Smoke Tree Wash Petroglyphs (Joshua Tree National Park)

The Pinto Basin of Joshua Tree National Park has been high on my radar for the past several months. 4,000 – 8,000 years ago, when the landscape was lush, Joshua Tree’s mini-Death Valley was the home of the Pinto Basin Culture. These early people for the most part lived along the banks of Pinto Wash, a one time flowing river that stretched the length of the basin. Several other washes in the basin connect to Pinto Wash, including Smoke Tree Wash. I assume that at one times these washes also provided a consistent stream of water.

In the 1930s the husband and wife team of Elizabeth and William Campbell, both amateur archaeologists, performed extensive research in the basin. The Campbells found the traces of entire village sites. Metates, and Manos, pestiles and hammerstones, scrapers and knives made of obsidian, slate, and chert. Leaf-shaped points flaked from rock crystal, jasper, quartzite, chert, chalcedony, and obsidian. Then of course the points (arrowheads), made of obsidian, jasper, rhyolite, milky quartz, and rock crystal.

My research has pointed out to me that there is far more evidence of these past people  just sitting out there, than what the National Park Service is willing to fess up to. Of course being the curious and obsessive type that I am, I’ve dedicated countless hours both in research and on foot in an attempt to find these places. Considering the size of the basin, it is a painstaking task, and more often than not little to nothing of interest has been found. But I refuse to give up easily.

 

Smoke Trees in Smoke Tree Wash

Smoke Trees in Smoke Tree Wash

 

A lot of wide open desert in Pinto Basin.

A lot of wide open desert in Pinto Basin.

 

Smoke Tree Wash is named for the beautiful smoke trees that are found throughout. These shrubs or trees grow to a height of about twenty-feet, and produce both pea-like flowers and fruits in the spring and early summer. It is because of their flowers and fruits that they are part of the pea family.

The hiking in this region is relatively easy, much of it is wide open swaths of desert.  The biggest nemesis being the variety of cactus, and cat-claw that is in an abundance. In the summer, like the rest of the Pinto Basin, it cooks – temperatures can easily reach 110-120 degrees.  For those not accustom to these temperatures, please only attempt hiking here during the cooler weather months of November – April.

On two different occasions I’ve searched the towering stacks of boulders in the vicinity.  My first search was in October, the only things of considerable interest that I managed to find were two sherds of pottery, and some interesting stone placements. The sherds indicated to me that I was on the right track, and that I’d need to spend additional time in the vicinity.

 

A pottery sherd from my first exploration of the area.

A pottery sherd from my first exploration of the area.

 

Another pottery sherd from my first exploration of the area.

Another pottery sherd from my first exploration of the area.

 

Very peculiar stone placement (found on first exploration).

Very peculiar stone placement (found on first exploration).

 

Unlike the Wonderland of Rocks, also in Joshua Tree National Park, the boulder stacks here are spread apart, sometimes by miles. On my second excursion I decided that I needed to go further. Studying satellite images I found a large cluster of boulder hills about three miles west of the parking area, those hills became my destination.

The three-mile hike across the desert proved to be as uneventful as watching paint dry. I didn’t see a human foot print, or any animals (not even a jack rabbit!), only piles of coyote dung and rabbit pellets. Emerging upon my destination, I looked down to find the bleached, decomposing skull of a coyote – I guess that wasn’t his poop that I was seeing!

I began my hunt at the eastern most point of the mile and a half long jumble of boulders. The stacks were impressive in size and shape, some tall enough to be miniature mountains, and shapes that send the imagination running wild with comparisons. Some were jagged, others perfectly rounded. Some split perfectly in half. There were large domes, and there were meandering canyons and washes throughout. At every turn there were rock shelters, and boulder caves – all perfect places for the Pinto Basin people to have left their mark, their writings from the past.

 

Sun bleached and decomposing coyote skull.

Sun bleached and decomposing coyote skull.

 

Just a tad bit rocky, portions of which remind me of the Coxcomb Mountains.

Just a tad bit rocky, portions of which remind me of the Coxcomb Mountains.

 

A true wonderland of rocks.

A true wonderland of rocks.

 

I found something about this very beautiful.

I found something about this very beautiful.

 

After an hour and a half of hiking along the outcropping, I looked down to find two bedrock mortars, one was maybe an inch deep, while the other was more like a dimple. A rock shelter sat directly behind the bedrock mortars, and I was excited about the prospect of there maybe being some pictographs inside. Approaching it, there was a couple of pottery sherds discarded on the ground. I poked my head into the shelter, to find that there were no pictographs or petroglyphs. I was disappointed, but hopeful that there was something else near.

I rounded the corner of the boulders, and noticed that the ground was covered with pottery sherds of various colors, and thickness – at least a hundred sherds were scattered across the desert floor. Either someone was very clumsy, or was there a tradition or ceremony around the breaking of pots?  I don’t have an answer for this one, but I do find it all very odd.

Taking my focus off of the ground, and onto the boulders around me, I looked up to see a large panel of eroded petroglyphs, with a second panel located on a boulder directly behind it. While the front panel has had considerable weathering, it was still possible to make out what I believe to be a full-bodied, patterned anthropomorph. This type of design, I have never seen in this region of the desert, and is most common in the Coso Mountain Range in the northern Mojave Desert.

 

The largest of the two bedrock mortars.

The largest of the two bedrock mortars.

 

Full front panel.

Full front panel.

 

Could this be a full-bodied, patterned anthropomorph?

Could this be a full-bodied, patterned anthropomorph?

 

Rear panel, complete with tortoise shell and beautifully eroded pockets in the stone.

Rear panel, complete with tortoise shell and beautifully eroded pockets in the stone.

 

Close-up of rear panel.

Close-up of rear panel.

 

These were hiding in a crevice between two boulders.

These were hiding in a crevice between two boulders.

 

For the most part the couple of dozen designs here are very simple, with bold lines, and simple geometric shapes and lines.

If in fact these petroglyphs are a product of the Pinto Basin people, it can be assumed that the designs were pecked between 6,000 BC – 2,000 BC. There is also the possibility that they were created by Cahuilla, or the Sorano.  I tend to lean more toward the Pinto Basin people. By the time the Cahuilla or Serrano would have passed through, the basin would have looked much like it does today, with not much to sustain life.

After documenting the site, I continued to meander through the boulders, finding nothing more than beautiful scenery, and my wandering imagination.

 

Samples of pottery sherds.

Samples of pottery sherds.

 

Samples of pottery sherds.

Samples of pottery sherds.

 

Samples of pottery sherds.

Samples of pottery sherds.

 

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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