The Legend of Butchers Cave (Joshua Tree National Park)

 

The desert is full of mystery, myth, legend, and secrets. I focus a majority of my time on factual based locations, however a good legend never hurt anyone. Butchers Cave is everything that legends are made of.

The Butchers Cave story is as follows, in the 1920s the cave was discovered with fifty bighorn sheep skulls stacked inside. An anthropologist studied the cave and its contents, concluding that the cave was used by a local Native American tribe for butchering bighorn sheep. It is unknown when the anthropologist performed the study, and there are no public documents supporting it. This short yet intriguing legend goes on to state that once the land became part of Joshua Tree National Monument in 1936, the skulls were removed by the Park Service, with the exception of one badly eroded horn.

Butchers Cave is located on the secluded, and stunningly beautiful, Queen Mountain. A short hike up the mountain’s saddle from the parking area at the end of O’Dell Road, then meandering a series of washes, a maze of sand and boulders. This is far from the beaten path of the standard tourist thoroughfare.

 

The hike to Butchers Cave is scenic with many rock formations, cacti, and vegetation.

The hike to Butchers Cave is scenic with many rock formations, cacti, and vegetation.

 

The maze of washes on Queen Mountain can make the Butchers Cave difficult to find, maybe a myth in and of itself. But it does exist, and it is grand. The cave is located in a recession above a wash, guarded by several large boulders, a variety of cactus, and jagged yucca.

When I visited, I found the single remaining eroded sheep horn, it looked like old rotten wood. Along with it, a pile of small animal bones and pottery sherds. I scoured the cave for additional clues, coming up with nothing else of interest. I doubt the pile of bones and pottery sherds had been there for long, leading me to believe that the cave had been “salted,” more than likely not intentionally, but rather by someone who found them nearby, and decided to place them here for safekeeping.

 

The eroded bighorn sheep horn.

The eroded bighorn sheep horn.

 

The small pile of bones and pottery sherds.

The small pile of bones and pottery sherds.

 

Deeper inside Butchers Cave

Deeper inside Butchers Cave

 

There have been other accounts of the cave, making it into a horror story, a place devoid of life. Filled with an evil presence. Tales of dreadfully eerie unsettling silence. Accusations of sacrifices, and other evil deeds performed by the Native American population that once called the area home. I would have hoped that we’ve learned at this point that Native Americans were not the savage beasts that many of our ancestors made them out to be. If anything, they were the exact opposite, having more respect for the land, plants, and animals than most people today.

The underlying and unanswered question is why is there no scientific documentation of Butchers Cave? Surely if an anthropologist had actually studied the cave there would be an archaeological record. If the National Park did indeed remove the skulls, what was the purpose, what did they do with them. Why didn’t they keep records of these events?

I do believe that the Butchers Cave was once used by the Native people, there is evidence of their presence at several locations on Queen Mountain in the form of pictographs, and campsites. But was there ever fifty bighorn sheep skulls stacked inside? Was it a sacrificial site, or the “cave of the butcher”? I doubt it.

 

From the inside looking out

From the inside looking out

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.