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Hidden Mojave Rock Art

He’s a desert enthusiast who has explored ghost towns, old mines and rock art sites of the Upper Mojave Desert. His guidebooks have also incited hate mail from locals. Death Valley Jim, 34, moved to California City five years ago. With a population of about 14,000, the city happens to be the third largest landwise in the entire state. At one time, Erika Strada made commercials encouraging people to move here, but the advertisements fell flat. Jim, on the other hand, found his gold, not in riches, but in his love for the desert terrain.

One year ago, after exploring the area extensively, he set up a website where he offers private guide services. To find his hidden gold, he’s spent countless hours researching locations and exploring mostly hard to find destinations, often driving many miles of sandy roads. But when he decided to announce a solo trek through Death Valley for fifteen days, walking 150 miles by himself in order to find yet undiscovered historical and archeological gems, locals began to contact his sponsors asking them to stop supporting Jim. Anonymous mail even went to the press, complaining that he had no right to explore the region.

The complaints plunged Jim into the heart of a long time debate that rages within the desert: should sites be kept secret?

Death Valley Jim TourRangers At Death Valley

Somewhere around one hundred rock art sites exist within Death Valley National Park and not one is marked on a map. No travel guide lists them either. Instead, rangers are instructed to have a three tier classification system for the rock art in the park. Tier 1 Archeological Sites are given to visitors if they ask a ranger directly. (When I visited, the ranger would only tell me about one.) Tier 2 Archeological Sites are given if visitors ask for the site by name. Tier 3 are those rock art sites expressly left unrevealed to the public.

The rational for this secrecy comes from The Archaeological Resources Protection Act of 1979, which was enacted in order to protect archeological sites on public and Indian lands. The law was amended in 1988 to add Section 9 that “requires managers responsible for the protection of archeological resources to hold information about the locations confidential unless providing the information would not create a risk of harm for the resources.” The upshot: rangers try to keep petroglyphs secret because, they claim, whenever a site is revealed to the public, that rock art is vandalized.

But the question festers: What’s the motivation for stealing or vandalizing Native American rock art?

Certainly, destruction of archeological sites are a world-wide phenomena. The Egyptian pyramids have been looted many times and when Pompeii was first discovered, thieves ran rampant throughout the ruins.

Death Valley Jim TourDeath Valley Jim’s Jeep Rides

Treking along with Jim as a guide, I visit rock art outside Barstow with him. Jim drives past poor trailers and then straight into the massive Harper’s Dry Lake. At the Last Glacial Maximum, this desert area was filled with lakes fed by glacial melt. Large game, such as elephants and saber-tooth cats abounded. On the other side of the lake, we drive along sandy unpaved road for a good 25 miles until we reached the Black Mountains. Once a cinder cone volcano, Jim stops in several places through the Black Canyon where he points to petroglyphs. It becomes quickly clear that you can easily stumble upon rock art in this area because it’s so plentiful. The graffiti abounds too. The first graffiti that catches the eye is by A. Tillman in 1874 who left his name and the date in several places. In one location within the canyon, Jim points to orange graffiti that he says wasn’t there the last time he visited. Although this canyon is remote and we’re alone all alone out here, I still notice fresh car tracks.

“Who comes here?” I ask.

“Gem collectors. On weekends there are also Jeep lines and truck lines.”

I spot a beer bottle littering the sand. “They come here to visit the petroglyphs?”

Jim hesitates and then explains that locals like to come here on weekends because it’s one of the few places you can still go to drink and drive without getting caught.

Death Valley Jim TourInscription Canyon

A few more turns within the Black Canyon and we reach Inscription Canyon with impressive rock art set in basalt rocks. The rock art here seems to be better preserved, although it still exists. There’s also a long bar in front of the canyon and a sign telling visitors to respect this archeological site. This rock art dates back to at least 1,000 A.D., although Native Americans, including the Shoshone, Southern Paiute and Kawaiisu tribes lived here going as far back as 8,000 years.

The Native American art includes clusters of bighorn sheep, abstract symbols and even an elephant. The ground beneath our feet contains leftover obsidian shards. Often called “volcanic glass,” this type of rock was quarried and used by Native Americans for making sharp-edged tools.

