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The drawings were stick figures of men, rectangular grids, and most notably, a tall sailing ship, complete with a mast and furled sail.

"There’s some petroglyphs over in Pinto Canyon," Frank said as he passed me on the trail. Frank Johnson, a handsome 75-year-old man, with flowing white hair and a superb knowledge of hiking trails, is something of a Sierra Club celebrity, and he was leading our hike into Fossil Canyon — just south of the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. I was frustrated that a man of his age could outpace me, but I’d never hiked ten miles in the sand before. Frank’s words about petroglyphs startled me because during 20 years of hiking I had never seen one. Now here I was with a dozen tough old Sierra Club hikers who had seen so many as to not give a damn. I knew that they’d protect these historic sites by not giving out their exact locations, so when I finally caught up to Frank again, I was cautious about asking him where Pinto Canyon was.

“Get yourself a USGS map for In-Koh-Pah Gorge,” he said. “Then follow the international border east from Jacumba until you reach Pinto Canyon. The pictographs are located directly under the letter P, where the word Pinto is printed on the map.”

Grateful for the information, the next day I bought the map at Adventure 16 in Solana Beach. That evening, my friend Michael and I examined it. Pinto Canyon was right where Frank had said, about eight miles south of Interstate 8, between the Jacumba Mountains and the Yuma Desert. The small canyon meandered from inside the United States down toward the town of La Rumorosa, in Mexico.

I wanted to get a couple of sturdy friends and hike to the canyon immediately, but a closer look at the map revealed some very rugged terrain. Furthermore, there’d be no water or emergency assistance of any kind available during the hike. We’d have to carry everything we’d need. We’d need at least a gallon of water per person, per day, and more in case of emergency. That meant about 20 pounds of water sloshing around in our backpacks in addition to the camping gear.

Out in the desert, if you run out of water, you’re going to die. The notion that you can satisfy your thirst by cutting into a cactus is mostly fiction. Cacti are tough, covered with stiff needles, and filled with nothing more than warm pulp. So your time out hiking in the desert is strictly limited by the amount of water you can carry. A hiker who gets lost and runs out of water is going to perish. Besides being as dry as a bone, the area around Pinto Canyon has other dangers. Because of the canyon’s proximity to the international border there’s the risk of running banditos, “mules” carrying drugs, or “coyotes” leading groups of migrants into the United States. My hiking buddies and I were capable of traversing difficult terrain, but we weren’t accustomed to running into armed men, or desperate, perhaps even starving people.

But my desire to see these petroglyphs was stronger than my fear, so I prepared for the Pinto Canyon hike by making a dozen or more day hikes in the nearby Jacumba Mountains. As both my confidence and that of my hiking partners increased, we allowed ourselves to hike farther and farther out into the desert.

Patrick Brady accompanied me on one of the early hikes. We met on a Sunday morning at the Coffee Bean in Del Mar, where he and his brothers Raymond and Noel hang out. The Bradys are Irish. Patrick is an artist who runs an apple orchard up in Julian. Raymond and Noel work in construction. They’re tough — the kind of men a little guy like me needs to accompany him in rough country. I was a little worried because it was September and it was going to be hot. But the heat didn’t dissuade Patrick. He and his brothers worshipped the sun. They often drove out to Borrego just to escape the fog along the coast. So a hike out near Ocotillo Wells would be right up their alley.

Patrick and I climbed into the car and got started. We had a long drive. From Del Mar we took the I–5 south to the I–8 east. We drove through El Cajon, Alpine, Pine Valley, Descanso, and Jacumba. Then just past the San Diego county line, we exited the freeway at Mountain Springs Road. The Mountain Springs exit doesn’t go anywhere, but it gives drivers a place to turn around if they have to. The border patrol agents who watch this sector lay a wary eye on anybody who gets off the freeway here. This is a popular place at night, when coyotes load their trail-weary customers into cars for transportation north to Los Angeles and elsewhere.

