Quiet, serene, lively, spiritual, a good place to sit, be still and listen; Grapevine Canyon lies within the boundaries of Lake Mead National Recreation Area. This lush riparian habitat is an oasis in the Mojave Desert, a necessary resting spot for migratory birds and hallowed ground for Native Americans. It is located a few miles west of the Colorado River where the river divides the Mojave and Sonoran deserts at the very bottom of the state of Nevada. A traveler can reach it by driving west from Laughlin, Nevada on one of those drives that seem to go to the middle of nowhere. Sometimes nowhere is a good place to be, and if your eyes are open and your soul receptive a lot can be learned in these out of the way places.
After parking, it’s a short, easy hike along the wash to the canyon portal. During wet years a steady stream of water flows through the canyon, exiting the canyon mouth only to disappear into the sandy stream bottom just a few yards down the wash. In dry years, a hiker can find water but only in the form of a few stagnant pools, yet a close inspection reveals that even the stagnant water sometimes harbors a lively collection of tadpoles. But always, whether or not the steam flows from a good supply of winter rains, a spirit flows through this canyon and pours across its landscape. Regardless of a modern day visitor’s beliefs and sensitivities to the concepts of the spirit world, there is ample evidence that the indigenous people of generations past believed certain locations to be sacred. Quite often Native Americans adorned the surrounding stones and boulders of these consecrated locations with petroglyphs – what is frequently called rock art. Petroglyphs are symbols and pictures carved on the dark, weathered surfaces of exposed rocks. When the dark surface is chipped away the carving reveals the rock’s lighter, almost white, substrate. Quite often the carved symbols are abstract and geometric designs, but they can also be easily recognized symbols for bighorn sheep, snakes, humans, the sun, etc. There is plenty of speculation on the purpose and meaning of petroglyphs but few definitive answers. Some have wondered if the carvings are little more than ancient graffiti, but considering the effort that it takes chip away the hard stone that notion seems implausible. Petroglyphs can be found throughout the west, but a few locations where there numbers are especially concentrated hold special meaning to indigenous people. In this case, Native American tribes that live along the Colorado River and in the surrounding Mojave and Sonoran deserts attribute significant importance to Grapevine Canyon believing that it is a gateway on a journey to an even more sacred place – nearby Spirit Mountain (Avikwa’ame). Spirit Mountain is the highest peak of the Newberry Range, and at approximately 5600 feet, it overlooks most of the terrain surrounding this portion of the Colorado River. The tribes of the Colorado River region regard Avikwa’ame as the birthplace of their ancestors and home to their Creator (Mastamho). This is sacred land, and a visitor should step lightly and realize that they are treading through the equivalent of a Christian cathedral, a Islamic mosque or a Buddhist temple. It is an utter disgrace that some of the petroglyphs have been chipped away or otherwise vandalized, probably for profit but sometimes just for spite. One must wonder on the condition of the perpetrator’s soul who would commit such a desecration, restless and wanting and never content. Karma always plays the long game.
The visit to Grapevine Canyon starts from the car park with a short, easy upstream hike along the wash. Even before sunrise the air is saturated with the sounds of cooing doves, calling quail and perhaps a honking raven. Walking due west in the early morning, the “magic hour” sunlight paints a beautiful view as it illuminates the east facing Newberry range. The bottom of the wash is covered with a stand of desert willow trees, each adorned with gorgeous purple and pink flowers that attracts a squadron of humming birds constantly buzzing and diving through the airspace. Dawn is the best time of the day; the chorus of birdsong is lively; the air is calm and fresh; the solitude is genuine and enduring. Perhaps, at the early hour the body is penalized for lack of sleep, but the soul is rewarded ten-fold. Stepping up to the mouth of the canyon, one is confronted with a rock buttress that guards the canyon’s narrow opening. Nearly all of the large boulders and stones are covered with petroglyphs, clearly signifying to the ancient people that the sacred journey begins here. Most visitors don’t venture too far past this point. However, the adventurous type that’s inspired to pick their way up the canyon’s rocky terrain, scrambling over house-sized boulders, stepping through the wild grapevines and over the tenuous stream will find additional rewards in the far upper reaches of the canyon. Inside the canyon, the steep terrain is favorite habitat for a most interesting little bird, the canyon wren. The canyon wren’s song is distinctive, loud and haunting; think of a flautist playing a descending musical scale. Yet, this lovely tune is sung by a very shy and diminutive little bird. In fact, you will clearly hear a canyon wren, but you will rarely see more than a quick glimpse as it quickly flitters about from perch to perch. I think of the little wren as the unofficial mascot of Grapevine Canyon making its presence known but unseen, singing a haunting song that has accompanied humans stepping through the canyon for a millennium.
