Cottonwood Ridge Petroglyphs

For three years a photo of a petroglyph site had been sitting in my inbox. (Not my regular inbox but the “I’ll get around to it someday” inbox.) The photo only showed a couple of boulders, covered with petroglyphs, on a hillside. The caption said it was somewhere in the Panamints. That got my attention. I have explored the Panamints for years and I had no idea where this could be. I could see some of the background behind the rocks and mentally tried to place the site. It didn’t make sense, it just didn’t match. I showed the photo to my buddy Dan. Not only does he know the Panamint area as well as anyone else I know, he lived out in Furnace Creek! Like me, he studied the photo for some time and came up empty. We were stumped. I printed out another copy of the photo and put it in my backpack just in case I was hiking around Panamint Valley or Death Valley and saw some similar terrain. (I later found out that Dan did the same, except he put it in his jeep.) Years passed and although we never really forgot about it, we never did much searching for it either.

A few months ago, the photo came up again. Somehow it surfaced to the top of the pile. I must have been trying to clean out my inbox and saw it. “Hmm…” I thought while picking it up. “Why can’t I find you?” It was so puzzling. I decided I had to find it. Looking at it again, I knew something wasn’t quite right. I didn’t think it really was in the Panamints. I just couldn’t see how it could be. I ran all the different terrain through in my mind and none of them matched. So, I decided I would try to email the author of the website where I had seen the photo. I was surprised when he responded and was friendly. He told me he and his friend had found the site in 1985 and that it was completely unknown to anyone, including the Park Service. He had been volunteering for the Park Service at the time and told them about the find. And he gave me a hint on the site’s location: it was in the Cottonwood range. He said technically, the Cottonwoods were part of the Panamints. (You should have seen my face.) I’m sure a few geologists and cartographers would agree but I wasn’t in that camp. No wonder I couldn’t place it in the Panamints! Well, I got out my maps and made short work of where I thought it could be. Now it was just a question of finding the time to get out there and hike around. Finally, in late April of 2011, I had a chance to get out there. I called up Dan and he was free. The hunt was on.

I went out to his place in Furnace Creek the night before. We both wanted to get an early start. It wasn’t too hot yet out in the Valley but warm enough. We loaded our packs and started driving. It took about an hour or so to get to our starting point which was as close as we could get by road and started hiking towards the hills. This is a stark and empty landscape. The hike across the alluvial fan was typical Death Valley fare: boring and featureless, with only a few prickly pear cactus flowers blooming to brighten up our walk. But the weather was nice. The wind wasn’t blowing much, and, all in all, it was a great day to be out in the desert. We were pretty enthusiastic.

It wasn’t long before we spotted a rock shelter on a small rocky hill in the distance. This was great news. “This day is going to be over quick,” I thought. We headed over and checked it out. It turned out to be a plain shelter: ten to fifteen feet wide and about the same deep. The roof was covered with black stains that could be from smoke or waste from mice. There were a few flakes around the shelter but nothing else of interest. It had definitely been lived in but no artifacts remained. We looked around. No petroglyphs. We looked at our photo again. (Of course, we brought it along!) We were in the right area, but not exactly right. It had to be nearby.

We both had radios and decided to split up. Dan walked up the serpentine canyon behind the rock shelter and I walked up a ridge. It wasn’t long before Dan radioed me and told me he had come to a few dry falls in the canyon that were a little too tall to climb. He was heading back and going to rendezvous with me on the ridge. I passed a rock cairn and hiked up a little higher to get a better view of the area while I waited. No petroglyphs in sight and only a few scattered basalt boulders. It was early though and I was still full of hope. Dan caught up to me and it was getting hotter. We hiked all along the ridgeline and dropped down some steep rocky slopes into the next canyon. We followed the canyon downhill as it made its way back and forth back down to the valley. Back on the alluvial fan, we checked our photo again. Now we were getting puzzled. We were in the right area but we didn’t see any petroglyphs! We didn’t even see many rocks that would qualify. I was starting to wonder. The photo was on a hillside and there were some higher hills about a mile away. Maybe it was over there. We climbed back up on the ridge and hiked towards them. After a quarter mile, the landscape changed. We saw a small hidden valley of ash and basalt. This looked inviting. (You know you’ve been exploring the desert too long when a barren landscape of volcanic ash and boulders looks interesting.) And here were hundreds of basalt boulders from some ancient lava flow. They were round and well varnished. Time, sun, wind and sand had been working on them for who knows how many thousands of years. Seeing this basalt was promising however because it seems to be the favorite medium of native Americans for petroglyphs in this country.

We thought “Ok, this will be it!” We searched around. Nothing. We hiked down the valley to where it meets with the dry fall canyon. (We were above the falls now.) And we walked right by a rock circle. And then we saw a second one. Excellent! At least we found something! We started taking a closer look. There were petroglyphs here but they were fairly small and part of the rock circle structures themselves. Then we spotted a grinding rock with hand stone still sitting there. Wow! What a neat find. This was a little habitation site. They were grinding seeds here. Maybe a small family of natives lived here who knows how many hundreds or thousands of years ago. And this would have been a hard place to live. There is no water for miles. We found a few flakes and chips from tool manufacture. We didn’t disturb anything and only took pictures. Besides being a Federal crime to take or disturb anything at an archaeological site, I’m happier leaving it as it is for the next explorer to find.

