There are some innately impressive American Indian spots throughout Nevada… places where you can feel a sense of true sacredness without any shred of doubt. Whether you’re standing on top of the Alta-Toquimas at prehistoric hunting blinds, zeroing in on the best examples of pictographs in the continent, or entranced by a native delivering folklore live in action, it’s all-powerful because it’s “in the wild,” uncased, and velvet-roped, some unacknowledged for thousands of years... Or best yet, still “undiscovered.” It’s special and powerful, and has been part of our story for thousands of years. But the first time you swing through Gold Butte? It’s going to be like someone turned all the lights on in your world for the first time.
With National Monument swag, it’s at Gold Butte where you can bask beneath the starry skies, get your ghost town fix, drink in some CCC history, stare down the devil’s throat, and of course, refocus your perspective about what these lands mean to Nevadans, both past and present. #DFMI
IT'S NEVADA'S SACRED SOUTHERN PARADISE
Hate to break it to all my southern Nevada adventurers, but this beautiful little slice of paradise has been sitting right under your dang nose and, best yet, is enhanced by a Southern Paiute significance that cannot be understated. Mentally, Gold Butte National Monument feels like it’s far away from the Vegas metro area, but in all reality, it’s just on the back side of Lake Mead, or the opposite side of the Valley of Fire. Right. There. But before you dig too deep into the recreational possibility on these public lands, remember this: the reason this place is protected, important, and available for all of us to love is because of the people who called this area home first. These peoples were a Moapa band of Paiutes who lived in this vibrant spot of pre-bordered Nevada, around 3,000 years ago. The face-meltingly perfect geological formations are something to write home about, but the second you lock eyes with the most impressively detailed petroglyph panels in the state, or visit a prehistoric agave roasting pit or ancient rock shelter, it’s easy to see why this place, along with the other 300,000 acres, is deliciously protected and yours to admire.
BUT FIRST! LEAVE NO TRACE IS AN IMPORTANT ONE HERE, GUYS
The Leave No Trace mindset is a pretty aggressive approach, and one to be taken seriously if you want your children to keep visiting these places. That being said, though we are always in the mindset of stewardship, conservation and downright respect for other people and places around these parts, LNT is a movement even too intense for us. Gold Butte, my friends, is the exception. When you’re in this amazing place, you’ve gotta embrace all things LNT, guys. After all, the biggest challenges the folks who help protect this euphoria face is unintentional damage caused by people like you and me. The oops-I-accidentally-stepped-on-a-pottery-shard or backed-into-a-3,000-year-old-rock-face-that-then-collapsed kinds of boo-boos. Here are ways to help make sure you’ve got those outdoor ethics dialed in…
- Things at Gold Butte are hardly ever as they seem. The history here is so rich and plentiful; just use that as your guiding light. Sometimes you might think you’re rolling up on some trash, and it’s an ancient Midden Area, full of extremely fragile important archaeological artifacts and information. Or you find a flower that doesn’t seem all that special, and it turns out it’s only one of a handful of its type in the entire region. Treat everything you come in contact with like a precious artifact… chances are, it is.
- If you find an arrowhead, spearpoint, metate, or any other ancient American Indian artifacts, the best rule of thumb is to leave it right when you found it. Nothing is wrong with taking a few pics, but leave that sucker right where you found them. Not only is taking them extremely uncool, it’s also illegal.
- Stay on the trails! They’re built for a reason, and though it may not look like it (especially to the untrained outsider’s eye), the Mojave Desert is an extremely fragile ecosystem that many protected species depend on to survive. By staying on the trails, it ensures that archaeological and ecological resources stay protected. It’s better for everyone.
- It’s BLM, so camping is allowed just about anywhere for a maximum of 14 days. That is, EXCEPT camping on or near ruins. That, my friends, includes all kinds of ruins: ancient American Indian sites, CCC infrastructure, and old pioneer digs. No matter what thread of history you’re after, these places are all part of the story and all fragile.
- Fire danger is as serious as a heart attack in Nevada, use that noggin. By all means, build a campfire while you’re staked out in Gold Butte, but do so responsibly, and do NOT build fires near alcoves. It might seem like the most ideal cozy spot for a campfire, but more often than not, these are archaeological ruins. Play it safe, and stick to a good ol fashioned fire ring.
- PuhhhhhLEASE! Don’t add to the artwork. While you’re there, you might see hooligans who have etched their 2009 insignias onto the walls, or even worse, decided to whip out their gun and shoot at rock faces. Can you hear our eyes rolling all the way from Carson City?? Please remember that these petroglyph panels are some of the largest, most detailed, and outright impressive in the state. More than that, they were—and still are—incredibly sacred.
