continue down to the mouth of the wash. It’s a good thing that we did, or we would have missed the bulk of the petroglyphs. Along a 400ft, southwestern facing cliff face (the same cliff that we had previously been walking above, while trying to get off of the top of the mesa), we encountered several large and very interesting panels.

Petroglyphs in Burro Canyon.

Petroglyphs in Burro Canyon.

 

Petroglyphs in Burro Canyon.

Petroglyphs in Burro Canyon.

 

Petroglyphs in Burro Canyon.

Petroglyphs in Burro Canyon.

 

With the feet aching, and the sun cooking our brains, we set off across the open desert; several times finding ourselves seeking refuge from the rays of the sun, under a yucca, or large creosote bush. Arriving back at our Jeep around 5pm, we speed off for Hole-in-the-Wall to enjoy a picnic, before returning to Joshua Tree that evening.

It was an enjoyable day, filled with exactly what I had wanted to see. I’m glad to have finally managed to make it out to Burro Canyon; and I’m even happier that my “hunch” was correct. I get the idea that the Woods Mountains are crawling with Native American history.

Petroglyphs in Burro Canyon.

Petroglyphs in Burro Canyon.

 

Petroglyphs in Burro Canyon. I find the anthropomorphic figure to be fascinating.

Petroglyphs in Burro Canyon. I find the anthropomorphic figure to be fascinating.

 

Petroglyphs in Burro Canyon. This "shield" like design, is badly faded from years of direct contact with the elements.

Petroglyphs in Burro Canyon. This “shield” like design, is badly faded from years of direct contact with the elements.

 

Petroglyphs in Burro Canyon. This scratching style of design, is believed to have been performed by woman, as opposed to men.

Petroglyphs in Burro Canyon. This scratching style of design, is believed to have been performed by women, as opposed to men.

 

Petroglyphs in Burro Canyon. This panel is at least 100 feet above the canyon floor.

Petroglyphs in Burro Canyon. This panel is at least 100 feet above the canyon floor.

 

Petroglyphs in Burro Canyon.

Petroglyphs in Burro Canyon.

 

Petroglyphs in Burro Canyon. This panel is by far my favorite panel in Burro Canyon. Notice that some of the elements have been "scratched" over top of.

Petroglyphs in Burro Canyon. This panel is by far my favorite panel in Burro Canyon. Notice that some of the elements have been “scratched” over top of.

 

Petroglyphs in Burro Canyon

Petroglyphs in Burro Canyon

 

Petroglyphs in Burro Canyon

Petroglyphs in Burro Canyon

 

Petroglyphs in Burro Canyon

Petroglyphs in Burro Canyon

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.

5 Comments

  • Very good pictures, Jim, and it makes me want to add this area to my list of adventures for the next trip to the Preserve.

  • What an adventure! Really enjoyed this virtual trip with you! Can I pick your brain Jim? I always want to know things…..like….Why are petroglyphs often “100 feet above” and halfway up walls??? Why not ground level? Also, in your travels in general you never mention encountering snakes, spiders, bats in caves etc etc…..is it because you don’t?? Or is it because you just don’t want to go there and concentrate on for instance in the Burro Canyon piece…..burro’s!!!
    I so “get into” your travels, I want to know stuff!! Thank you for all you do!!!

    • Petroglyphs are all over, there are plenty found at ground level. I rarely encounter snakes, maybe a couple over a year. This year has been more than usual with 5 or 6. Spiders, not so much…but on occasion, and bats are pretty common when I go in a mine. I don’t make mention of these things because none of them a big deal to me. I also don’t want to contribute to the myth that the desert is filled with snakes, scorpions, and deadly spiders at every turn, because it’s not, and sadly most people think that it is.

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