Rustler Canyon (Mojave National Preserve)

Rustlers Canyon
Fall bloom in the Mojave National Preserve. The mouth of Rustler Canyon is on the left, Rustler Rockshelter is straight ahead.

Fall bloom in the Mojave National Preserve. The mouth of Rustler Canyon is on the left, Rustler Rockshelter is straight ahead.

 

Welcome to cattle country, the abundant number of hockey pucks is all that you need for proof of that –  along with the bull that is staring you down after having startling him awake during his creosote induced slumber. Either way, this portion of the eastern Mojave is the home of open grazing, and desert living like it is supposed to be done.  Despite being a National Preserve, there are plenty of private ranches that still have grazing rights to a large portion of the land.

Rustler Canyon would be considered remote to most people, the nearest sign of civilization would be Baker, CA – 44 miles west; or Bullhead City, AZ – 47 miles east, the way the crow flies. The Hole in the Wall Visitors Center is just one canyon over, but does anyone actually work there?   This is the Mojave National Preserve after all, a place that appears to have a budget smaller than the operating budget of a Dairy Queen franchise store (actual annual budget for the MNP is around 3.5 million per year).  So yeah, it is remote…you won’t find a cold Coke or a bag of Cheetos for miles. Good.

But I’ve digressed, and somehow managed to tie Dairy Queen, Coke, Cheetos, and cow dung into an article that really has nothing to do with any of these things. I’m sorta proud of myself for that.

Rustler Rockshelter

Rustler Rockshelter

 

Rustler Rockshelter

Rustler Rockshelter

 

Rustler Rockshelter

Rustler Rockshelter

 

I began my day in Rustler Canyon about 8:30am – the temperature had already cracked 90, I wasn’t sure of my intentions other than visiting the Rustler Rockshelter (SBR-288)  as well as exploring into the highest reaches of the canyon; and if I felt like it, making my way over to neighboring Grass Canyon. The not knowing aspect, forced me to pack for a long haul; 6 liters of water, a few Mountain House meals, a sleeping bag, tarp, a copy of Wild (a great book BTW – I ended up finishing it that evening) and Who Killed Chester Pray, along with various other utensils that could come in handy for an overnight stay.

For those unfamiliar with the geography, Rustler Canyon is the westernmost canyon in the Woods Mountains, just east of Hole-in-the-Wall. The mountain range is made up of several volcanic mesas, and it’s highest peak is Tortoise Shell Mountain at 4,600 feet.

The range holds several known archeological sites, including  highly concentrated petroglyphs in Woods Wash, and Burro Canyon. There are also several rockshelters, and caves within the range, known to have been inhabited by both the Chemehuevi and Mohave Indians.

Rustler Rockshelter - The only remaining surface artifacts consist of a few pieces of lithic scatter.

Rustler Rockshelter – The only remaining surface artifacts consist of a few pieces of lithic scatter.

 

Rustler Rockshelter - Plenty of evidence of cows, however

Rustler Rockshelter – Plenty of evidence of cows, however

 

Rustler Rockshelter - More evidence that cows really did exist at some point.

Rustler Rockshelter – More evidence that cows really did exist at some point.

 

From where I parked, I was only several hundred feet from the Rustler Rockshelter – making the first part of my day super easy. I simply walked a short piece across the cholla and yucca choked desert, crossed Black Canyon Wash, and I was there.

The rockshelter is comprised of volcanic mudflow of yellowish rhyolitic tuff, with “Apache tears” or obsidian pebbles mixed into the volcanic concoction. It contains no large overhangs, but there is a shelf located above the ground level. There are no signs of “rock art” in or around the shelter itself, however the Burro Canyon site sits roughly a mile southeast.

The Rustler Rockshelter was excavated in 1958 by the University of California Archaeological Research Facility – in which they found pottery, milling and hand stones, hammerstones, abrading stones, stone pine, incised stone, incised painted stone, projectile points, blades, drills, core scrapers, lithic cores, shell bead, bone bead, and faunal remains.

Thanks to this legal form of “looting,” there is minimal to see – but the spiritual elements are still present, and will never leave. Among the heaps of cow dung, and bones that now desecrate the shelter, I managed to find just a few pieces of lithic scatter – likely considered to be insignificant to our dear archaeologist friends.

I left the Rustler Rockshelter, and traveled up the wash directly behind. Several steps later, I spotted brother coyote watching me ascend; our eyes met, and he took off up the mesa.

My new friend, the yard long Mitchell's Rattlesnake.

My new friend, the yard long Mitchell’s Rattlesnake.

 

I tried to pet him, but he had none of that.

I tried to pet him, but he had none of that.

 

One step, two-step, three-step, four…and the sound of a rattle coming straight for me. I wasn’t the least bit surprised, I had expected this encounter. Several days leading up to my trip, I felt warned that this meeting was going to take place…and there it was, a yard long Crotalus mitchellii aka. Mitchell’s rattlesnake. It rattled it’s six buttons as it slithered toward me, before curling up against a ridge in the rock.  I kept my distance, thanking it for making my acquaintance, while snapping a series of photographs of my new friend.

I left the snake in peace, after a quick bonding session, and showing of mutual respect. I climbed the steep hill, knowing that I chose the path of resistance, but was rewarded with stunning views of Wild Horse Mesa, and what lied ahead in Rustler Canyon.

