Stirrup Tank – Native American Habitation area (Joshua Tree National Park)

Stirrup Tank - Joshua Tree National Park - Inside the shelter, the stone circle is clearly visible in the upper center of the photograph.
Stirrup Tank - Joshua Tree National Park

Stirrup Tank – Joshua Tree National Park

 

With the recent successes in hunting down Native American sites in the Granite Mountains (Mojave National Preserve), I decided to change my focus back to Joshua Tree National Park for a bit. I’ve managed to find a number of sites in JT over the past several months, but I’m not even close to documenting half of the 127 reported sites that are within the park’s boundaries.  The Park Service has done a bang up job keeping 99% of the sites in Joshua Tree out of the public’s knowledge, I’m sure that since my residency change to the town of Joshua Tree in mid-2013, I’ve made their job much more difficult (Actually I know so, having received letters from the Park Superintendent demanding that I stop sharing my finds on this website).

For this search, I wanted to check out an area that I had yet to explore. Something new, previously unseen to me. I was thinking that I wanted to check out the Hexi Mountains, after all, there is the small petroglyph site in Hidden Valley, there is also Squaw Tank, a known Native American village site. It would make sense that there would be more in the vicinity. I decided on Stirrup Tank, a little talked about area on the north side of the Hexi range, and northeast of Squaw Tank.

Stirrup Tank - Joshua Tree National Park - The area is full of awesome geological wonders

Stirrup Tank – Joshua Tree National Park – The area is full of awesome geological wonders

 

Very little is available about Stirrup Tank, with the exception of scant pieces of information from the climbing community. I could find no mention of Native American habitation in the area, but it made perfect sense that there to be.  Stirrup Tank is a natural tank, meaning that it naturally holds water. There are also a number of decent sized washes running through the stacks of granite boulders. The granite boulders would provide shelter, and the tank and washes would provide water. The Hexi Mountains would provide food in the form of Big Horn Sheep among other things.

From my home in Joshua Tree, it is an easy 30 minute drive to the short, one mile dirt road that takes you to Stirrup Tank. We arrived on site at around 9:30am to find an empty parking lot with the exception of one other vehicle. This guy wasn’t going to get in our way however, you can always tell the people who don’t belong in the desert , and in the case of Joshua Tree, it is usually 95% of the people. I’m sure he thought that he was being adventurous, having driven a mile down a dirt road in his white Honda Accord (or something similar). There was no way in hell however that he was going to leave the sight of his vehicle. I greeting him with a smile, and hello, while gearing up to head off into the unknown.

The main washes leading through the granite towers are sandy, and filled with footprints. I’m immediately put off by this, but forge ahead, checking every possible shelter and nook and cranny that is out of sight, out of mind to the normal visitor. It took less than a half an hour to find our first potential petroglyph. Petroglyphs in granite are always difficult to make out, and being located in a shelter along the main tourist thoroughfare, you never know if some dumbass decided to be artsy by carving into the stone. Confirmation of the petroglyphs authenticity came just a few minutes later in the discovery of a mortar stone with multiple deep groves, and small couplets.

Stirrup Tank - Joshua Tree National Park - The first petroglyph find of the day.

Stirrup Tank – Joshua Tree National Park – The first petroglyph find of the day.

 

Stirrup Tank - Joshua Tree National Park - The first of three set of mortars that we would encounter.

Stirrup Tank – Joshua Tree National Park – The first of three set of mortars that we would encounter.

 

Finding the mortar stone set off a full-scale investigation, everything in the immediate area now had to be checked. We split up, each taking a different direction, after an hour of intense searching nothing of additional interest was found. But the confirmation was there, early Native people indeed inhabited the area around Stirrup Tank.

After studying the washes, and the way that the water flowed, we set off for a different section of boulders. All of the washes in the area meet, and create an even larger wash that flows into a canyon through the Hexi Mountains, and empties into the Pinto Basin. While walking through the wash, I noticed a piece of broken pottery in the wash. It was a small sherd, made of reddish soil. Roughly fifty feet from where I found the pottery sherd was another set of mortars, and a small shelter.

Stirrup Tank - Joshua Tree National Park - Mortar #2 and small pottery sherd.

Stirrup Tank – Joshua Tree National Park – Mortar #2 and small pottery sherd.

 

We split up for a bit, allowing us to cover more ground, this is a big area, and we have limited daylight in the winter.  Meghan calls me to the area that she is investigating via walkie-talkie, “I think I found a pictograph, and a blanket style petroglyph.”  She points out a very faded design, I can barely make it out, but she insists. I pretty much discount it, and ask to see the pictograph.  She takes me just a few feet away to an overhang, and points to a couple of small orange lines. It isn’t a fascinating design, but yeah, I agree with her, it is more than likely a pictograph, giving a little more validity to the petroglyph around the corner that I still couldn’t see.

Stirrup Tank - Joshua Tree National Park - The lone pictograph (unenhanced)

Stirrup Tank – Joshua Tree National Park – The lone pictograph (unenhanced)

 

Stirrup Tank - Joshua Tree National Park - Enhancing the image by drawing the colors out presents the full pictograph image.

