Friday, February 6, 2009

The Petroglyphs At Steam Wells, California

You won't find Steam Wells, California on ordinary road maps; you'll need a U.S. Geological Survey map to find this petroglyph site. It is east of the semi-ghost town of Red Mountain, CA, on public land controlled by the Bureau of Land Management. To reach it, you take Highway 395 north off Interstate 15 until you reach the town of Red Mountain. Turn east onto Trona Road and follow it a couple of miles until you reach the turnoff for RM14444, a graded dirt road, on the right. At this point, you will be "behind" Red Mountain, a highly oxidized basaltic cinder cone that now has a reddish coloration. Because of the maze of dirt roads branching off from RM1444, you'lll need a good USGS map or directions from the local BLM office to find this site. While a 4WD vehicle isn't usually necessary, deep sand can accumulate on sections of the roads so a 4WD vehicle or a truck with a robust low gear is a good idea.

This is the high desert of southern California, with an elevation of about 3500 feet. Winter is a great time to visit, as it is cool and critters such as rattlesnakes are hibernating in their dens. You'll need to hike about a mile from the road to reach Steam Wells, and the petroglyph site is a basaltic outcropping that rises about one hundred feet over the surrounding area-----it is easily visible as you approach the site. Another clue you're getting close will be a distinctive "rotten egg" smell. This is a geothermally active area and steam wells were drilled to power mining activities at this location in the 1930s. While the wells have since been capped, they do leak enough to create an odor.

The petroglyphs are scraped into the basaltic boulders making up the outcropping. As you climb the outcropping, most of the boulders you'll see will have designs like the ones seen in the photos below:

When you reach the summit of the outcropping, you get an outstanding view of the surrounding desert------talk about being isolated!!-------and there are some petroglyphs at the top:

I have been reluctant to write about the Steam Wells petroglyphs because they have already been damaged by "outlaw archaeologists" who deal in the thriving black market for pre-Columbian artifacts. As you can see below, someone has very professionally cut away some of the petroglyphs, and those missing petroglyphs doubtlessly decorate the home or office of someone with more money than sense. Isolation and limited BLM resources makes sites like this sitting ducks for thieves.

After visiting the petroglyphs, you can follow your nose to the site of the actual steam wells, as shown below. I visited on a January day with the temperatures in the lower 40s, and I could actually see a few wisps of steam floating away from the well nozzles. The smell got a lot worse the closer you got to the wells, so I didn't spend much time there!