Emigrant Canyon Petroglyphs (Death Valley National Park)

Cliffs along the side of Emigrant Canyon.

Cliffs along the side of Emigrant Canyon.

 

Emigrant Canyon is one of those canyons that has many landscape, historic, and prehistoric features.  The road leading through the canyon, which also bares its name, begins in Death Valley, off of Highway 190, near Emigrant Campground and the abandoned Emigrant Ranger Station. The road travels from desolate desert, through rocky canyon, to rolling hills, and eventually a forest of pinyon pine – once the road becomes Charcoal Kiln Road. The temperature from point A to point B can vary 20-30 degrees, depending on the season.

Emigrant Canyon received its name, because it was believed that members of the pioneering 49er party had used this canyon as an escape route from Death Valley. While it is possible, it is now more widely speculated that they had utilized canyons or passes further to the west, including the neighboring Jayhawker Canyon. In the late 1800s the canyon was used as a wagon wheel route, connecting the various mining camps and communities along its way.

Today a shadow of many of these camps and communities exist, whether it be Skidoo, Harrisburg, Wildrose, or any of the other small camps in the region. In the 1970s, the National Park Service in Death Valley, had hired a superintendent that was hell bent on the removal of historic structures. That is why there is little remaining of these places today.

Emigrant Canyon - Petroglyphs carved into the limestone walls.

Emigrant Canyon – Petroglyphs carved into the limestone walls.

 

Emigrant Canyon - A close up off one of the panels. This particular panel includes several chains, squiggles, and meandering lines.

Emigrant Canyon – A close up off one of the panels. This particular panel includes several chains, squiggles, and meandering lines.

 

Emigrant Canyon - More meandering lines, as well as an assortment of other designs. In the upper left, and lower right, there appears to be the depiction of bighorn sheep.

Emigrant Canyon – More meandering lines, as well as an assortment of other designs. In the upper left, and lower right, there appears to be the depiction of bighorn sheep.

 

Before the “whites” came to the region, Emigrant Canyon provided one of several routes from the valley floor to the high reaches of the Panamint Mountains for the Timbisha Shoshone. The Timbisha Shoshone resided in the Death Valley area for possibly thousands of years, and they continue to do so today. These Native peoples resided in both the mountain ranges, and stark valleys below, varying based on the time of the year.

The petroglyphs that have been carved into the limestone cliff face,  are not far from the site of Emigrant Springs – likely the reason for their creation at this location. For those unaware, petroglyphs are often found near the source of springs, or places that water was known to collect.  This could be for a number of reasons, but most speculate that it had to do with the abundant amount of wildlife that would frequent these location. In reality we don’t really know why, and most speculation is just educated guesses.

The Emigrant Canyon petroglyphs consist of images that are similar to others in the region. A number of zoomorphic images, depicting bighorn sheep; along with anthropomorphic, or human looking designs. There are also a significant amount of abstract designs, in the form of chains, squiggles, circles, and meandering lines.

Emigrant Canyon - Upper panel contains three bighorn sheep, note that their stylization is each a bit different. Lower panels depict an anthropomorphic figure, and a possible atlatl (a prehistoric hunting mechanism).

Emigrant Canyon – Upper panel contains three bighorn sheep, note that their stylization is each a bit different. Lower panels depict an anthropomorphic figure, and a possible atlatl (a prehistoric hunting mechanism).

 

Emigrant Canyon - Tick marks, a possible counting mechanism?

Emigrant Canyon – Tick marks, a possible counting mechanism?

 

One particular anthropomorphic design caught my attention, it is located high on a shelf, above the main  panel. The petroglyph depicts five-human figures with their hands in the air, and their legs in a wide stance.  The figures are no larger than two inches.  This may very well depict a ritual, or a dance – but again, this is speculation.

As well as the dozens of petroglyphs, there is a singular pictograph design, consisting of four orange lines. It is likely that at one time there were others, but years of exposure to the elements may have completely erased them.

Overall this is a very enjoyable site, it is easy to access, and just a couple of hundred feet from the roadway. Next time you drive through Emigrant Canyon, slow down and you may just find yourself a treat.

Emigrant Canyon - This panel of five-human figures is most intriguing.

Emigrant Canyon – This panel of five-human figures is most intriguing.

 

Emigrant Canyon - A slot in the canyon wall, high above the ground below.

Emigrant Canyon – A slot in the canyon wall, high above the ground below.

 

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.

  • Anthony

    I always saw photos of these listed as being in Emigrant Canyon. For years I would stop and look everywhere.

    Last March I finally found them I felt unbelievably stupid, having been through that area on every trip since 2006.

  • pat

    It looks like a great place. It’s hard to imagine that they were actually tearing down historical structures.