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.
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.
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.
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.
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.