Trek Date: July 8th, 2013
Randsburg, Red Mountain, Johannesburg….all semi-ghost towns in the Rand Mining District along Hwy 395. And just a few miles northeast, in the Golden Valley Wilderness area, is an area known as Steam Wells. So-called because of the steam wells drilled in the 1930s to power mining activity in the area. Of the mining days there’s not much left to see, other than the ruins of an old stone cabin, a collapsed mine and some bits and pieces from the mining days. However, on a nearby basaltic outcropping, there is a great petroglyph site and that was my objective for the afternoon. I’d read about it in one of Death Valley Jim’s Secret Places in the Mojave Desert books and put it on my list of places to see.
Just north of Red Mountain on Hwy 395, I turned onto Trona Road and followed it for a mile to a small turnout on the east side of the highway. There’s a backcountry board with some information and a map of the area. I was looking for RM1444, which turned out to be the main road into wilderness. Following along the graded dirt road, I kept my eyes open for the little road markers that marked the way and the big rocks that were IN the way. I definitely recommend a 4x4, or at least a high clearance two wheel drive for this road.
After four miles of not turning off onto any of the many back roads that cut through the area, I arrived at a small turnout and trailhead. This was where I got out of the air conditioned truck and hit the hot sandy trail. It seems like I do a lot of desert hiking during the summer. But with the right gear and plenty of water, things generally go pretty well.
The trail was fairly easy to follow with just a gentle elevation gain, so no gasping for breath this time. After about a mile I came to a wooden gate and up to the right I saw what must be the pile of rocks holding the petroglyphs. I walked up the slope and then scrambled up the last few feet to get close to the boulders and begin my search.
It didn't take long. Within a few minutes I had spotted numerous petroglyphs etched into the surfaces of the rocks. Most of the designs I found were patterns that I couldn't figure out. They were created by shamans of the Kawaiisu people who occupied the territory in prehistoric times and may have been the result of vision quests. There were a few somewhat human looking shapes and a pretty cool bighorn sheep. One of the most interesting designs, two jagged lines with a set of horns, has been described by scholar David Whitley as being a combination of a rattlesnake and a bighorn sheep, both of those species being spirit helpers for the shamans (and after reviewing my pictures, I apparently missed finding that one!). The petroglyphs at this spot are over 1000 years old, with a few possibly dating back 2000 years.
After walking all over and around the top of the pile, and taking quite a few pictures, I headed back down the slope to investigate the canyon. I found the remains of a stone cabin and the collapsed mine, and possibly the remains of one of the steam wells. On the walk back to my truck, I took a slight detour up and over a colorful sand ridge and found the foundation remains of some structure that used to be there. Was it a house? A supply building? Some works connected with the steam wells? I don't know yet, but maybe someday I'll find out. And as there are apparently other petroglyph sites and mines in the area, I'll most likely be back again to see what else I can find.
Addendum: A fellow explorer recently shared his memories of Steam Wells from when he was a youth and had the opportunity to visit this area many times with his family. Great information that I'd like to share here:
"I just read your description of your hike up to see the petroglyphs near the old steam well in July 2013. Brought back good memories. I spent many weekends and holidays in that area in my youth in the 70s and 80s and the steam well was at that time located inside the back room of a house (this was long before the wilderness area existed). The house was owned by Virgil Ramey (AKA "Steam Man") for many years. He was a wonderful old timer with a gray beard who had lost his legs to gout and got around in a wheelchair. We had lots of visitors from Sweden over the years, and we would always take them out there at Thanksgiving to visit and take a plate of our Thanksgiving meal to Steam Man. Visitors would always leave a business card or something as a memory. He would invite everyone into the back room where he had a couch and the well head. He would crack the valve on the well and the room would fill with sulfurous steam. Very vivid memory, that one! Steam Man died in 1986 (you can find his grave in the Johannesburg cemetery), another grumpy guy moved in for a few years, then the wilderness area took over and the house was razed. I live in Colorado now and it's been about 20 years since I've been to the steam well, but thanks for the memory refresher."