Rainbow Canyon Petroglyphs (Death Valley National Park)

 

If you’ve spent any time in the Death Valley region it is likely that you have looked out over Rainbow Canyon, and didn’t even know it. Father Crowley Point, a popular overlook of Panamint Valley, off of Highway 190 provides stunning views of both the valley, and the basalt cliffs of Rainbow Canyon. It is without a doubt a superb view, and without question one of my favorites.

The handful of times in which I’ve stopped to admire the sweeping views, I’ve often wondered about this beautiful, deep basalt canyon, which empties into the valley below. How to and where to access it, and of course – is there any possibility of their being petroglyphs?

If you are an avid reader of my website, it is probably apparent to you that I am a bit obsessed with “rock art”.  I’ve been known to hike 20-miles just to have the opportunity to experience a panel first-hand, photograph it, and share it with you.  Much like getting your first tattoo, then wanting more and more – “rock art” has become an addiction. But at least it has its health benefits, constantly keeping me on my feet, hiking to some lonely location in God’s country.

Around a year ago some information fell into my hands that indeed indicated that there was a petroglyph site in the vicinity of Rainbow Canyon, but the little information that I received, led me to believe that the site was relatively small. A short time later the coordinates of the site fell into my lap, but I continued to sit on the site, not ranking it as a priority. Around mid-December of 2014, I received an email from a fellow enthusiast recommending that I pay a visit to the canyon at my earliest convenience.  The following week, I had already planned to be in Death Valley for several days, so I finally escalated Rainbow Canyon to a priority.

 

The cook-stove at the Highway 190 Camp.

The cook-stove at the Highway 190 Camp.

 

It was the second day of my trip, and I rolled my ass out of bed at 5:30am. In lieu of camping, due to the cold temperatures, I opted for a warm bed at The Stagecoach Hotel in Beatty, NV. While I prefer camping in the summer months, winter tends to send me straight for the indoors as soon as darkness sets in. Despite having lived in Central Pennsylvania for several years, I don’t handle the cold well. By 5:45am, I was out the hotel door with a thermos full of coffee from Denny’s, and bound for Rainbow Canyon.

Just as the sun began to poke up from behind the Panamint Mountains, I arrived at the spot where I would have to hike into Rainbow Canyon. I could see in the distance several people parked, and enjoying the sunrise from Father Crowley Point.  According to my calculations the hike was less than a mile, and it was possible to follow an old dirt road (closed to vehicles) for the duration.

Bundled up for below freezing temperatures, I hopped out of “White Lightening” (my Jeep), strapped on my pack, and began walking. There was a good amount of clouds in the sky, blocking the heat of the sun; so I decided to don my ski mask and gloves – finally I was toasty.

Just a short distance from my parking spot, I came across an old rusty cook-stove, a can dump, and several stone outlines of tent buildings. At the time I wasn’t sure what I had stumbled on, but later research indicated that this was an old Highway Construction Camp, from when Highway 190 was being built. You can read more about the Highway Construction Camp here.

When I neared the wash that dumps into Rainbow Canyon, I abandoned the road, and made a beeline for the basalt outcroppings.  I spotted a petroglyph boulder just moments later, along a small stand-alone outcropping. The designs consisted of a handful of bighorn sheep, and several other indiscernible designs.  Being the only petroglyphs on the small outcropping, I was slightly disappointed. I hoped that wasn’t all that there was to this site.

 

The first petroglyph boulder that I encountered.

The first petroglyph boulder that I encountered.

 

A mortar near the site of the first petroglyph boulder.

A mortar near the site of the first petroglyph boulder.

 

Crossing the wash to the large outcropping, three burros in the distance made their presence known by honking at me. I stopped and watched them for a moment, as they did me. Silly burros, they always look so stupid, but again, they probably think the same of us. Losing the staring contest, I moved along.

Drawing nearer, I could begin to make out pecking in the basalt rock – but from a distance it still didn’t look like much.  Once fully immersed in the site, I found that I was quite mistaken.

Hundreds of petroglyphs adorned the large outcropping, along with a significantly large number of grinding slicks. The subject of the petroglyphs contain both anthropomorphic and zoomorphic elements, as well as plants, atlatls, and what is often considered abstract designs.

 

The "Prized panel" - a "boat style" big horn sheep design. Other elements may include a snake, and a rabbit.

The “Prized panel” – a “boat style” big horn sheep design. Other elements may include a snake, and a rabbit.

 

Several bighorn sheep in this panel, along with what may be a shaman self-portrait, a "shirt like" design, a hand, as well other elements.

Several bighorn sheep in this panel, along with what may be a shaman self-portrait, a “shirt like” design, a hand, as well other elements.

 

Grinding slicks, and petroglyphs.

Grinding slicks, and petroglyphs.

 

Yet another Bighorn Sheep design.

Yet another Bighorn Sheep design.

 

Male anthropomorphic design, possibly dancing.

Male anthropomorphic design, possibly dancing.

 

The real kicker for me, was the “Coso style” of the design elements. There are few places that people can enjoy the “Coso style” without visiting the highly trafficked “Little Petroglyph Canyon” on China Lake. Granted, there are far fewer designs, as well the designs aren’t quite as adorned as those on China Lake – but what you have here is a private show, and experience.

The “Coso People” lived in this region between 1,000 B.C. to 1,000 A.D., with the Panamint Shoshone being a direct descendent. The Panamint Shoshone are now known as the Timbisha Shoshone, and they continue to live in the Death Valley region.

After enjoying the petroglyphs, I continued down the wash to where it dumps 95-feet into Rainbow Canyon. It is here that you can see how the canyon received its name, the stripes of vibrant color in the canyon walls scream out at you for attention. I relaxed for a bit below the first dry fall, looking out over the vast canyon, and just soaked it all in.

 

Bands of color in Rainbow Canyon.

Bands of color in Rainbow Canyon.

 

Looking down Rainbow Canyon.

Looking down Rainbow Canyon.

 

A 95 foot drop from the top of the dry-fall.

A 95 foot drop from the top of the dry-fall.

 

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.

  • Anthony

    I have pondered the idea that this was a stop-over camp for them between Saline and the Cosos. The only other item I have found in about 20 miles of hiking that area is an old trail that takes you to the base fence (and looks as if it heads right towards the petroglyph canyons).

    • Have you been up Centennial Canyon?

      • Anthony

        I have. I had a crappy rental car so I walked from 190, round trip was about 16 miles and took from 7 that morning until 6 that evening..

        • Outch! That is a brutal hike, even from the Astro Artz Cabin.

          • Anthony

            It was rough but the approach to Astro, and heading back to 190 from Astro were welcome respites.

            I figured if I wanted to see it, I would have to persevere, bear down and do it. It was worth it! It also gives you a good perspective of how tough the natives had to be.