This Desert Is Covered in Rock Graffiti

Just remember: You can look but don’t touch, and here’s why

The Valley of the Names is located in an isolated patch of desert in Southern California. (The Greater Southwestern Exploration Company - Flickr/Creative Commons)
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Remote doesn’t even begin to describe the land encompassing the Valley of the Names. Located on a swath of the Sonoran Desert in the southeastern reaches of California, it takes a four-wheel-drive vehicle just to gain access to this sandy expanse. The nearest cities are Yuma, Arizona, 15 miles to the south, and El Centro, California, about 70 miles to the west. In other words, the Valley of the Names isn’t merely a place you stumble upon. It’s a place you have to want to find.

The sheer isolation of the region could begin to explain why so many people over the years have left their marks there. Across the bone-dry hills are hundreds of examples of rock graffiti—black stones laid out to form names, dates and other details. Perhaps it’s a way for visitors to prove they survived the 100-plus-degree temps and rugged terrain that define the region. No one knows for sure how the markings began, although a common theory is that it all started when General George S. Patton set up Camp Young, the headquarters for the Desert Training Center, in the early 1940s. It was there that he prepared soldiers for battle as part of the North Africa campaigns of World War II, gearing them up for desert warfare.

Passing through today, there’s little evidence that this desert was once home to the world’s largest military installation, with its boundaries spreading like tentacles across Southern California, Arizona and Nevada. After the war, the military relinquished the land to the Department of the Interior, and today the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) manages the approximately 1.4 million acres of public land including what is now known as the Valley of the Names.

Neil Hamada, an assistant field manager for the BLM’s El Centro field office, says that while people are encouraged to visit the site, which is designated as an Area of Critical and Environmental Concern (ACEC), they should abide by outdoor ethic principles, specifically “leave no trace” and “tread lightly.”

“What we tell people who like to go out to this part of the desert is to follow some of the rules to protect our resources in that area,” says Hamada. “One of the main ones is to stay on the trails. What I tell folks is if you’re going to go out there, don’t take anything out there with you, and don’t take anything from the desert—just take pictures.”

Hamada adds that the BLM advises people not to bring their own rocks to create new graffiti, including rocks gathered along the hard-packed dirt roadway leading to the Valley of the Names, which crosses through land belonging to various Native American tribes in the area.

“That area is known for having desert tortoises [listed as threatened by the Endangered Species Act], and we don’t want to impact their habitat,” he says. “When people start to bring their own items out there, they increase the risk of bringing out invasive species. For example, a seed from the Sahara mustard could be brought out on a rock that somebody brings from their home. Once it takes seed out here and there’s a good rain, now we have an invasive species that will impact the resources for all of the animals out here.”

Keeping those things in mind, Hamada doesn’t want to dissuade people from visiting the Valley of the Names, but rather, simply to be cognizant of the land and the animals that call the region home.

“If people follow these kind of outdoor ethical principles, they’ll have a good time and protect the resources,” he says. “Also, it is the desert, so I’d advise people to be careful in the heat, especially in the summertime.”

In other words, bring water, and plenty of it.

To access the Valley of the Names, take Picacho Road from Winterhaven, California, and bear left at the fork, which is Barney Oldfield Road. A four-wheel-drive vehicle is necessary for access. It's also visible via Google Maps.

About Jennifer Nalewicki

Jennifer Nalewicki is a Brooklyn-based journalist. Her articles have been published in The New York Times, Scientific American, Popular Mechanics, United Hemispheres and more. You can find more of her work at her website.

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