Hiking further up the canyon several previous attributes of the area reverse themselves. The canyon bottom widens and its walls flatten a bit; the splashy stream in the steeper, beginning section is likely to now flow underground; the large boulders are replaced with Freemont Cottonwood trees, and the tiny canyon wren is replaced by its larger cousin the cactus wren. Unlike its smaller cousin’s charming call, the cactus wren’s call, harsh and raspy, is hardly melodic. Think of a stalled car that has an engine that will crank but not start. Seeing the larger wren will not be a problem as it proudly announces the area of its domain from a prickly perch atop a teddybear cholla cactus. This is an interesting native bird, a real desert specialist that has adapted to an exceptionally harsh climate. It rarely drinks water, getting its necessary liquid from the bugs and fruit that it consumes. Saluting its toughness, the cactus wren will not only perch on the ferocious teddybear cholla, it actually prefers it as a nesting site. Despite its cute name and fuzzy appearance, this variety of cholla cactus is covered with a dense layer of exceptionally sharp thorns. The small pads of this cactus, covered with prickly thorns, easily breaks away and adheres to clothing and flesh. Thus the teddybear cholla is sometimes known as the “jumping cholla.” Once impaled, removing the pads is a difficult and delicate procedure. The individual thorns are as sharp and stiff as sewing needles and equipped with tiny barbs making them especially difficult to remove once embedded into a person’s or animal’s flesh. So heed this warning and stay clear! The cactus wren takes advantage of this attribute and builds a home that is almost impenetrable. It is common to see the wren’s football-sized nest lodged deep into the limbs of larger cholla specimens. In fact, the wren will build several nest within its territory and not only use one for the purposes of raising young, but will return to another nest each night throughout the year to roost. Yet, the teddybear cholla cactus, despite its infamous reputation produces the most beautiful flowers in April and May. The leather-like petals are mostly yellow with shades and streaks of orange, red, copper and/or green, and the flower’s bowl-like shape makes convenient access for pollinators. The cactus wren easily negotiates cholla’s prickly pads, hopping around the ultra-sharp thorns, dipping its beak into the flowers and emerging with a collection of bees and beetles, a ready supply of food for itself and its young. In the desert few things are more iconic than cactus, always tough yet exceptionally beautiful in April and May.
We experience our world through five senses, seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting and feeling. Some may argue about other senses, and Grapevine Canyon could be an ideal location for them to state their case, but for the moment, let’s focus on the more tangible senses. Somewhere, and possibly not too long ago, our sense of sight came to dominate our outdoor and natural experiences. The mantra is almost always, “the view is stunning” and “you have to go and see for yourself.” Should we blame Ansel Adams and his many majestic photos for our heighten emphasis placed on the the visual and depriving our sense for the aural? All joking aside, certainly there is plenty to see in Grapevine Canyon, but that’s only a part of the experience. A little ways past the canyon’s portal, the terrain flattens a bit to form a natural amphitheater, a perfect place to engage your sense of hearing. Find a resting spot, perhaps under a shady cottonwood tree or, if the sun is not too warm and intense, perch on a rocky point on the hillside. Sit quietly and deliberately and give the location some time to accept that your presence is not a disruption or a threat. In the calmness of the moment, a beautiful entanglement occurs between the remerging scene and the visitor’s settling mind. If all goes well, a state of equilibrium is reached between the desert’s offerings of stillness, quiet and solitude and the visitor’s state of acceptance and contentment. In the quiet moment, the listener’s range of hearing expands from a few feet to a few hundred yards and is tuned to the subtle elements of the soundscape, the cactus wren’s raspy call on the far hillside, the noiseless breeze that makes its presence known only by rustling the cottonwood leaves, the loose stone kicked up by a ground squirrel only a few feet away. Be quiet and still and close your eyes for as long as you can. Try and think about nothing and let the moment consume you. It’s like the last line from Wendell Berry’s poem, “The Peace of Wild Things,” “For a time I rest in the grace of the world and am free.” This is what makes Grapevine Canyon special to me, quiet, serene, spiritual. Here in this lovely place, sitting still and being quiet, something emerges to touch my soul. I do not understand the meaning of the hundreds of different symbols carved onto the rocks, although I can appreciate their significance. I do not understand the meaning of the many bird songs that I hear along my hike, yet I marvel at the sweetness of their melodies. What I do understand is that all of the qualities that make Grapevine Canyon, its quiet and lovely soundscape, its isolation from modern society, its rich history literally carved into the hillside make it a very special place and a favorite listening point.
Please note these words of advice: it would behove visitors to exercise a bit of caution while hiking in desert terrains such as Grapevine Canyon, especially in the warm months of April, May and September. Visiting during the hot summer months of June, July and August defies common sense! However, the area can be especially pleasant during the remaining months of the year. When you visit, carry a little more water than may be necessary, carry some food, basic first aid and sunscreen. Wear long pants, a long-sleeved shirt and a hat. The cactus thorns and intense sun can be brutal. Venturing past the canyon’s mouth, there is no established, maintained trail, so the footing can be rough, uneven and unpredictable – wear hiking boots, and carry an ankle wrap in case of an unfortunate misstep. And a final word about steps, this is rattlesnake country, pay attention to where you place your feet and hands. Never place either in locations that are not plainly visible.