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Despite that terrible news, I returned to the area a few weeks later with my friend Tom. Tom is a professional photographer and a veteran of many rugged adventures. He’d hiked to Havasu Falls in the Grand Canyon and had just come back from a weeklong backpacking trip in Utah’s Escalante Canyon. Regardless of Tom’s experience, I knew that he was absent-minded and often forgot to bring essential things. Like the one time when he was three hours late meeting me for a hike. When he finally arrived at the Pacific Crest Trailhead, he had forgotten to bring his hiking boots and water.

But Tom had jumped at my invitation to accompany me to the petroglyphs, and I was glad to have him along. At the car we divided things up. We got two gallons of water each. I got the tent and he got the ground cloth. Tom insisted on bringing a professional four-by-five camera and tripod, so he could take some highly detailed pictures of the petroglyphs when we found them. To accommodate the big camera, he chose to leave his sleeping bag in the car. Tom was older, stronger, and more experienced than me, so I was not in a position to second-guess him about leaving his sleeping bag. But I didn’t understand why he couldn’t just bring a regular 35mm camera.

I felt well prepared. I’d spent the previous evening pouring over my USGS map, penciling in compass headings both in and out of Pinto Canyon. I’d noted some obvious geographic references, like pointy volcanic peaks and dry lakes, so we could judge our position visually. The only thing we didn’t have was a handgun, which would have increased my sense of security. Tom and I had talked about it, but we decided that stealth would be the best defense.

We crossed the freeway and headed directly up the ridge. I was mortified by the weight of my backpack. I carried 60 additional pounds with each step and balancing was difficult. It took us an hour just to reach the 100-foot-high ridge above the freeway. It was back breaking, but at least it wasn’t hot. In fact, it was cloudy and there was a chill in the air. The cold weather and the discovery of the child’s dead body had cast an ominous shadow over this outing. As I walked, I had the acute feeling that something bad was going to happen and that we had better get in and get out as quickly as possible. I felt as if we might walk around a bend and right into a dozen desperate immigrants, either lost or being led by an armed coyote. Neither of us had any idea how we’d react if this happened. But as we continued, the land opened up, and it was obvious that we were very much alone.

We stopped often to examine the country ahead of us. There was no trail to where we were going, and the geography changed constantly. We couldn’t follow the compass headings I’d charted because the terrain simply wouldn’t allow it. A high cliff or a mile of high boulders would impede us. Therefore, we used the visual references I’d established. We’d hike toward a tall cinder cone for an hour, then when we reached it, we’d hike toward another landmark farther on. Surprisingly, this vague system worked.

We reached the upper part of Pinto Canyon about five hours after we left the car. We wanted our campsite to be hidden, so we set the tent up in a low area surrounded by mesquite. Once the tent was up and the packs were stowed inside, we hiked on down into the canyon. I had waited over a year for this moment. The inherent danger only increased the rich sense of discovery I felt. The canyon was narrower than I expected, but it was very pretty. There was a rich contrast between the nearly vertical rock walls and the soft, almost sensual sandy floor. The canyon turned so frequently that you never knew what lay ahead. Occasionally, we found small pools of water, and there was evidence that at times much of it had flowed. Tom was carrying his large camera and tripod, and we scanned the canyon walls for the petroglyphs. About an hour later, we came upon them. There were three flat rocks covered with crude drawings, right at eye level. The marks had been made by scratching the top layer of rock off, revealing a lighter colored layer underneath. The drawings were stick figures of men, rectangular grids, and most notably, a tall sailing ship, complete with a mast and furled sail. It sounds stupid, but after waiting a lifetime to see a petroglyph I was unhappy to find a drawing of a sailing ship. Damn! Where were the woolly mammoths and saber-toothed tigers? A crudely drawn picture of a sailing ship meant that the drawings weren’t more than 400 years old. The artist may have spent time at the San Diego mission and had seen a Spanish supply ship sail into port. It was interesting but not the least bit ancient. Tom shot some photographs, then we headed back to camp.

After dark, we made a small fire, and I made tuna macaroni. I’d been making tuna macaroni since I was in the Boy Scouts. It’s easy to make, and it’s filling. Since Tom had left his sleeping bag behind, he tried to form a bed by using my down jacket and other loose articles of clothing. He took what would have been my pillow and put it under his back. It was bitter cold, and our cheap tent flapped in the wind constantly. As though there wasn’t enough noise, at about 2:00 in the morning a Border Patrol helicopter flew overhead. The agents onboard used a loudspeaker to tell a group of immigrants to stay where they were. Then they landed nearby and held the people until agents with vehicles could arrive. The result of all that activity, combined with Tom’s constant twisting and turning, was that neither of us got a wink of sleep.

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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/...) 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!

<p>[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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