Munsen Canyon Palm Oases and Native American Camp (Joshua Tree National Park)

 

 

Joshua Tree National Park is home to several Native Palm Oases, they claim there to be five, which include Cottonwood Spring, Oasis of Mara, Victory Palms, Lost Palms, and 49 Palms. As usual we find the park service lying because they make no mention of Munsen Canyon, which holds several Palm Oases spread throughout the canyon. There are a few speculations as to why Munsen has been left of the list. Some believe that the canyon is far too dangerous of a hike for such a remote setting, while others have argued that the site has remained a secret because of its use by the bighorn sheep population.

I believe that the secrecy is a combination of the remote setting, and dangerous hike, combined with a hidden Native American element. The Eagle Mountains, where Munsen Canyon is located was highly used by the Cahuilla Indians, pre-white settlement. Evidence of this can be seen at Cary’s Castle, where pictographs adorn the ceiling of a cave later used by miners. Hundreds of petroglyphs adorn the rocks near Hayfield, on the southern border of the park. At “Rabbit Spring” on the north side of the range there is a village site that is still partially intact. In addition there is Petroglyph Tank, and Big Wash. All of these are within a very short distance, all in the Eagle Mountains.

Then there are also the countless woven baskets, clay pots and vessels that have been pulled out of caches among the boulders, many of which are documented in Daniel McCarthy’s (the park’s past archaeologist) photographic archive. I suspect that in the vicinity of Munsen Canyon there is something more that the NPS doesn’t want uncovered.

 

Cahuilla basket found in a cache in the Eagle Mountains.
Photo by: McCarthy, Daniel
Agua Caliente Cultural Museum Collection

 

Cahuilla pot found in a cache in the Eagle Mountains.
Photo by: McCarthy, Daniel
Agua Caliente Cultural Museum Collection

 

Whatever the case may be I can’t say for sure, but it is interesting to ponder.

On a warm October morning I decided that it was time to pay Munsen Canyon a visit. I drove down to Chiriaco Summit (the home of the General Patton Museum), and found a dirt road that should have led into the drainage of Lost Palms Canyon. I wasn’t far down this road before it came to an abrupt end with a gate in place courtesy of the National Park Service. Not a big deal really, I kind of suspected that the road wouldn’t get me far, but I was hoping for at least another mile in. I parked, put on my backpack, and started walking.

The old road cut through a large flat section of desert. Teddy-Bear Cholla is in abundance here, along with creosote, ocotillo, and the occasional palo verde tree. In the distance, the craggy hills and mountains that make up the Eagle Mountain Range.

 

Locked gate, the beginning of the hike.

Locked gate, the beginning of the hike.

 

Palo Verde tree in the wash.

Palo Verde tree in the wash.

 

After about an hour of walking in the wide open desert, I entered the Lost Palms Canyon drainage. The deeper that I penetrated the canyon, the taller the walls grew. There were now jumbo-sized boulders on all sides of me, perfect locations for the Cahuilla to seek  shelter as they traveled through the canyons in search of water and game. I took my time searching several of them, but each time came up empty-handed.

Another hour had passed when I reached the mouth of Munsen Canyon. So far the hike had been pretty uneventful with easy walking and no obstacles through a wide wash. That was about to end.

As I looked up Munsen Canyon it was everything that I had read about. As far as I could see there was a jumble of boulders ranging from the size of a small house to a vehicle. I dug in with the attitude that I eat boulders for breakfast.

 

Lower Lost Palms Canyon.

Lower Lost Palms Canyon.

 

The boulder field that is Munsen Canyon.

The boulder field that is Munsen Canyon.

 

It wasn’t long before the boulders began to eat me for breakfast as I attempted to shoot straight up the middle of the canyon. I caught eye of an old rusty pipe leading up canyon along the south side. I decide that my best bet may be to follow that pipe, because whatever poor sucker was given the job of laying it had likely found the easiest route.

My hunch paid off, and going the way of the pipe was much easier, yet still not in the least bit non-strenuous. Cat claw reared its ugly head regularly, several times digging into my skin, and tugging on my clothing.

That first quarter of a mile up Munsen really was a son of a bitch, ranking somewhere around a class four, and probably a hike that an inexperienced person should not do alone. It took probably a half an hour to go that distance.

I was relieved to find that the boulder hell at the mouth of the canyon was actually pretty short-lived, and soon the floor of the canyon began to clear. I thought that I had a long way to go before I’d reach the first palm oasis, so I was plenty surprised to see the first grove within minutes.

 

An early view of the first oases in Munsen Canyon.

An early view of the first oases in Munsen Canyon.

 

An oasis of Desert Palms.

An oasis of Desert Palms.

 

Close up of a fan palm leaf.

Close up of a fan palm leaf.

 

Desert fan palms can reach up to 75 feet high.

Desert fan palms can reach up to 75 feet high.