It was about lunch time now and we found a small overhang in the wash to get some shade and eat our sandwiches. It was getting hot. We talked about where to go next. We were excited to find this small village site but getting disappointed about not finding our main reason for being out there. Our petroglyph site was on a pink colored hill and we searched all the ones near the shelter. Dan mentioned he had seen a few more promising hillsides on the other side of the valley. They had a few boulders but were much higher up. Could these be the ones? We decided to head over there.

This was an even stranger volcanic landscape. One minute we were sinking into fluffy dry mud up to our ankles and the next we were scrambling up steep scree slopes on all fours. We searched the hillsides for another three or four hours. Nothing. We climbed down into another wash and worked our way back down to the alluvial fan. We didn’t even see any other petroglyphs. It was getting late in the day. We couldn’t believe it. They had to be here. The photo showed them to be here. We were really puzzled but we were done. It had been a long day in the sun and we were exhausted. Discouraged, we called it a day and decided to head back to Furnace Creek.

We discussed our day and what we would do tomorrow over pizza and beer. We both agreed we were not going back there tomorrow. It would have to wait for another time. We talked about going up to do some exploring in the Grapevines, or maybe up at Wildrose. Something in the trees and cooler for sure. We had enough heat for one trip.

For some reason, we both woke up the next day in a better mood. I had a good night’s sleep and watched the sunlight rise on the Panamints. We had some warm oatmeal and looked at the maps to see where we went wrong yesterday. It was still so hard to figure out. The photo was just too enticing. It had to be there. I couldn’t believe myself but I suggested going back to look for it again. We had spent most of the day yesterday wandering aimlessly over those desolate hills in the blazing desert sun. I wanted to go again. Something was wrong with Dan’s judgment too because he agreed. So off we went, back in my old dusty Toyota truck and over equally dusty roads. This time our focus was the mouth of a large wash not too far from the shelter. Could it be here?

We parked near the same spot again and hiked up the alluvial. We got to the wash and scouted around. Nothing. I decided I wanted to hike up this canyon a ways. If we weren’t going to find the petroglyphs I at least wanted to see this canyon. It was much wider than any of the others in the area but had the same steep sides. There was no way I could easily climb out but I was planning on hiking back to the hidden volcanic valley. I was pretty sure I could get out of the canyon there and come back around to the rock shelter. Dan had decided to hike around the front of the hills again and over to the shelter. I didn’t see anything unusual in the canyon. Limestone rocks in tilted layers covered in desert varnish. I reached the intersection of the volcanic valley and the wash. It was covered in basalt rocks. If I was a petroglyph this might be a good place to be. I searched and searched. No such luck. I sat down and took a break for a minute. I thought about all the vastness and silence of this place. I knew Dan was about a half mile away over the hills but I felt alone in a giant wilderness; only the wind and an occasional lizard for my companions. I climbed up one of the tallest peaks in the area and continued to ponder. “This is pretty great out here.” I felt lucky to be there.

I hadn’t heard from Dan in a while so I was about to radio him when my radio went off. “I found them!” Dan said. I laughed. “Finally”, I thought.
I asked him: “Where are you?”
“Out on the front slope near where you hiked up yesterday morning.”

Really? Unbelievable. I hiked towards him. We had been out for at least three hours now and I was getting ready for a break. Or lunch. I came down from a high ridge and across the slopes, passing a few more fields of basalt rocks. (In retrospect, I probably should have looked at them too.) I finally saw Dan on a nearby ridge. I had walked this ridge yesterday morning. We were both smiling now. “Where are they?” I asked as I walked up to him.
“Right down there.” He pointed down the slope. There were a few varnished boulders down there but I didn’t see anything. Wait. I saw one. Then another. They were few and scattered but this was promising. “There aren’t many here but the petroglyphs in the photo are down on those two rocks over there.” He pointed. They looked like any other rocks from here. We started to hike down.

I asked, “How did you find them?”

He said “Just looking at the photo. They had to be somewhere around here. Then I was on this ridge and just happened to look down and spotted one.” Then he said: “Didn’t you walk through here yesterday?” He was smiling.

“I was fifty feet over there,” I said a bit sheepishly. Dang. They were so easy to miss. We both laughed.

There were no petroglyphs at the top of the slope or bottom, just in the middle. The ones we did find were in a small cluster. This was a strange site. We photographed them and sat down for some lunch. It had been a long morning. We wondered why they had picked this particular spot on the hill. There didn’t seem to be anything unusual about it. It wasn’t close to any landmarks; just a spot in the desert with a great view. I guess we will never know.

The inspiration to take this trip was from my friends Geron Marcom and Dave Edgar who discovered the site in December of 1985. Since I first emailed Geron, we’ve become friends and gone on a few trips together.

This trip report first appeared in the June 2011 edition of the Panamint Breeze.

Cottonwood Ridge Petroglyphs
45 photos

Last Updated on January 12, 2021 by Guy Starbuck