The petroglyphs in Greenwater Canyon is one of the more well-known “rock art” sites in Death Valley National Park. Despite that, they remain seldom visited due to their somewhat isolated location. This wasn’t always the case, up until the California Desert Protection Act of 1994, a road once wound its way through Greenwater Canyon. The road was called “Petro Road”, named after the petroglyphs that adorn the basalt walls in the canyon.
The Petro Road closure has been considered controversial. The road had been maintained by Inyo County as a “highway” up until its closure by the National Park Service. Inyo County sued the National Park Service, and the Department of the Interior for restricting access, and made plans to build a two-lane paved highway through the canyon. In June of 2007, a federal court upheld the closure, and the road remains closed to this day.
The road closure does not restrict hiking in to view the petroglyphs, with their location being a mere one mile from Furnace Creek Wash Road, it isn’t a difficult task. From the barricades which close Petro Road, follow the sandy wash along the basalt rock hillside. The first petroglyphs begin to appear after about a half mile, with the highest concentration being near the one mile point.
There are roughly a couple of hundred designs pecked into the black basalt. A common theme among the panels is the atlatl, or rather a throwing stick. It is a piece of hunting weaponry, which predates the bow and arrow. The atlatl was known to have been replaced by the bow and arrow in this region between 200 BC and AD 500. This dates the petroglyphs to a period between then, or earlier.
The petroglyph designs are not limited to the atlatl, but also include a significant number of abstract designs in the form of circles, squiggles, lines, and interesting shapes. What the site lacks are anthropomorphic figures, and contains only a handful of zoomorphic figures.
It can be assumed that the Shoshone people, who have inhabited the region for thousands of years, once used Greenwater Canyon as connection between Death Valley, or “Tupippuh Nummu” (Shoshone for “Our Homeland”), and points further to the east. Likely routes through petroglyph lined canyons in the Funeral Mountain, crossed Greenwater Valley, and connected to Greenwater Canyon.
If one continues down Greenwater Canyon, toward Death Valley Junction, there are additional petroglyph sites, and a significant pictograph site.