Stay Away From Pinto Canyon

I found pictographs of Cabrillo's San Salvador east of Jacumba.

I returned to the area a month later with my friend Michael. I had piqued his interest with the news that Patrick and I had discovered the big pot. Michael had been taking a wilderness-survival course with the Sierra Club, so he was in perfect physical shape for an afternoon of exploration. During the drive out, we decided not to climb the same hill as Patrick and I had, but to hike around its base, which would be about six miles around. We started by entering a beautiful palm-filled canyon on the south side of I–8. Even though the canyon’s sandy floor was dry, we felt a sudden drop in temperature from the moisture in the air. This shady environment was a welcome contrast to the heat and blazing sunshine on the hillsides around us.

While Michael checked out some Indian grinding holes, or “morteros,” I inspected a single set of tracks leading ahead of us in the sand. The impressions reminded me of the combat boots I had worn in the military. That, plus the fact that the person wearing them was headed south, led me to conclude that either a hunter or a border patrol agent was ahead of us in the canyon. I knew that agents were skilled at following tracks left by other people. An experienced agent can ascertain many useful things, such as the walker’s gender and weight, their speed and direction, mental clarity, and whether or not they’re trying to avoid detection. I’ve also read that an agent can tell from the depth of a person’s tracks if they’re wearing a heavy backpack, as might someone who was carrying drugs.

We continued up the canyon, and within minutes we saw the man ahead of us. It was a lone U.S. Border Patrol agent in a green uniform, with a radio and a handgun on his belt. I knew that he wouldn’t like being followed, so I called out a greeting. He was startled, and I saw him move his hand over his holstered pistol. We walked on up and made small talk. The agent’s last name was Ramirez, and he was very polite. I thought it ironic that a Latino would be out here trying to keep other Latinos from illegally entering the United States. Anyway, I told Ramirez about the terrific pot we’d seen up on the hill, and how we hoped to hike to Pinto Canyon later in the season to see its petroglyphs. Ramirez shook his head and grimaced. He said that Pinto Canyon was a dangerous area, more of a war zone than a hiking destination. He said that for safety we should hike with a larger group and try to stay up north, inside Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. We thanked him but ignored his advice.

The canyon Michael and I were in eventually petered out onto a wide flat plain. After about a mile, I bent down to get some cactus needles out of my boot. I was surprised to see dozens of pottery fragments on the ground, most the size of a quarter or smaller. Further examination revealed that the whole area contained fragments. It looked like the area might have supported a large tribe — as opposed to just a place where a few individuals came for fresh water, as the stagecoach obviously had.

As we hiked on, we became more aware of footprints in the sand. Where before only a few had trod now there were groups of 20 or more. As always, the footprints led northward, toward the freeway. We also found hundreds of empty plastic water bottles from Mexican supermarkets. Michael and I really wanted to recycle all that ugly plastic, but we would’ve needed a dump truck to haul it. We walked another mile or so and came to something we should’ve expected. Sitting in the middle of nowhere was a big red Samsonite suitcase. It looked so out of place there in the desert that both of us just stood and stared. Finally, I gave in an opened it up. As I unzipped the cover, I thought about the movie White Sands. In it, a small town sheriff finds a half-million dollars in cash on top of a desolate butte. Unfortunately, our red Samsonite didn’t have any cash, only a new pair of Nikes, various articles of female clothing, an address book, and airline tickets — from Guadalajara to Mexicali — dated five days before.

The feeling you have while looking through someone else’s suitcase must be similar to what a detective feels while they investigate a crime scene. You’re trying to solve a puzzle using clues provided by the victim. The clues in this case showed that a Mexican woman had abandoned her suitcase while crossing into the United States. She was desperate, and judging by the red suitcase with its tiny wheels stuck in the sand, she was ill prepared. But we were grateful to have found only the suitcase and not its owner. The daylight was fading and neither of us wanted to be out here at night. So instead of finishing our hike around the hills, we cut directly over them and hiked straight to the car. In all we had spent five hours outdoors in 90 degree weather, and we were both very tired.

The agent’s description of Pinto Canyon being something of a war zone was confirmed in the news. Operation Gatekeeper has fortified the border areas at Tijuana, Mexicali, and El Paso so well that thousands of illegal immigrants are now choosing to cross the open desert — often with disastrous results.

While I was in Maui photographing a wedding, my friend Michael went on another Sierra Club hike. Their group made a quick one-day trip from Mountain Springs Road to the top of Pinto Canyon, a 12-mile hike. They didn’t hike far enough down the canyon to see the petroglyphs, but they stumbled upon something quite horrible. Michael told me that he was about 100 feet ahead of the group when he saw something in the sand. What at first appeared to be a pile of clothing turned out to be a dead girl of approximately 12. She was wearing a small backpack, and judging by the mummified look of her skin, it appeared that she’d been there for several weeks. The rest of the group caught up with Michael, and a couple of them got sick. Someone guessed that the girl might have died suddenly from heat stroke. Later in the afternoon, the leader of the group reported the body and its location to the Border Patrol.

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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. ( 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.

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!

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.

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.

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, ( We were trying to hike down to Pinto Canyon from Moon Valley. Didn't go well, but we survived.

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 -

"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.

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!

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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

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):

Here are more of my photos:

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,


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...

best wishes -


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:

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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