Patrick and I drove under the freeway and onto a dirt road, which leads to the remnants of old Highway 80. Built in 1926, the foot-thick steel-reinforced road looks as though it was built yesterday. We parked at the end of the highway and put our backpacks on. There was a dangerous descent onto Interstate 8, then a mad dash across it, after which we entered a sandy wash — pristine except for the footprints of a dozen people headed northward. Patrick and I stopped to explore an old abandoned stone structure, which may have been the Mountain Springs stagecoach stop. Inside the old building, we found rusty mattress springs, empty tins, an old cast-iron stove, and lots of mouse droppings. There was absolutely no trash or graffiti inside the old building — a surprise, since we were only 200 yards from a major freeway. On the other hand, it is a testament to just how empty and desolate this country is.

We left the old house and climbed the high, boulder-covered hill behind it. This was my favorite kind of hiking — diverse terrain, places of historical interest, and the possibility of discovery. It was about 90 degrees and I was baking. I was a little worried since Patrick hadn’t drunk any of his water. He was more interested in smoking American Spirit cigarettes. Maybe the nicotine dulled his thirst. Anyway, up near the top of the hill, we saw three huge boulders pressed together. There was a sandy patch between them, with a thin shaft of sunlight streaming down into the center. I wanted to go inside to get out of the sun, but the opening to the room was small. So I got down on my stomach and crawled in like a snake. Inside, I was shocked at what I saw. Sitting near the edge of the room was a huge Indian pot, maybe 16 inches high and a foot in diameter. It had a lateral crack but was otherwise in good shape. I scanned the rest of the room but saw nothing else. Lying there in the sand, I felt as if I had just gone back 500 years. I almost expected a old Indian to pop out. Patrick crawled in after me and gasped. In hushed voices we talked about the irony of finding this old pot here — just a couple hundred yards above Interstate 8. On the busy freeway below, carloads of people raced toward El Centro. But here inside this small cave, we sat with the ghosts of the area’s first inhabitants, a Native American culture that struggled to survive in this rugged and unforgiving country. I finally bummed one of Patrick’s cigarettes and lit up. The two of us blew smoke rings out to the Great Spirit.

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SpaceCowboy June 9, 2009 @ 3:59 p.m.


Don't sweat the small stuff. If you're looking for more hikes in the immediate area, check out the topo map. Between the east and west bound I-8 lanes, you'll see there's an Island of land that's been isolated for years. If you look there, you'll see a Jeep Trail going down Devil's Canyon. This is the old Freight Route, and it hasn't seen a Jeep on it for thirty years. (www.desertusa.com/mag99/july/stories/dcwalk.html) Cool stuff all along it. Going north underneath the first bridge (if you're walking east) takes you into the backside of the ABDSP. Nice hike, some tight spots.

If you're looking for petroglyphs, cruise up to Moon Valley, walk east until you can't, then turn north, and you'll come across a trail. All along it there's more of what makes Pinto Canyon petroglyphs so creepy. The lads had to have been smoking some good stuff, I tell you. The only question is, are these the real deal or some stoners from the '70's who had some spare time on their hands.


Visduh June 4, 2009 @ 9:19 p.m.

This story started out sounding reasonable, but the final episode about the successful locating of the petroglyphs descended into absurdity. This sounds like the outline of a screenplay for "Laurel and Hardy Meet the Sands of Time", or would it fit better for Abbott and Costello?

Both are supposedly savvy desert hikers, yet one improvises a sleeping bag that doesn't work, they discard their breakfast because it doesn't taste right, and then separate. If it really happened as described (and I'm skeptical of that) their friends could now be mystified as to why they died in the desert just a few miles from the interstate, after abandoning camping gear.

Give us a break!


elmexicano June 5, 2009 @ 12:53 p.m.

