Finding rock art in Death Valley National Park is like finding a needle in a haystack, it’s not that there isn’t plenty of it to find. But with 5,219 square miles of wilderness, it is sometimes a daunting task to figure out where to begin.
In the case of this particular site, I had come across photographs of the pictographs and the surrounding mountains. With a few additional hints I was able to place the valley. Google Earth was further able to assist me, when I was able to line up photographs with satellite imagery, which I had believed put me within 500 feet of the painted rock shelter. There was only one way to find out, and that was to place boots on the ground in this very isolated and remote valley, in Death Valley National Park.
On the second day of this multi-day Death Valley exploration trip I awoke from my slumber at first light, after a 30-something degree night on the ground at the Ubehebe Talc Mine. I’m not a tent camper, I prefer the views of the star dusted sky. In this remote of an area, you can see the night sky like nowhere else in the world. Bundled up in two sleeping bags, I had a hard time parting with the warmth, but I had a full day planned with the much-anticipated Hidden Valley Pictograph Shelter as my first stop of the day.
My partner in grime on this trip, was even slower going than I, having created a sort of “bum-camp,” scattering clothing and gear all over the camp. Dude had screwed up his heel the day prior, his boots had torn the skin off, leaving a bloody little mess behind.
After cleaning up the camp, we moved out. It was only a twenty-minute ride to where we would start our hike into the most isolated portion of Hidden Valley, the sand flat.
The landscape is mostly flat, void of everything other than sagebrush and an occasional Joshua Tree. The Cottonwood Mountains provided a stunning backdrop of colors and formations. At one time this portion of the valley would have held a sizable lake, but it has long dried up, now probably only filling in portions after extensive rainfall.
Boots on the ground, we had our target in sight. If my calculations were correct, we had only a short one and a quarter of a mile hike in front of us. In the flats we soon encountered an extensive number of game trails, we followed the ones heading toward the saddle that we had to pass through. Eventually we dropped down into a wash, it appeared to have in recent times been battered extensively by flash flood waters.
Rounding the bend of the saddle, we turned slightly north, making our way along the bank of the basin. In less than a quarter of a mile, we found a handful of petroglyphs adorning an outcropping of boulders. The petroglyph designs, very simplistic, mostly consisting of squiggles, star bursts, and circular designs.
At this point, I knew that my calculations and investigative work had been correct. Watching the ground carefully, my partner and I soon began finding pieces of broken pottery, and thousands of pieces of knapped stone flakes in a rainbow of colors.
Rounding the corner of one of the before mentioned boulder outcroppings, I could see a shelter toward the rear. I walked back to get a look inside, and there it was, the site that I had set out to see with my own eyes, and experience first hand.
Vibrant red and orange designs, adorned the hollow space. Like the petroglyphs, the designs are simplistic, consisting mostly of lines and circular designs. What they are saying is unbeknownst to me, I don’t even try to read the ancient writing, I purely enjoy the spiritual experience of being within the presence of something that had such meaning to someone hundreds if not thousands of years ago, that they had to document it.
While enjoying the site, I notice a bundle of partially burnt sage stashed in a crevice. It wasn’t old, the red rope that tied the bundle, gave that away. I re-lit the bundle, and sat it back where I had found it, the smell of burning sage filled the air. A series of odd sounds came from deep within the shelter, I asked my partner if he had heard them, at first he replied no, but upon bringing it to his attention, he soon heard it also. Had I awoken a spirit, or had the smoke from the sage pissed off an animal that was denning in the cracks of the shelter?
The bundle of sage suggests that the site may still be in use by the locale Timbisha Shoshone Tribe, whose ancestors are the likely creator of this impressive site, and who had once lived in this very remote section of Death Valley National Park.
An hour had passed, before we left the site. Making our way back out to the Jeep we marched in silence, with the thoughts of the site that we had just visited, heavily on our minds.