- Leave it better than you found it, guys. This is a must for anyone ever spending any amount of time in this National Monument—or anywhere. You know the drill: pack it in, pack it out. That means hauling out ALL your own trash (and if you want bonus points, picking up other people’s crap, too). There are 30 site stewards in the area that keep a close eye on sensitive areas within Gold Butte, but do you part and act like you’re borrowing the landscape from your children… you are.
ADVENTURE MOBILE'S ONLY, PLEASE
The road connecting Interstate 15 to Gold Butte is paved, but noooooot paved in the sense you’re familiar with. To be straight: the road was paved like 50 years ago, and has slowly eroded in a way that will make you want to make sure you’re carrying 2 spares and have every last iota of gear tightly bolted down. I will be the first to admit that when someone tells me they’ve been down a rough road, I’m instantly skeptical. This is the backcountry; how bad are we really talking? At Gold Butte, though, IT’S ROUGH. Like reallllllllll rough. Expect to find chunks of old asphalt missing from the road, big ol’ bumps without warning, and loose sharp rocks that have made their way onto the road’s surface.
The “pavement” ends at Whitney Pocket, which is the first official site to ogle over. The roads turn to dirt and immediately improve, but that doesn’t eliminate the need for high clearance. Travel with a 4X4, and if you can’t swing that, contact Friends of Gold Butte who may be able to arrange for someone to help you get out there. Be prepared, but don’t be scared… After all it IS true adventure we’re after, right?
...THIS AIN'T THE LONELIEST ROAD, BUT YOU BEST TRAVEL PREPARED TO SURVIVE
While I’m off to a solid start on really scaring the hell out of you, let me conclude my rule rundown with this: you’re about to springboard into a really remote area of Nevada with no services, and that means no cell phone coverage, on any provider. If you swing through in summer months, PLEASE travel prepared to survive in case something you hadn’t planned on—like a flat tire or car problem—goes down. You’re a good solid 30 miles from civilization, and getting stuck in 115 degree heat with a 12 oz. bottle of water and flip flops sounds like my personal nightmare. As a good rule of thumb, be sure to dress in lightweight layers, bring a hat, plenty of water, sunscreen, a spare tire or two, paper (real) maps, and let someone know where you’re headed before you peel off grid.
FIRST THING'S FIRST: THAT CCC HISTORY YOU KNOW YOU CAN'T REFUSE
If I had to choose only one favorite thread of national history that made its way into the heart and soul of Nevada and can still be experienced, it’s gotta be the lasting impression left by the Civilian Conservation Corps. Imagine the fangirl moment when figuring out Gold Butte not only had a CCC connection, but encountering at the very first stop. There’s enough at Whitney Pocket to keep you busy for most of the day, and a good place to set up camp for an overnighter at this National Monument. Since we’re digging deep into the past, why not start with the most recent history and work your way back? Setting up here is a sure way to zero in on an impressively intact dam, built to catch water for nearby ranching, and an American Indian shelter that was take over by the CCC and turned into a storage room.
Amazing how far we’ve come in understanding the importance of historic preservation in less than 100 years, right?
PEEL BACK THE SECOND LAYER AT A DAMN COOL PIONEER PIT STOP
We’re back in the bus, and delving deeper into history to solidify the worst-case-scenario depths of my imagination… mining in 115-degree heat in an area with not a whole heck of a lot of water. Though difficult to imagine, Gold Butte manages to align with the rest of the Silver State’s mineral rankings, and it too was also a popular mining site. As pioneers made their way West, the town of Gold Butte was formed where prospectors set their sights on gold, and even copper. The town of Gold Butte ballooned to about 2,000 people, and the area soon became significantly trafficked by wagon trails en route to Saint Thomas… which is now sitting beneath the watery edge of Lake Mead. When rambling through the Gold Butte Backcountry Byway today, keep an eye out for pioneer names inscribed on rock walls using their wagon’s axel grease near Mud Wash. The poor man’s petroglyph maybe, but still part of the history in this neck of NV. [Remember! Just because they did it doesn’t mean you should… so don’t.]
THE PLACE IS HOME TO SOME MIND-MELTINGLY RARE FLORA & FAUNA
Though it may not look it, these lands are home to a handful of super rare species with deep ties to the Southern Paiutes, ranging from the Spring Mountains all the way up through the Desert National Wildlife Refuge. The Southern Paiutes, or Nuwuvi, praised the species that roamed the Mojave Desert, like the desert tortoise, bighorn sheep, eagles, and many endangered plants like the Bear Paw Poppy. The desert tortoise has held a longstanding importance to the Nuwuvi, who used the reptile’s shell for both practical and ceremonial purposes, and the Bear Paw Poppy is indescribably rare, found only in a handful of places in the region today. Gold Butte just so happens to be one of ‘em.
