“The only rock art in Joshua Tree is at Barker Dam,” said the Joshua Tree National Park Ranger. That was over two years ago when I first relocated to the sleepy desert town, which bears the same name as the National Park. I knew that was going to be the answer that I would be given when I asked the question, but I figured I would ask anyway. I also knew that the answer was nothing short of bullshit. I’ve since been able to bring this to the attention of the Park’s new Superintendent, he seemed to agree with me, that is not the answer that should be given. But rather an explanation that “rock art” sites do exist in the park, however providing details to their location is not permissible by the government agency. Has the answer given be rangers changed? I don’t know, I haven’t asked again – but I think that I’ve done a good job providing the correct answer to the question through this website, as well as my book, “Hidden Joshua“.
The Covington Flats area of the park is an area that I haven’t frequented often. I’ve hiked Smith Water Canyon on a couple of occasions, been to the Eureka Peak Overlook, but not much else. On my very first hike in Smith Water Canyon, I found a boulder, which contained faint pictograph designs. I documented that site, which the park archeology department admitted to not knowing about, however they never bothered to communicate further, so I published that site a year later. Since that time, I’ve often wondered what else could be in the region, but hadn’t bothered to seek it out.
That was, until my buddy, Desert Mike from Joshuatreecamping.com had a run in with a gentleman that happened to mention a pictograph site, and midden piles (ancient trash piles) in a canyon near Smith Water. He told Mike that he had found the site a couple of years ago, and had covered the pictographs in a mound of dirt, to prevent vandalism. While I believe that the man’s intentions were good, I also believe that his covering of the pictographs with dirt would technically be considered vandalism. Pictographs are painted designs, using a natural earth pigment called ochre. These painted designs are often washed away by rain, or wind erosion. By placing dirt over a pictograph, when that dirt becomes wet, it could enhance the likelihood of the ochre being washing away. With that said, if you find either pictographs or petroglyphs, don’t do anything to them, except look. If they are still visible, they have withstood the test of time, and there is nothing that you can do to further “protect” them. It is also technically illegal to alter an archaeological site, and can lead to large fines and even prison sentences.
While it is probably needless to say, the above information was enough to send Desert Mike and I on an excursion which I have dubbed, “The Hunt for Buried Rock Art”.
It was a beautiful spring day in the desert, the snakes were out, the bees were buzzing, and the temperature a mild mid-70’s. We arrived at the Smith Water Canyon backcountry board, and hiked the half mile or so down into the main wash. We had some sketchy directions provided by the “dirt thrower,” so we made our way up the wash, in which we believed to be accurate. Along the wash the rock shelters were plentiful, we did our best to check each one of them for any signs of a midden, or misplaced dirt mounds. To no avail we found nothing of the sort.
Eventually we ran into a tall multi-level dry fall, in which I felt would be useless to investigate, so we by-passed it by climbing over the ridge. Along that ridge, I checked out a stack of boulders, and found a fragment of pottery. This small piece of pottery was enough evidence to suggest that we were onto something.
We meandered in the immediate vicinity, and discovered yet another broken pottery sherd. But that would be the last piece of evidence that we would find over the course of the next several hours.
It was time to call it a day, and while it wasn’t overly successful, I was still delighted to have found the pottery sherds. In my mind, it was enough evidence to warrant further searches in the area.
On our way back to the main trail, we found ourselves at the top of the dry fall that we had previously avoided. It was here that something caught my eye, a very faint carving in a rock surface, perched above the top of the fall. I went to climb up to get a better view, and when I did, I found under an overhang a collection of finger smudges in orange. At first I wasn’t 100% positive that they were pictographs, I considered that it was possibly oxidization. What convinced me that they were, was the carved design that I had originally taken notice of. The petroglyph was faint, but the design convincing enough that it was authentic. It had rake like features, which I’ve seen in petroglyphs across the southwest, and had similarity to a bird like figure.
While we didn’t uncover the “Buried Rock Art,” it is needless to say, but we’ll be back.