First part of the story is interesting, then it starts getting dull. I finished reading it and I seriously thought i would get to see the pictures that were taken... NONE - The more I thought about it I think the story was made up. No one in their right mind goes into a hole (cause he crawled into the rocks on his stomach). The first thing i thought was that it would be filled w/snakes. Come on.


Shadowbox June 5, 2009 @ 11:22 p.m.

Even the most novice outdoor enthusiast learns the mantras "tread lightly", "leave it like you found it" and "if you pack it in, pack it out".

Yet, the author didnt think twice about leaving a tent, sleeping bag and ground cloth in much the same manner as the discarded water bottles referenced with dismay earlier in the story.

A bit contradictory if you ask me and yet another reason to question the credibility of the story.


SpaceCowboy June 6, 2009 @ 8:32 a.m.

We used to drive out to Pinto Canyon, through Davies Valley, and hike up Pinto Wash to the petroglyphs, maybe a two mile hike. The 1st one we came across, we called the bug man.

Compared to Indian Hill, or most anything on the north side of I-8, these petroglyphs seem unhinged, like the artist did way too much Datura.

Then they passed the Desert Protection Act, shut down Davies Valley to wheeled vehicles, and effectively moved the Mexican Border north three miles.

Because of those early trips, we know where the water is. If you can't find the water, you're doomed. I take that back. You're challenged. You can go without water for a day if you just stay out of the sun. You can move in the morning when its cool, you can move at night. There's just no reason to abandon gear, especially when it really isn't that far out.

There's three or four water sources that are easy to find. Unfortunately, the Illegals, for some reason, crap in the water. I have as yet to have anyone explain the 'why' to me, but considering these springs are the only sources for the local wildlife, you can bet all the Big Horn Sheep have been sucking on human feces.

We know some water sources that are too difficult to get to to defecate into.

That rock structure he came across is not the old stagecoach station. The old station is north of the freeway, its existence long ago destroyed by the freight station that you still can see there. There's another similar structure south and west of the one Robert found, and there was a wood structure next to the water up in the valley above Moon Valley, not too far away from Smuggler's Cave, that burned down not too long ago. Illegals trying to stay warm, started a fire in the old stove, nearly killed themselves. These structures lay pretty much in a line. Most everyone seems to think these were line shacks for sheep or cattle ranchers, although that top one was called the Marshal's Cabin.

The suitcase: I have walked down from above several times, and picked up enough clothes for a run to Amvets. I've got several really nice sweaters for the effort.

I don't know if its kosher, but I've got an article at DUSA, Desert Sprite, (http://www.desertusa.com/mag99/oct/stories/sprite.html). We were trying to hike down to Pinto Canyon from Moon Valley. Didn't go well, but we survived.


AmigoKumeyaay June 7, 2009 @ 7:43 p.m.

Dear Mr. Marcos:

"It looked like the area might have supported a large tribe" Perhaps Kumeyaay? The nearby town of Jacume (Mexico) translates to 'In the middle of the water' in the Kumeyaay language.

You need to study up on NAGPRA Law when handling indigenous artifacts -http://www.nps.gov/history/nagpra/TRAINING/Discovery_Fed%20_Lands.pdf

"I thought it ironic that a Latino would be out here trying to keep other Latinos from illegally entering the United States."

Agent Ramirez is serving the U.S.A. with honor, to prevent the entry of dangerous people (terrorists, MS-13, Surenos, other criminals) and dangerous items (explosives, radiation devices, drugs).

Quite often the Border Patrol Agents save the lives of those that have underestimated the difficulty of the terrain.

About 52% of the Border Patrol Agents identify themselves as Hispanic-Americans. Nothing ironic about good jobs for motivated persons.

"We ditched the lousy tent, sleeping bag, and ground cloth, leaving them for some lucky passerby." Could be littering, but maybe you were focusing upon your survival by then?

Well, I'm glad you survived your expedition into Pinto Canyon. You have some studying to do before attempting another.