Burham Canyon

Jim then says there are lots of petroglyphs (images pecked into stone), but only one pictograph (images painted on stone) in the entire Barstow area. He can, however, take me to an impressive pictograph two hours away. I’m up for it, so we head toward the Tehachapi Mountains, passing Edwards Air Force base where Jim’s dad worked as a program manager for nuclear weapons testing in the 1990’s.  Thanks to his father’s work, Jim got a tour of the underground bunkers set inside one of these mountains when he was fourteen years old. We also pass the Honda Proving Grounds and Space Ship One, the private plane that takes people up to space. Solar panels and wind turbines are everywhere and locals resent them, saying they are ugly, ruin the natural landscape and the energy just goes to the cities anyway.

Jim takes a turn into the off road and we begin to drive next to the LA aqueduct. From there he follows the power lines and heads up a bumpy road with Joshua Trees dotting the outer space-like landscape. Finally, he stops at a colossal stone. The rock has a permanently shaded overhang where a pictograph bursts with abstract designs in red. This rock art dates back more than 2,000 years and there’s good evidence that this entire space once burst with color.

There are no markers or fences keeping people aware or away from this rock. The pictograph also continues to be exposed to the elements, so most of what used to be here is gone and even the shaded overhang has faded badly. With nothing by way of protection from wear, the boulder will eventually crack in two and even this little slice will disappear as part of our heritage.

Down the hill Jim points out another rock with a sun and check marks, which likely signified a calendar. It’s amazing and speaks to us like traveling back in time, but even these check marks are weather worn and uncared for.

Death Valley Jim TourCosos Petroglyphs

Ironically, the best preserved rock art can be found on a military base. The Naval Air Weapons Station at China Lake covers more than a million acres in the Mojave desert and the petroglyphs on this land have been well preserved. Tours are provided by the Maturango Museum on the weekends when the navy isn’t testing missiles. Some of these petroglyphs date back 6,000 years, but most are probably from the last 2,000. About one half of the figures are of bighorn sheep. Other designs range from abstract lines and circles to elaborately costumed human forms. In spite of strict regulations, graffiti does still exists at Cosos, but since tours are now regulated and the general public is not allowed on base, the Cosos Petroglyphs have a larger chance of long-term preservation.


On the other hand, last November petroglyphs outside Bishop, CA in the Volcanic Tableland were stolen using large equipment such as chainsaws. Plaques marked the area, although it wasn’t monitored or cordoned off.

After this happened, Jim received hate mail, even though he has never written about the petroglyphs outside Bishop or provided tours to that area. The letters said that Jim should be keeping rock art secret, but is that really the best way to preserve these important heritage sites?

After I left Jim, I traveled through downtown Barstow to see the public space murals. I roamed through Death Valley and the unmonitored sites provided by the Visitor Center map, including the Harmony Borax Works Interpretive Trail, the Badwater Basin (with the lowest elevation in the United States) and then left the park to visit the Rhyolite ghost town. I also detoured over to the Trona Pinnacles where several movies were shot. Interestingly, while all these sites were unmonitored, they were either cordoned off or had plaques explaining what they were or both. None of these sites–none–had graffiti on them. For example, nobody had chainsawed any of the Trona pinnacles off as a memento of the movie Planet of the Apes.

It’s hard to say why native american rock art would be destroyed, while other places would be left in tact. It seems that knowledge and visitors are precisely what keep vandals, drinkers and professional chainsaw thieves at bay. Of course, far more could be done, but funding is needed for that and Jim explains the park services are so low on cash that soon even the famed Death Valley Scotty’s Castle will be shut down.

Until then, people like Jim with a passion to take pictures, find the places and provide historical enrichment will actually be the best bet in keeping the Native American rock art protected. The more vandals know people are watching, the less likely they are to destroy and deface. Section 10 of ARPA requires federal land managers to “establish a program to increase public awareness of the significance of the archaeological resources located on public lands and Indian lands and the need to protect such resources.” So even according ARPA, the most effective way of preventing destruction of rock art is public education and outreach.

Unfortunately, for rock art in places such as the Volcanic Tableland, it’s already too late. Vandals have already stripped us of our freedom to view the petroglyphs and have taken away a glimpse into our land’s past.

I’d like to suggest that by having rock art listed in guidebooks and putting up placards and signs, we not only take away the secrecy, but provide ourselves with a necessary link to our heritage. Right now, left unmarked, not preserved from the elements and left unmonitored, the best answer should NOT be keeping these gems a secret – because that is, indeed, pushing our Native American ancestors further into obscurity.

Death Valley Jim Tour

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