“Cottonwood Shaman Cave” and “Prismatic Canyon” (Death Valley National Park)

The "Cottonwood Shaman Cave" and the valley below.

On a recent trip to Death Valley National Park, I was traveling along Racetrack Valley Road – from Teakettle Junction toward the Ubehebe Crater, on my way to Beatty, NV. It had been a long day of exploring in the vicinity of Hunter Mountain, and Hidden Valley, and I was thinking that it was about time to bed down for the evening at the Stagecoach Hotel & Casino. It had been a few days since my body had touched anything resembling a shower or soft mattress with sheets, and a blanket. While I highly enjoy roughing it in the outdoors, I do enjoy treating myself to a room every few days on these longer excursions.

Just before I reached the volcanic lava field of the Ubehebe volcanic field, the colorful hills between there, and Tin Mountain, caught my eye. I pulled off to the side of the road, and hopped out of my Jeep with camera bag in hand. I’ve become a real sucker for photographing colorful and rocky mountains – trying to capture as much of the beauty and detail as my telephoto lens will allow.

The colorful hills in the Cottonwood Mountains, which initially caught my attention.

The colorful hills in the Cottonwood Mountains, which initially caught my attention.

 

The colorful hills in the Cottonwood Mountains, which initially caught my attention.

The colorful hills in the Cottonwood Mountains, which initially caught my attention.

 

Then I noticed this...

Then I noticed this…

 

As I shot the mountains and hills, I noticed a square looking cave at the base of one of the hills.  I was intrigued Рwas it a natural cave, did it have rock art in it, or was it a mine? All of these questions and others passed through my head.

There was only one way to find out, so I grabbed a bottle of water – wrangled my exploration partner (it didn’t really take any convincing), and we hiked the short quarter of a mile across the colorful desert pavement.

It wasn’t but ten minutes before we stood about fifty-feet below the cave; it didn’t appear so high up from the road – we climbed up the steep embankment to the cave entrance. An assortment of various sized volcanic rocks sat outside of the cave – one of which contained evidence that it had been used at one time as a grinding slick. Entering the cave, I now had high hopes that there would be pictographs inside, but instead I was greeted by walls of thick bat shit, it had dripped over all sides of the cave. If there had been pictographs here, they have long been erased by years of bat excrement.

The "Cottonwood Shaman Cave" and the valley below.

The “Cottonwood Shaman Cave” and the valley below.

 

The walls of the cave are covered with a dripping mess of bat excrement.

The walls of the cave are covered with a dripping mess of bat excrement.

 

The view of the valley from inside the cave.

The view of the valley from inside the cave.

 

A grinding slick, just a few feet from the cave entrance.

A grinding slick, just a few feet from the cave entrance.

 

I walked out of the cave, feeling a bit dirtier than I had before. I noticed that the canyon coming out of Cottonwood Mountains was lined with colorful stone walls. I suggested to my partner that we check it out.

The wash in the canyon, passed right by the cave – one only knows what we’d find, it isn’t as if this was a highly traversed area of the park.

The bright yellow, red and purple walls of “Prismatic Canyon” quickly closed in – becoming almost slot canyon like in portions. The colors and rugged nature of the rock reminded me immediately of Kaleidoscope Canyon; in the more southern portion of Death Valley. The wash leading through the canyon, was jammed with an assortment of boulders – including a number of which were basalt. The basalt didn’t belong in this lower section of the canyon, but rather traveled here from further up, or from above the canyon walls.

"Prismatic Canyon" from the cave perch.

“Prismatic Canyon” from the cave perch.

 

The widest section of the canyon - notice the bright colors on the canyon walls.

The widest section of the canyon – notice the bright colors on the canyon walls.

 

The canyon narrows, and the colors become even more vivid.

The canyon narrows, and the colors become even more vivid.

 

...and they become even narrower.

…and they become even narrower.

 

Then an obstacle that we wouldn't be making it around today.

Then an obstacle that we wouldn’t be making it around today.

 

The one lone petroglyph boulder, that was found misplaced in the wash.

The one lone petroglyph boulder, that was found misplaced in the wash.

 

I noticed that one of these stray basalt boulders contained a few, very worn petroglyphs. This would be the only petroglyphs that we would find in the canyon, but there is a possibility that there may be something additional further up. We soon ran into a dry-fall, which would end our progress for the day – due to an injury my partner had sustained a couple of days prior.

Based on our findings – I am positive that the cave was used by Native peoples to the area, the grinding slick, located just a few foot steps from the cave are enough to confirm this. The petroglyph boulder in “Prismatic Canyon,” provides additional evidence of localized land usage – along with known activity just a few miles away at the Ubehebe Crater – which was named by the Timbisha tribe, and translates to “big basket in the rock.”

*NOTE* – “Cottonwood Shaman Cave” and “Prismatic Canyon” are names that I have given to these locations – they are by no means official names, I have used them because I do not know of any given names to these locations.

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.

8 Comments

  • I was just in Beatty – Oct. 15 with my road buddy. We stayed at the other motel across the parking lot and ate in Denny’s. Love the Denny’s – hasn’t change in decades. When were you there? ms

  • Our paths will cross soon – I’ll get those books to you and we can think about a radio spot. I also want to set up a benefit for the Mojave Desert Land Trust. m

  • In the ’70’s George Koenig who was considered an expert on Death Valley history told me many incredible Death Valley stories over business lunches etc. Finally I went to my first DV 49er Encampment. I was totally hooked! What a beautiful wondrous place Death Valley is. I have been back many times since, backpacking, camping, and simply just enjoying the beautiful area often staying at a lodge at Furnace Creek. George has since passed away, however, DV was one of the many wonderful gifts he has given me so many years ago. He also at one time owned the original Death Valley Journal written by the original DV 49er’s in 1849 written
    in the old German language. He translated it into English, published it, then donated the ordinal to the Bancroft Library as I recall. What a brutal adventure they had! Thank you DV Jim, your info/articles are fabulous!!!

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