Coyote Holes: Petroglyph Paradise

Sometimes you pick up tips in the darnedest of places. A few weeks ago we were at our veterinarian’s office to get one of our dogs his routine vaccines, and began discussing interesting local places to explore with the vet, a long-time resident of the area.

The doc asked us if we’d heard of Coyote Holes in Joshua Tree. He emphasized the place was not in Joshua Tree National Park itself, but four miles north of it, easily seen from Highway 62.

Well, no,” we admitted. We didn’t know the place. He added it was truly special and recommended we definitely check it out. He said that not far from a regular path leading to Joshua Tree National Park is a place park visitors will not find, but that many locals know well.

Our interest was piqued. After reading about Coyote Holes on the internet, we decided the secret was definitely already out but like many superficial internet articles, it lacked scholarly research. We knew we had to see this special place for ourselves and find out more. We also discovered a little controversy attached to the place.

“Chief Francisco Patencio of the Palm Springs Indians tells of hieroglyphics, on the south side of Twenty-nine Palms Valley, along the rock walls of the canyons are many of the sign painted figures that the Indian people all knew and understood.

At the time when Sungrey, one of the Five Head Men of the Fifth People, settled in the Twenty-nine Palms country, he left his people to go all about. Along the edges of the rock hills are the signs he made for his people. Some are paint signs, and some are cut in the rock. One place, called Coyote Holes on the map, the rock painting is very plain to see. The white people call this Coyote Holes, but they are not holes –no. The canyon is small and narrow, with a level sand wash floor. On entering the canyon there are on the left cliff, very plain to see, but very high, the first signs. All along the way are the sign marks. There are many of the snake sign, meaning water. Some are nearly faded away, but they have lasted through time–lasted as long as the Indians had use for them…

All about the canyon is the sign of Indian life. Parts of the broken rock, and bits of pottery. At one mile, perhaps a little longer, the canyon walls close. The way stops in a circle of bluffs, water-worn. In wet winters some waste water may make a fall in the end of this canyon, but not for long.

There is not any water to be seen there, no, none at all. There is no water for many miles up and down the valley from this place. But it is at the very end of this little canyon, in the dry white sand at the foot of the bluffs, that the coyotes come to dig. Always there is good cool water there. This gave the place the name of Coyote Holes, but all animals, men too, come to scoop out a shallow pool for the pure, sweet water…

Now these sign marks are very high in the cliff walls, but when they were first painted by the head men they stood on the ground to do it…they were very large men–very tall…but the ground is washed away during much time, until it is much lower than when the signs were made. And so does the ground get lower. Always, everywhere, all the time.” ~Stories and Legends of the Palm Springs Indians, by Chief Francisco Patencio, as told to Margaret Boynton, 1943.

Then in the 1960s, San Bernardino County acquired the Coyote Holes area in Joshua Tree, with the intention of using it for flood control. That was until ancient Native American petroglyphs were discovered, which are rightfully protected by law. Thus identified as a Native American scared site, the land was ultimately never put to use.

People in the area,including some living next to the site, became worried about the sensitive cultural site being destroyed because of litter, dumping, vandalism, illegal camping, and OHV abusers. Apparently it was quite the teen hangout back in the day, and as we all know, it only takes a few uncaring visitors to ruin it for the rest of us.

One neighbor bought a house adjacent to the site and actually had a one-mile long fence installed on the perimeter of the site in 2014, in an effort to protect it from further destruction. The fence stretched along the northeast side of Quail Springs Road in Joshua Tree from Onaga Trail to Alta Loma, and then around the corner on Alta Loma. Some locals objected because it blocked their access to pick up trash in the canyon and generally keep an eye on things.

Southern California Edison, which has an easement on the fence-owner’s property, put up a pipe gate as part of the fence. Eventually, people figured out alternate routes to access the site by using other roads then hiking on foot to the area. The county department of public works began looking for someone to take over the area to protect it.

Eventually, the Native American Land Conservancy, an inter-tribal group which, among other activities, acquires “threatened cultural landscapes,” came to the rescue. On Tuesday, May 22, 2018, the Board of Supervisors authorized the conveyance of thirty and one quarter acres of unincorporated area in Joshua Tree to the Native American Land Conservancy (NALC), which has since taken appropriate steps to ensure proper preservation of this sacred Native American land and culture.

“This conveyance is more than a transfer of land. Today, we entrust the preservation of our culture and history to a group whose mission is to protect Native American lands for future generations to enjoy,” stated Third District Supervisor James Ramos.

~Inland Empire Community News, May 26, 2018.

Normally when we come upon random petroglyphs in the desert, we keep their locations to ourselves in an effort to preserve them from the public and we encourage others to do so, as well.