THAT MADE ITS WAY INTO THE HISTORY BOOKS, TOO.
The Nuwuvi left hints of their lives here as they learned to coexist with the land in the Moapa Valley. That, and the stories recorded on hundreds of petroglyph panels throughout Gold Butte are a window into some deep ancestral history and tradition. Maybe that’s why American Indian sites like these pack such a powerful punch: we really have no real way of knowing exactly what the creator or artist was thinking, or documenting. There’s a lot left open for interpretation, which as the visitor, allows the possibility of forming your own ideas or theories when checking these magnificent sites out. The petroglyphs are hard to ignore, and the pros estimate there are a crazy-impressive TWO THOUSAND sites within Gold Butte. That whole warming-up-in-the-etiquette section urging you to be careful because you might be stepping on a legitimate artifact and not even realize it? Yeah, knowing there are 2,000 sites ought to tighten that lens a bit. And those are just the top of the top, archaeologically significant places. Signs of Nuwuvi life can be seen at rock shelters with blackened roofs, agave roasting pits, trails imprinted in sandstone, broken pottery and rock tools left throughout the area, and of course, many, MANY really good petroglyph panels.
THE REAL SHOWSTOPPER AT GOLD BUTTE IS THE PETROGLYPH PANELS, GUYS
From the rock shelters to blackened agave roasting pits, the way that the Nuwuvi used the Mojave Desert landscape is endlessly interesting… really, beyond description. You can’t weaken that sauce—especially since many of these sites are essentially hidden in plain sight. But the real showstopper at Gold Butte, without a shadow of any dang doubt, are the petroglyphs. HOLY WOW, GUYS. There are so many incredible sites throughout the entire state that are worthy of an afternoon, but lordy! I’m going to say it—these are the best in the state. There are just so many of them—most of a can’t-believe-it’s-real quality that they almost feel fake. But the thousands of petroglyphs here couldn’t be any more real, on permanent display in a place anyone who fancies themselves a Nevada adventurer needs to bump to the top of the list. You’re going to have to work for it a bit, but the area has 400 rock art panels (like the one above), covered with an estimated 3,500 individual petroglyphs. I knooow my jaw isn’t the only one dropping over here, guys.
PLUS, THE PLACE IS A PALEONTOLOGICAL TREASURE TROVE
If the petros didn’t send you over the edge, the neverending amount of incredible rock formations found here are sure to do the trick. Gold Butte is a geologist’s/rockhounder’s/paleontologist's freakin’ paradise, people. Every single formation in sight has so much depth, and experts are saying the National Monument has over 500 million years of geologic history exposed in its layers. Best yet, the ancient sites don’t stop with the petroglyphs… many fossil sites are found throughout Gold Butte, dating back 170 to 180 million years. In recent years, experts have discovered and documented countless fossil footprints of dinosaurs and protomammals that lived in the Jurassic Period. Paleontologists sometimes call areas where fossils are found “trackways” and have zeroed in on a particular one at Gold Butte dating even farther back to the Permian Period. This study has led them to believe that Gold Butte may have been home to creatures that lived before the dinosaurs… by about 50 million years. NBD. At about 290 million years old, the path these ancient creatures followed is the oldest vertebrate trackway in Nevada and Utah. #DFMI
...WE'RE TALKING ABOUT NEVADA'S PIECE OF THE GRAND CANYON, HERE
Yep, ya better belieeeeeeve. The whole bewilderingly vibrant, hair-on-fire red aztec sandstone ain’t no coincidence, friends, and is another feature that makes Gold Butte Gold Butte. The place is home to some spectacular, wind-eroded magic at places with names like Little Finland, or Hobgoblin’s Playground. Part of the 500 million-year-old geologic magic at Gold Butte is the range of colors, which is so vibrant it will make processing them with the naked eye hard to make your brain believe. Yep, a thick interval of strata that is missing from the actual Grand Canyon lies right in the heart of little ol’ Gold Butte, baby.
AND IT'S ALL YOUR OWN AMERICAN HISTORY, TOO
The amount of impact this specific area has endured over the past 500 million years is truly a brain bender to put into perspective, and I know it ain’t just me. From creatures that roamed this region millions of years before dinosaurs to 1905-style mining camps flooded with gold-hungry prospectors to rock formations that are impossible to get a bad picture of, how can you not find a way to fall head-over-heels in love with Gold Butte? But then there are the people—those who adored this landscape like no other and called the area home for thousands of years. The real native Nevadans. While its National Monument designation comes as a major relief to so many non-natives, imagine the wave of emotion Southern Nevada Paiutes are experience, knowing that this multi-dimensional wonderland is protected and that their ancestral history can live on for good.