 

 

 

It was a beautiful sight to behold, roughly a dozen desert fan palms (Washingtonia filifera) towering high above the canyon floor. Their green palms a stark contrast from the brown and orange boulders surrounding them. As I walked closer another small grove, tucked into a short side canyon came into view. Soon the smell of a lush desert oasis filled my nose. This is a smell that I can’t quite explain, but it something like a mixture of damp soil, flowers, and lush-green vegetation (ok, so maybe I did explain it).

One would think that an oasis like this would have pools of water, but that isn’t always the case. Most of the native palm oases actually get their water from below ground, where an earthquake has lifted up impermeable rock, forcing water up.  The ground is often soft, and damp, but pooled water isn’t a guarantee. Such is the case here.

To the Cahuilla these oasis provided several things, water (if it wasn’t above ground, they didn’t have to dig far to get it), food (palm tree produce fruit that can be eaten), game (another food source, animals are drawn to oases for water.), and shelter (fronds from the palm trees were uses to build waterproof dwellings).

I suspect that the Cahuilla had utilized the oases that are in Munsen Canyon, yet I didn’t have any definitive evidence of that at this time, that would eventually come later in the day, so we’ll get to that later in the story.

I spent a little time cooling off and lounging in the shade under a palm tree before I set off further up Munsen Canyon in search of the next oases. As I was leaving a rotting bighorn sheep caught my attention in one of the groves. Definitely mount lion food, I thought.

 

Rotting bighorn sheep carcass.

Rotting bighorn sheep carcass.

 

Back to bouldering my way further up Munsen Canyon.

Back to bouldering my way further up Munsen Canyon.

 

It wasn’t long before the canyon was again an obstacle course of boulders, and sharp pointy bushes. I thought that I had already been through the worst of it, but apparently I was wrong as the boulders got bigger and the climbs got higher. Another thirty to forty-five minutes had passed when a few straggling palms, and two more oases came into sight. The setting here even more beautiful than the first, with towering puzzle like rock walls, and several granite boulders lying beneath the palms, offering up a pleasant place to stop and have lunch.

By this point I was hungry, tired, and every piece of clothing that I was wearing was soaked through. I fired up my pocket-rocket, boiling up some water for a Lasagna Mountain House. If you haven’t tried Mountain House you are severely missing out, their large selection of freeze-dried foods are all very good, and easy to make in the backcountry. After all, you aren’t going to find a restaurant out here, and these are the next best thing.

 

The next oasis comes into view.

The next oasis comes into view.

 

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I contemplated the idea of heading further up canyon, as I noticed on satellite images at least one additional oasis, but I decided against it. I was happy with my journey at this point, and I still had to exit the same way that I had come in.  I gathered my belongings, and headed back down Munsen Canyon.

Going out was much quicker than going in. As opposed to climbing down many of the boulders, I resorted to sliding and jumping. I’m lucky at this point that I have strong ankles and legs that allow me to do so. I know many folks that wouldn’t be able to withstand that kind of pressure on their joints. I can only hope that I won’t have those types of issues anytime in the near future.

I reached the first oases that I had come to in about twenty minutes. I took a quick rest under the canopy, when I noticed a cave that was hidden in the brush. The lazy part of me told me not to bother checking it out, but the lazy part lost. I whacked my way through the brush to find a shallow cave with nothing of interest inside. That probably wasn’t always the case. It was a perfect little place to stash pots, and baskets.

Needless to say, it looked as though my efforts to find any hints of the Cahuilla was not going so well. But that soon changed, I was on my out of the canyon, when just several hundred feet outside of the oases I noticed some pooled water (it had rained two-days prior) in what appeared to have been the beginnings of a mortar. I quickly dismissed it as natural until I noticed a few very faint petroglyphs carved under the overhang of a boulder. Part of me was even second guessing the petroglyphs until I looked around and found a handful of mortars ground into the surrounding rocks.

Sure enough I had found my evidence, and to think I had walked right by this on my way up the canyon.

The petroglyphs that are here are barely noticeable from years of weathering. A couple of them appear anthropomorphic, the others are just too far gone to be able to tell.  As far as I know this site is undocumented, at least in the public spectrum. Every person that hikes this canyon walks right past it, but it is so well hidden, yet in plain sight.

 

Cahuilla camp site in Munsen Canyon.

Cahuilla camp site in Munsen Canyon.

 

Very faint petroglyphs can be seen in the center, and to the right on the larger boulder.

Very faint petroglyphs can be seen in the center, and to the right on the larger boulder.

 

Close-up of petroglyphs. This image has been enhanced to bring on the designs a little better.

Close-up of petroglyphs. This image has been enhanced to bring on the designs a little better.

 

 

One of a handful of mortars around the rock shelter.

One of a handful of mortars around the rock shelter.

 

From here I was dreading the next stretch of boulder jumbles. I thought to myself, if the Cahuilla used this canyon they didn’t come and go straight up the boulder field. So I told myself to think like a Cahuilla, and I soon found myself walking along the top of the canyon wall along an old Indian trail. This trail bypassed all the gnarliness of what was below, and dropped me back in Lost Palms Canyon in a matter of minutes. Oh how I should have thought like a Cahuilla from the beginning.

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.