Greenwater Canyon Pictographs (Death Valley National Park)

Bighorn sheep designs - notice their horns are facing forward.
The Funeral Mountains, the Panamint Range is visible in the distance.

The Funeral Mountains, the Panamint Range is visible in the distance.

 

It was a cold morning pulling out of Beatty, NV. So far my entire multi day trip had been plagued with chilly temperatures – it was only mid-October, I hadn’t expected fall to have fully set in yet – but it had. I don’t like the cold, but most consider this “desert camping season”, I prefer to think of it as hibernation season. I’m one of those weird ones, I like the heat of the summer; give me 110 degrees any day over the 50s and 60s.

On this day, I was joined by my desert rat pal, Desert Mike. We left Beatty with Greenwater Valley as our intended destination. From there, we would make our way down Greenwater Canyon in search of several panels of polychrome pictographs.

The drive from Beatty to Greenwater, had us second guessing our days plans. From the time that we reached Amargosa Valley, we watched a stationary torrential downpour happening over the Resting Spring Range. We kept a close eye on the storm, to ensure that it wasn’t heading in the direction of the Greenwater Range, the mountains range that we would be hiking in. Even once entering Greenwater Valley, and making the several mile drive to the entrance of Greenwater Canyon, we were unsure – so we sat and waited. It is important to note that hiking in canyons during storms can be very dangerous. A flash flood can come out of nowhere, taking you by surprise, and sweeping you away.

We waited nearly an hour before deciding that the coast was clear. We started our hike the difficult way. Instead of traveling down the wash and into the canyon, we climbed a nearby hill and walked the ridge line of the Greenwater Range. We soon reached a point that left us with no other option than to drop down into Greenwater Canyon.

Once in the canyon our view became obstructed by high basalt cliffs, and treacherous rocky canyon walls. Interesting enough, at one time you could drive this route, but no longer. The road was closed several years back by the National Park Service, and the canyon is now designated wilderness.

Greenwater Canyon

Greenwater Canyon

 

On a ridge we noticed several large, gnarly looking boulders. They reminded me of the deeply pitted volcanic boulders at the Counsel Rocks Archaeological site in the Mojave National Preserve. Our curiosity was peeked, causing us to inspect them up close. As we approached the boulders it became visible that they contained large hollow opening at their base, and stone circles had been placed around the openings. Their location being in such close proximity to a mining community that once had a population of over 2,000, we were skeptical. Closer examination revealed very rough, almost non visible petroglyphs carved into the pitted surface of the boulders. Bingo, we had found a habitation site.

 

Habitation site.

Habitation site.

 

If you look closely in the center of the picture, you can see a design pecked into the rocks crumbling surface.

If you look closely in the center of the picture, you can see a design pecked into the rocks crumbling surface.

 

This petroglyph stands out a little better.

This petroglyph stands out a little better.

 

One of about a dozen basalt boulders adorned with petroglyphs.

One of about a dozen basalt boulders adorned with petroglyphs.

 

Scouring the area we found several smaller basalt boulders adorned with ancient symbols (petroglyphs), as well a couple of metates. The presence of the metates provided additional proof that this was indeed a habitation or village site. A metate is a grounded flat stone surface, that was used to grind plants, nuts, and sometimes small animals – essentially a primitive kitchen.

After documenting our finds, we continued further down the canyon. We knew we were close to the pictographs, but were unsure of which side canyon we would find them in.  The first canyon that we attempted proved to be incorrect, but a good workout – consisting of an assortment dry falls and large boulder scrambles.

We back tracked to a canyon that we had previously passed, if we had only inspected it better before passing it by, we would have found a faint trail leading up the side of the canyon. The trail was long and windy, so long that I began to think that we had been bamboozled, but we were now fully dedicated to the trail. Several twists and turns later we found ourselves overlooking Greenwater Canyon, along with a stunning view of Amargosa Valley, Death Valley Junction, and Eagle Mountain.

An amazing view of the Amargosa Valley, and Eagle Mountain.

An amazing view of the Amargosa Valley, and Eagle Mountain.

 

Sherds of flint-knapped stone, the ground is covered in thousands of pieces.

Sherds of flint-knapped stone, the ground is covered in thousands of pieces.

 

Looking to the ground revealed thousands of stone flakes from flint knapping, the ancient craft of creating dart points, and blades. We soon came upon two large rock shelter, adorned with the polychrome pictographs that we had set out to find. Images in white, red, black, and even yellow – anthropomorphic (images depicting humans), and zoomorphic (images depicting animals) depictions.

Like the pictographs that are located at several other sites in the Death Valley vicinity, the Greenwater site is considered to be of the Coso painted style. These designs are not as ancient as a lot of other pictographs, or even petroglyphs. This conclusion has been made due to the depictions in the designs.  Several of the depictions are of men on horseback, and longhorn cattle. This subject matter wouldn’t have been introduced to the Native people until white men entered this region, in which the earliest would have been 1849.

The "Greenwater Pictograph Shelters"

The “Greenwater Pictograph Shelters”

 

Bighorn sheep designs - notice their horns are facing forward.

Bighorn sheep designs – notice their horns are facing forward.

 

Very faded elements - here you can see a variety of the colors used.

Very faded elements – here you can see a variety of the colors used.

 

More very faded designs. There is a black anthropomorphic figure present. Also some of the pictographs have petroglyphs on top of them.

More very faded designs. There is a black anthropomorphic figure present. Also some of the pictographs have petroglyphs on top of them.

 

As for the Greenwater Canyon pictographs, we sadly missed the “main panel” that depicts several long horn cattle. While a specific date period is unknown, it is possible that the Native people inhabited this site during, or just before the Greenwater mining boom. It is also quiet possible, like that of the Panamint City Pictograph Shelter, the designs had been made after the desertion of the mining communities. The tribal people who were probably associated with this site, were the Panamint Shoshone, now known as the Timbisha Shoshone – they still call Death Valley their home today.

While these sites remain shrouded in mystery, they are a fascinating look at early life in a harsh climate.

We spent an hour or so with the spirits, before trudging our way back up Greenwater Canyon, arriving back at the Jeep just as the sun disappeared from the sky.

Based on the amount of "red" that can been seen adorning the walls, I assume that at one time the entire shelter was painted. Not visible in the photo, but on the ground in front of the shelter, there are a dozen or more cupules.

Based on the amount of “red” that can been seen adorning the walls, I assume that at one time the entire shelter was painted. Not visible in the photo, but on the ground in front of the shelter, there are a dozen or more cupules.

 

Pictographs o'plenty

Pictographs o’plenty

 

Cupules, and a large mortar. My lens cap is provided to show scale.

Cupules, and a large mortar. My lens cap is provided to show scale.

 

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.

2 Comments

  • It looks like you two had a great day. Pretty remote, a nice hike, and a great payoff at the end. Nice photos also. I don’t recall ever seeing both horns forward in any pictographs or petroglyphs before. Have you?

Leave a Comment