Stirrup Tank – Joshua Tree National Park – Enhancing the image by drawing the colors out presents the full pictograph image.

 

At this point we’ve got a pretty good idea that we’re in the right area, extensive signs of habitation are abound. I notice a small entrance that leads behind a couple of truck sized boulders. I duck through the entrance, and my jaw drops…in the corner of this shelter is a stone circle made of stones of many sizes. I examine it, without touching it. It is immediately clear to me that this is not something that was recently built, the stones are not simply sitting on top of the ground, they have embedded themselves into the ground from years of weathering.

I yell for Meghan, “I FOUND SOMETHING AWESOME!” She makes her way inside, upon first glance she doesn’t notice the stone circle, I point to it, she lights up with the same level of excitement that I had. We sit down in the shelter and relax for a bit, discussing our find, trying to come up with any other likely scenario…nothing else makes sense, there are no mines in the immediate area, no pioneer settlement has ever been located here, and the stone placement is just too old for it to have been a casual camper. Fully convinced we leave the shelter, excited…wondering what else was in store for us today.

Stirrup Tank - Joshua Tree National Park - Inside the shelter, the stone circle is clearly visible in the upper center of the photograph.

Stirrup Tank – Joshua Tree National Park – Inside the shelter, the stone circle is clearly visible in the upper center of the photograph.

 

The days final discovery was just a short walk from the shelter, a smaller, less developed mortar beside an overhang.  What stood out to me the most about this location was the presence of many young Joshua Trees beside the shelter. I imagined a Native women gathering Joshua Tree fruits, bringing them here to prepare for a meal, dropping some seeds, and what we’re seeing today is the result of her, hundreds of years prior.

We finished our day, excited about our finds…we celebrate with a Del Taco feast of tacos and burritos. It was concluded at this point that we needed to spend another day at Stirrup Tank, a lot of ground still needed covered, and some areas should be checked again.

Stirrup Tank - Joshua Tree National Park - The third mortar hole, not nearly as defined as the others we had found in the area.

Stirrup Tank – Joshua Tree National Park – The third mortar hole, not nearly as defined as the others we had found in the area.

 

The next morning we did it all over again, we hiked out to the same area that we had found a majority of the sites the day prior. After a couple of hours, we had only found a couple of possible petroglyphs. I say possible because they are so hard to make out, and there was nothing else in the immediate area to support their authenticity. It is also very possible that what looks like a petroglyph could just be scars in the rock face.

Stirrup Tank - Joshua Tree National Park - Is it a petroglyph or not? You decide.

Stirrup Tank – Joshua Tree National Park – Is it a petroglyph or not? You decide.

 

Stirrup Tank - Joshua Tree National Park - The "blanket" petroglyph, and other designs.

Stirrup Tank – Joshua Tree National Park – The “blanket” petroglyph, and other designs.

 

Eventually we ended up at the site of the small pictograph that Meghan had found the day prior. The “blanket style” petroglyph that she had seen was finally able to be confirmed, along with a few additional designs that we hadn’t noticed. This just goes to show you what can be missed due to the position of the sun. What was very faint in the sunlight the day prior, was practically shouting, “LOOK AT ME!” on this cloud covered day.

Again, hours later…and still nothing new. Maybe this return trip wasn’t needed, I began to think to myself. We stopped for a break at the rock shelter from the previous day, we each take a seat on the dirt floor, and spend a few minutes soaking in the ambiance. Meghan interrupts the silence when she notices a black design on the shelter wall. It is a small faded design of a human figure. Bingo! Additional confirmation on the stone circle!

Stirrup Tank - Joshua Tree National Park - Black pictograph that we missed the day prior in the rock shelter.

Stirrup Tank – Joshua Tree National Park – Black pictograph that we missed the day prior in the rock shelter.

 

We decide to cut the day short, and began making the return hike to the Jeep, we followed a different section of the wash that we hadn’t previously searched in. Not even a quarter of a mile away from the parking area I look down to find another pottery sherd. A short distance up wash from the pottery sherd, we come upon a small alcove. I walked back into the alcove just fifteen feet or so, and see a wall with nearly a dozen petroglyphs. Many of the designs are faded, but those that were carved deeply into the rock are very visible. This was a great way to end our day at Stirrup Tank.

The possibility of there being more here is great, in the two days that we dedicated to Stirrup Tank, we only covered about a quarter of the area. It is highly likely that we’ll again find our way here again in the near future.

Stirrup Tank - Joshua Tree National Park - Petroglyphs!

Stirrup Tank – Joshua Tree National Park – Petroglyphs!

 

Stirrup Tank - Joshua Tree National Park - Petroglyphs!

Stirrup Tank – Joshua Tree National Park – Petroglyphs!

 

Stirrup Tank - Joshua Tree National Park - Petroglyphs with rock shelter.

Stirrup Tank – Joshua Tree National Park – Petroglyphs with rock shelter.

 

 

 

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.

  • pat

    Great photos Jim! Very easy to spend a couple of days in this area.