The Trail Keepers

By Susan Myrland

“THE DEEPER the trail, the more it’s been used,” says Tribal Ranger Wade Stevenson as he navigates the gentle but steady incline of Andreas Canyon. Another clue is the color of the sand. It turns dark along ancient passages, the residue from thousands of years of campfires.

The well-worn routes threading the Indian Canyons didn’t appear overnight. They were chosen, built, and maintained, persisting through time, signifiers of the social fabric of the Cahuilla people.

“Every trail led to water,” he continues. “You have to have water to survive out here.” An overnight camp or village would be established away from any danger of flooding, and leading to more trails used for hunting, gathering, trade, or visiting family. Palm Canyon was the Cahuilla people’s Interstate 10, linking to pathways connecting people from the Colorado River to the Los Angeles Basin. As recently as the early 1900s, multiple families would travel up Palm Canyon every October to gather nuts near Pinyon Flats, almost 15 miles away.

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Modern-day travelers expect to find grocery stores and gas stations along their route. Indigenous trails offered provisions, too, but an effort was required to secure them. Sycamore and cottonwood trees were lightweight enough to transform into bowls, utensils, and portable mortars. The yellow-flowering brittlebush — pá’ akal in the Cahuilla language — acted as an anesthetic. Mothers calmed teething babies by rubbing the sap on their gums. In summer, honey mesquite and screwbean mesquite pods offered a tasty, high-protein snack. Mesquite thorns were collected for sewing and tattoos, and the dense wood carved into bows and sticks for hunting. Fourwing saltbush made for a nice lathery soap, while the anti inflammatory properties of creosote bush soothed sore muscles after a long trek. These plants and others continue to thrive alongside the Indian Canyons trails.

Design and Maintenance, Then and Now “All trails were built with function and purpose,” Stevenson says. “The Cahuilla were very aware that going up the side of a mountain was going to wear them out a lot quicker than switchbacking. They were engineers in their own right long before they had any
sort of European contact.” Intrepid hikers tackling the West Fork Trail will appreciate those switchbacks as they ascend to 2,600 feet, perhaps spotting signs of old villages along the way. The trail was an important route for the ancestors of the Agua Caliente Cahuilla, who lived in the Indian Canyons, to interact with the Mountain Cahuilla at higher elevations.

Today, Stevenson and other Tribal rangers patrol and maintain 60 miles of trails such as West Fork, keeping them in pristine condition. Trails must be graded at a slight angle to allow drainage, and stable enough for hikers. A key feature, unnoticed by most people, is a “water bar,” an elegant system of flat rocks or wood beams, trenches, and sand. Water bars redirect rainfall to prevent undermining the trail, while adding traction and gradation.

Rangers perform trail work primarily between July and October and maintain the trails daily, year-round. To reduce fire risk, they regularly clear underbrush and haul it out in 5-gallon buckets and burlap sacks. The Indian Canyons haven’t experienced fire since the devastating Dry Falls Fire in 1980 that tore through more than 28,000 acres and blackened native palm trees along the trails.

Stevenson points out that the ancient Cahuilla carried out the same tasks with hand axes made of obsidian and rhyolite found around the Salton Sea. “Their job would’ve been 10-times harder than ours, but they did absolutely fine with it, and they were consistent,” he says. “That’s why these trails are still around after millennia. They would repair them as soon as they were washed out.”

Respect the Land
Fortunately, most visitors know the Indian Canyons are private, sovereign land, the ancestral home of the Agua Caliente people, not a public county, state, or national park.

Stevenson draws a comparison between irreplaceable pictographs and petroglyphs in the Indian Canyons, and someone’s mementos in their home. “You wouldn’t go into somebody’s house and alter their photo albums,” he says. “You wouldn’t go in their back yard and change the plants. This is the same thing. It all comes down to respect for the land.”

This article originally appeared in the Spring/Summer 2024 edition of Me Yah Whae magazine,the official magazine of the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians.

Photography by Ethan Kaminsky

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