Robert Marcos March 26, 2014 @ 7:23 a.m.

Amigo - I agree with you completely. I'd like to talk more and learn about your Native American ways. It might make a good story!

[email protected]


robertmarcos June 8, 2009 @ 10:31 p.m.

Hi this is Robert Marcos. I've read the comments above, and I agree with some of them. However my article was an honest account of my experiences. If some of the facts sound ridiculous then chalk it off as ignorance. I never claimed to be an environmentalist or an expert hiker. We did not remove the old indian pot from its place in that small cave. I regret ditching my cheap-ass gear out in the windy wasteland of Davies Valley, but I was physically exhausted. If you can't relate it's probably because you haven't wandered far from home.

Thanks for taking the time to write!

Robert Marcos


robertmarcos June 10, 2009 @ 3:48 p.m.

Thanks to everybody for their comments. Something quite interesting has happened since the article came out. I received a call from Maggie Platt at the SD Maritime Museum. They wanted to know more about the image of a sailing ship which I mentioned was etched into the rocks near the bottom of Pinto Canyon. They want to try to identify the type of vessel, probably Spanish, and include it in an upcoming exhibition.

Another man emailed me about an old tale which claims that a Spanish vessel - searching for pearls in the Sea Of Cortez, (historically accurate since the city of La Paz was established for this purpose), sailed up the Colorado River and became landlocked somewhere west of Mexicali. The abandoned galleon became the stuff of legend. Sighted by both the Yuman Indians and white businessmen, it was last reported seen in 1833, as reported in Los Angeles newspaper.

Finally here is a website dedicated to the tale of a Viking ship which some say sailed up into the inland sea, (now just the Salton Sea): http://www.insidetheie.com/ghost-ship-desert-salton-sea

Here are more of my photos: http://robertmarcos.com/pinto-canyon


AmigoKumeyaay June 13, 2009 @ 10:56 p.m.

Mr. Marcos,

Excavations of remains of the indigenous Tongva (north of San Diego County) have revealed necklaces with glass beads determined to have originated in Venice, Italy in the late 1800's.

No doubt the ancient local populations witnessed seafaring "explorers" from time to time, then explained the sighting to others in petroglyphs (no Polaroids back then).

Your article helps to keep interest of the first people in San Diego alive. They "had to be" environmentalists and expert hikers, being in tune with their surroundings to survive generation after generation.

Be safe out there,



robertmarcos June 14, 2009 @ 12:20 p.m.

Yesterday I accepted a request from Maggie Platt (of San Diego Maritime Museum) and her husband, to lead them to the petroglyph site at the bottom of Pinto Canyon. As I mentioned earlier they're very interested to see if the ship that's depicted is that of Juan Cabrillo's San Salvador, which first sailed into San Diego bay in September of 1542.

So Maggie, her husband Ted, my friend Chris and I met yesterday in Ocotillo. Our plan was to drive our 4x4's eight miles further south on Clark Lane, to the bottom of Pinto Canyon. But it turned out the the BLM has installed a locked steel gates across the road. So we got nowhere.

Still seeking adventure, we made u-turns and drove 14 miles north of Ocotillo to Indian Hill,to hike to to the colorful "Blue Sun" petroglyphs that are hidden in a small cave.

Here's my photos... http://robertmarcos.com/indian-hill

best wishes -



dgunde June 18, 2009 @ 7:56 a.m.

Please check my youtube site for the latest on IN-KO-PAH gorge, got down there last week for 1st time w/ video: nice windy conditions. Love this place!

got some nice shots of the trains crossing CO river in Yuma:


Rev0l3 Sept. 14, 2017 @ 3:08 a.m.

I just saw Robert's segment on "Mysteries of the Missing" and was intrigued by why it took a year of prep to hike into Pinto Canyon in search of the petroglyphs. The details of the hike are not explained in the show (obviously the focus is on the lost ship legends) so it was nice to find this account of the hike.


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