They’ve been there for many thousands of years, hidden in plain sight. Let others enjoy discovering them for themselves. There are plenty of popular petroglyph areas for the public to enjoy, such as Inscription Canyon, Rodman Mountain Wilderness and Joshua Tree National Park, to name but a few.

Whenever we come upon a petroglyph site with official signs, rock-lined dirt roads, and thousands of footprints in the sand, we know it’s no longer a secret. However, that doesn’t make it any less special. It is obvious that those who monitor Coyote Holes recognize its spirituality and important role in Native American culture and history.

Stirred to action by gross disregard of shameful visitors to Coyote Holes, activists and volunteers organized by a group called “Friends of Coyote Hole” have done an exemplary job in recent years of removing the pornographic images and writings that once desecrated this sacred area. Trash dumps have been hauled out, and only the remnants of a couple of illegal fires in the treasured place remains.

“The well-being of historic petroglyphs is a central area of concern. A professional consultant was recently brought in to see the ancient aboriginal wall art. And in the view of this consultant, Coyote Hole has some of the most significant Native American pictographs known anywhere. Not only that, they were estimated to have the easiest access by people with disabilities, a “rare thing” the consultant remarked.”

~High Desert Star, August 8, 2012.

It’s hard not to fall in love with Coyote Holes. Towering canyon walls above its wide sandy paths, a polished granite spillway, unusual geological formations and the sense of peace that prevails here are some of the things that attract visitors. Discovering petroglyphs on boulders and trying to decipher their meanings is fun.

The Native American Land Conservancy (NALC) provides cultural awareness programs designed to promote intercultural understandings, strengthen tribal relations, and pass on traditional teachings to future generations.

One can find other remnants of the first nations people who once thrived here, such as metates, which are stone mortars used to mill seeds and nuts. How someone could litter in this magical place, or deface petroglyphs or other artifacts is beyond us. Loftier minds than ours still cannot explain the criminal mind even after years of study. The way we figure it is the more people who know about Coyote Holes, the more they will appreciate and protect it.

There are many petroglyphs in Coyote Holes and like snowflakes, none of them appear to be the same. In this modern age of oversharing, we’ll leave it to you to find their exact locations yourself.

Please refrain from geotagging this protected site. Bouldering and climbing at this site are also not allowed. We suggest you go to Joshua Tree National Park for those sports.

The Army Corps of Engineers dynamited part of Coyote Holes in the 1970s to create a flood control channel. Holes for placing dynamite charges in some boulders are still visible. That is why there seems to be more petroglyphs on one side than the other in some areas of Upper Coyote Holes. Sadly, petroglyphs were destroyed during construction.

Some local businesses advertise casual hikes and guided meditation in Coyote Holes, if that’s your desire. For us, we prefer to hike in and enjoy the solitude by ourselves. Although it may seem remote, remember you are just a mile or less from neighborhoods. We were even able to pick up Verizon cellphone service.

Make no mistake about it though, locals are very aware of the comings and goings in their beloved canyon. If you’re not doing anything inappropriate, then you needn’t be concerned.

There are different ways to get to Coyote Holes, or Coyote Hole, as it is often referred to. We’re lucky enough to live here, so you will have to figure out the best way for you.

Please be considerate. Do not block driveways or park on private property. You will need to park your vehicle legally, and proceed on foot to the canyon. Depending where you parked determines how long you will have to hike in the wash. You cannot drive to Coyote Holes, as thankfully access points are blocked.

Be aware of the weather. A wash is simply what it says it is. There’s always the potential for a flash flood during a rainstorm. By the looks of the wash on the way to Coyote Holes, it is obvious that recent storms sent a deluge of rushing water down its length, bringing rocks and large branches with it.

Remember, even if it is dry or merely drizzling where you are, a storm over the nearby mountains can cause a dry desert creek bed to become a raging river in a matter of minutes. If you suddenly find yourself caught in a flood, immediately seek higher ground and call the authorities for help if you’re in immediate danger. Flash floods tend to recede almost as fast as they appear.

As we walked, we noticed the polished granite, worn down through time by water and abrasive sand. In the rocks above, and looking down at visitors, are petroglyphs.

Things were fairly dry when we visited in early December, but this would definitely not be a place you would want to be at when it rains, as evidenced by the rust stain from previous flows. There is a spring that keeps the base of the boulders moist and signs of waterfalls.

We hope you enjoy visiting Coyote Holes as much as we do. Soak up its grandeur and spirituality that imbues this special place. Remember, leave only footprints and take only photos.

P.S. We’re glad to be considered locals. And thanks, Doc!

Recommended Resources:

Stories and Legends of the Palm Springs Indians, by Chief Francisco Patencio, 1943.

A Peculiar Piece of Desert, the Story of California’s Morongo Basin by Lulu Rasmussen O’Neal, 1957. (Reprinted 1981.)


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