Rustlers Canyon

Rustlers Canyon

 

Looking back at Wild Horse Mesa

Looking back at Wild Horse Mesa

 

Scrambling down, I rejoined the deeply pitted wash that runs the length of the canyon. The wash was rocky, and got to be annoying very quickly, I took notice to the benches that took turns appearing on one side of the wash, or the other; soon realizing that there was a well cut cattle trail. Despite now having a trail to follow, there was still the problem of the hiker’s worst enemy…Uncaria tomentosa, cat’s claw.

Fighting my way up canyon, I took special interest in a pile of volcanic tuff boulders,  on the western side of the canyon. I had hoped to find some sort of evidence of early man, but came up empty after a thorough search. I would later learn in my post research, that this was indeed a known Native American camp site. While I can’t find documentation of an excavation having taken place, there likely was, or at the very least, surface artifacts had been removed.

Known Native American camp site - no artifacts remain.

Known Native American camp site – no artifacts remain.

 

Totally bitchin' swiss cheese - volcanic tuff.

Totally bitchin’ swiss cheese – volcanic tuff.

 

Rustler Canyon

Rustler Canyon

 

Rustler Canyon

Rustler Canyon

 

Back in the wash, the boulders got larger, and the benches got smaller, forcing me at times to fight my up the tightest parts of the canyon. All around are some of the most breathtaking views of the mesas that are towering above. It is seriously a slice of heaven, a place to get lost in, I took my time to soak it all in.

Lunch time approached quickly, as the temperatures shot up into the 100’s. I found a large enough boulder to get some much-needed shade, pulled out my little alcohol burning stove, and boiled water for my lunch…a package of Mountain House’s, Noodles and Chicken. I used to eat MRE’s on the trail, but after purchasing a bad case, I swore to never eat them again. Since then, I decided to give the dehydrated food a try, and I love it. It is lightweight, tasty, and when purchased from a reputable retailer manufactured recently.

Lunch and a much needed shade brake.

Lunch and a much needed shade brake.

 

The largest of the dry falls in Rustler Canyon

The largest of the dry falls in Rustler Canyon

 

Pinyon Pine and Juniper begin to appear in the upper reaches of Rustler Canyon.

Pinyon Pine and Juniper begin to appear in the upper reaches of Rustler Canyon.

 

My stomach full, and after a nice rest from the blazing SoCal sun, I continued up Rustler Canyon. Now entering the upper reaches, the canyon walls closed in, and dry falls from the years in which a stream once flowed through the canyon presented new obstacles. In most cases, they are easy enough to bypass, by climbing up a nearby embankment. The vegetation also changed, Pinyon Pine, Juniper, Morman Tea, and Prickly pear cactus now dominate the landscape, as opposed to chola cactus, yucca, and sagebrush that filled the lower portion.

The colors in the volcanic tuff changed as well, instead of the black/brown boulders in the lower canyon, I found myself staring at a variety of pink and yellow tuff boulders along the sides of the wash. Several feet above the canyon walls, there are layers of cream, and pink colored tuff – that first appeared to be shelves of sandstone, but the opportunity to inspect them closer revealed its true identity.

Cream and pink colored tuff - disguised as sandstone.

Cream and pink colored tuff – disguised as sandstone.

 

Cream and pink colored tuff - disguised as sandstone.

Cream and pink colored tuff – disguised as sandstone.

 

The end of the road, the volcanic amphitheater.

The end of the road, the volcanic amphitheater.

 

Arriving at the end of Rustler Canyon, I found myself in a volcanic amphitheater with high walls – a climber could probably easily ascend, but I’m not a climber, at least not with any seriousness. I took some time to enjoy the scenery, before returning the same route that I had originally came.

I arrived back at the mouth of the canyon with a few hours of daylight left, cursing at myself for carrying so much extra weight. I could have easily left my overnight gear in my Jeep; but yet one never knows.

Exiting the canyon, I decided to poke around along Black Canyon Wash, and I’m very glad I did. Somehow I had managed to miss a very nice rockshelter and cave, not far from the mouth of the canyon. Approaching it, I had an overwhelming feeling that I was going to find something. The first thing that caught my attention was a stash of a dozen or more rhyolite core pieces, each of which showed evidence of flintknapping.

Flintknapping is the process used in the creation of projectile points, or blades. Wikipedia actually sums up the process very nicely.

The ceiling of the cave also showed evidence of fire damage, with a black residue that has stained the stone surface. Again there was no evidence of “rock art”.

Rockshelter and caves that I missed on my way into Rustler Canyon, but found on my return.

Rockshelter and caves that I missed on my way into Rustler Canyon, but found on my return.

 

Flintknapped Rhyolite core pieces.

Flintknapped Rhyolite core pieces.

 

The rockshelter

The rockshelter

 

The rockshelter

The rockshelter

 

Finishing up, I continued down Black Canyon Wash – unsure if I wanted to start my way up Grass Canyon, or save it for another day.

The same coyote from earlier in the day, suddenly reappeared. I caught a quick glimpse of him as I was passing the Rustler Rockshelter. When he knew that I saw him, he took off up the canyon.

I approached Grass Canyon, and yet another trickster darted out of my path. This one was healthy, with a beautiful orangish coat. It was around this same time that I decided to save Grass Canyon for another day, maybe the next day depending on how felt in the morning. I returned to my Jeep, and retired to my “secret” camping spot in Wild Horse Canyon.

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.

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