Pioneertown Mountain Preserve – Murder in Pipes Canyon


The Pioneertown Mountain Preserve is located near the community of Pioneertown, north-west of Yucca Valley. It is operated by The Wildland Conservancy, which also operate a dozen additional private preserves. The Pioneertown Mountain Preserve consists of 25,500 acres of desert lands, which include the nearby volcanic mesas, desert scrub lands, and the riparian filled Pipes Canyon.

A large portion of the Preserve burned in 2006, leaving a very barren landscape. A large portion of the area is closed off to hiking, to allow the vegetation to return, and the land to heal.

Having known about the Preserve for sometime, it was time to pay them a visit. My wife; Meg, Desert Mike (, and myself ventured out there to spend a Saturday hiking Pipes Canyon. We arrived around 10am, and were greeted by a friendly Ranger, who also lives on-site. He spent a few minutes answering questions, and was very forthcoming about the few cultural sites in Pipe Canyon (a stark contrast from visiting National Park lands).

I noticed a few mortar stones, and grinding slicks situated beside a man-made pond at the visitors center. I asked about them, and where they had come from in the Preserve. The Ranger replied that they had been discovered while putting in the visitors parking area. I was surprised to learn that they had moved them from their original location, but I guess it is better to move them than to have them run over.


Pioneertown Mountain Preserve - Mortar stone at the visitors center

Pioneertown Mountain Preserve – Mortar stone at the visitors center


Pioneertown Mountain Preserve - Another Mortar stone at the visitors center

Pioneertown Mountain Preserve – Another Mortar stone at the visitors center


After signing in, we headed toward Pipe’s Canyon. Like much of the Preserve, Pipe’s Canyon was also affected by the 2006 fire. The opening of the canyon looked desolate, and a walkway style hiking trail has been built through the canyon. As a well versed wilderness hiker, I can’t say that I was thrilled to be confined to a trail, but so be it, the trail it is. Winding down the trail of what felt like nothingness, we approached a panel of petroglyphs directly along the trail.

We stopped and studied the designs, they resembled much of what we’ve seen in other nearby canyons.  Likely placed here by the Chemehuevi Indians, a local tribe that once inhabited a large portion of the lower and eastern Mojave Desert.  I’d like to take the opportunity to expand here, and say that there was NO evidence of vandalism to the petroglyphs, or the other nearby boulders. This is further evidence that when you educate people (as the Ranger did before allowing us to take off on our hike), they are less likely to cause harm and vandalize culturally significant sites.


Pioneertown Mountain Preserve - Chemehuevi petroglyphs in Pipes Canyon

Pioneertown Mountain Preserve – Chemehuevi petroglyphs in Pipes Canyon


Pioneertown Mountain Preserve - Riparian area of Pipes Canyon.

Pioneertown Mountain Preserve – Riparian area of Pipes Canyon.


Further down the trail, we soon approached a lush riparian area, the canyon sprang to life. Vibrant green grasses, cottonwood tree, cat-tails, and other vegetation was abound.  The canyon floor became a marsh of mud, and water. The trail winds back and forth across the small spring.  Bees and birds fill the air with song and buzzing; the flying critters didn’t bother stopping to pay attention to the fact that we had invaded their personal territory.

Situated roughly two miles into Pipes Canyon, the ruins of a stone cabin is found. The cabin, was once the home of pioneering onyx miner, John Olson.  Olson and his partners began mining onyx in Pipes Canyon in the 1920’s.  Olson has been credited as being one of the first white settlers in the area.

In 1945, Olson opened up his home to Edward E. Emmery, an army deserter. After only a few days of staying with Olson, twenty-year old Emmery would shoot Olson, and flee the scene. A few days later, Olson’s body was discovered by his friends that lived nearby. Emmery would be caught a short time later, a few miles up a nearby canyon. Emmery claimed the shooting was an accident, but the evidence was clearly against him as he didn’t attempt to help old Olson, he also had in his possession a number of Olson’s belongings. Emmery was charged with murder.

Little of Olson’s cabin remains today, a few walls still stand, barely; and one single room remains, ceiling and all. Interesting enough the owners of the land previous to the Conservancy, would hold dinner parties among the ruins of the cabin.

Overall, we had a pleasant day of hiking. Is it likely that we’ll be returning to the Preserve anytime in the near future? Probably not.  It isn’t that the Preserve isn’t a wonderful place for hiking, and sight-seeing; because it is.  It just isn’t my personal cup of coffee. I do highly recommend a visit to families with children, and people who enjoy a desert hike, without the dangers of potentially getting lost.


For more information on the Pioneertown Mountain Preserve visit their website.

They are open daily from dawn to dusk.  Their phone number is: 760-369-7105


Pioneertown Mountain Preserve - The Olson cabin ruins.

Pioneertown Mountain Preserve – The Olson cabin ruins.


Pioneertown Mountain Preserve - John Olson's name carves in a boulder near his cabin.

Pioneertown Mountain Preserve – John Olson’s name carves in a boulder near his cabin.


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.


  • It would be even better if you didn’t publicize the locations of petroglyphs in the first place as I understand you have been doing all over the Southwest.

    • There is something to be said both for and against holding back the locations of sensitive sites. However, for the most part publicizing sites prevents vandalism and promotes greater awareness of our resources. In fact, some of the most heavily vandalized sites I have come across were sites which were held as closely guarded secrets. I have seen no vandalism at the easily accessible and publicized petroglyphs at Hole In The Wall in the Mojave Preserve, however, about 40 miles away there is rampant vandalism around a site which I have never seen published or publicized anywhere. These places are not just for people who have good connections with the BLM or NPS, they are for anyone who wants to respectfully visit and learn about our past. I say this as a Native American who belongs to a tribe who inhabited portions of the Mojave. Get off your high horse!

      • Anthony – Thank you so much for your input. It is nice to receive some feedback from a Tribal member. I’ve heard similar thoughts from members of other tribes as well. I have family members that are members of the Lone Pine Shoshone, and they (my family members) see what I’m doing in a positive light. Preservation by education, this is the only way to keep these sites intact for future generations.

        I find it interesting that the only people that continue to have a problem with what I’m doing is white people, and government employees.

        Again, thank you Anthony…may our trails cross one day.

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