A Sacred Footpath

The Trail of the 57 Shrines

Jeff and I have been looking for this trail ever since Harlan told us about it when we first arrived at the Preserve in the fall of 2018. It’s not a marked trail on any of our maps. So, sorry, I will not share how to find this trail, but I will share the experience of walking along the over 500-year-old path of the Native Cahuilla Tribes whose lands we stole.

Harlan would explain to us how to find this trail, but we never did, that is until today when he hiked with us and showed us from a distance where we needed to descend and ascend to connect with a narrow footpath.

It is not obvious where to access this trail and even less obvious as to how to get there. (But, promise me! If you do, PLEASE be respectful. Stay on the trail and do not disturb any rocks or carry out a souvenir! Make this a memorable moment in your life and just take pictures.)

Once we stepped onto the narrow trail, I knew I was walking upon special ground and I felt connected to these indigenous people who learned how to survive and thrive in the desert heat and sand with a minimal supply of water.

As I respectfully moved forward, I so hoped that the sound waves from each step I took composed themselves into a song honoring the Native Cahuilla. You don’t know me and I don’t know you but I am your sister, your daughter, your student. You are my brothers and sisters, my parents, my teachers. (The only other time in my life that I felt this collective consciousness experience was when I landed in Africa and stepped off the plane. I was in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. My first thought, that came out of nowhere was, “I am home.“)

Prehistoric Trails in the Colorado Desert

The indigenous people of southeastern California and western Arizona left a lasting legacy of their presence in the form of numerous trails crisscrossing the Colorado desert. Their more modern contemporaries also relied on these same footpaths to travel between permanent settlements for trade and warfare, to travel to seasonal base camps to collect stone and foraging resources, and to travel to temporary campsites along exploitation trails. These ancient Indian trails were also ritual routes leading to sacred sites.

Research conducted in 1987 and 1996 hypothesized that the repeated pounding of feet upon these trails pressed the rocks of the desert pavement into the soil or pushed them aside to reveal the lighter-colored subsoil. A 2003 study, however, suggested the prehistoric trails were deliberately cleared. (scahome.org)



Cleared circles of various sizes are often found along trail segments. In 1966 Malcolm Rogers referred to these clearings as sleeping circles, suggesting that they represented temporary camps. (scahome.org)


Rogers also suggested that the ruins of large circular rock cairns along these trails indicated their existence as shrines, “simple offerings, generally rock, presumably in the belief that they would prevent fatigue, sickness or injury while traveling.”

Andrew Pigniolo, Jackson Underwood, and James Cleland concluded in 1997 that “the religious and spiritual significance of trails, added to the well-recognized importance of desert trails for trade and travel, provides a portrait of trail patterns as an extremely significant heritage resource.” (scahome.org)

Trail Shrines

Rock cairns, circular mounds of stones, petroglyphs, tobacco pipes, broken pottery shards, and shell ornaments have been discovered along these interwoven trails.

I found an interesting and helpful 2003 article entitled “Trail Shrines in Native American Rock Art” by Galal R. Gough, a member of the Utah Rock Art Research Association (URARA). (utahrockart2.org) The URARA leads in the preservation and understanding of the value of rock art, encourages the appreciation and enjoyment of rock art, and assists in the study, presentation, and publication of rock art research.

Apparently in 1999 Gough received pictures of rock art from the Coachella Valley Historical Society. The pics were dated 1968 and were later discovered to be taken around the Salton Sea. At this time in his research, Gough was only familiar with what he called Safe Passage Trail Shrines as mentioned in Stephen Byrne’s 2011 article. 

Upon further study, however, Gough discovered differences in the petroglyphs of various shrine ruins, suggesting the likelihood of 2 more types of native shrines, the Harvest Trail Shrines and Hunting Trail Shrines.

Now, this is where the research gets fascinating. In June of 1951 Paul Wilhelm wrote an article for the local newspaper, The Desert Sun, describing a trail he discovered across from Thousand Palms Oasis. Wilhelm named this trail, The Trail of 57 Shrines because of the “record number of rock mounds-Trail Shrines of the ancient Indians who once camped“ at the Thousand Palms Spring. 

Thus, Gough hypothesized a 4th type of shrine, existed. Because of sleeping circles and other indications of ritual taking place over several days, he called these shrines and others he studied Sacred Gathering Trail Shrines

our sacred journey

Desert pavement… a stony surface without sand or vegetation covering an expanse of the world’s drylands… (thoughtco.com)

Seeing its presence on a wide desert vista, dark with age, gives a hint of the delicate balance of slow, gentle forces that create desert pavement. It is a sign that the land has been undisturbed for thousands and thousands of years. (Ahem, another reason why staying on established trails is so important!)

The darkish color of desert pavement is due to rock varnish, a coating built up over many decades by wind blown clay particles and the bacteria that live on them. 

There are 3 traditional theories explaining the creation of these stony deposits:

  1. Lag Deposit Theory suggests that the wind blew away all the fine-grained sand particles from sand dunes and left the heavier rocks behind.
  2. Moving Water Theory suggests that occasional rains in the desert splashed loose the sand and fine-grained materials so that a flash flood, in the form of a thin layer of rainwater or a sheet flow, swept away these tiny particles, leaving the rocks behind.
  3. Heave Theory suggests that repeated cycles of wetting and drying of the desert soil moved the stones to the top. 

But wait! A fourth theory from Stephen Wells suggests that “stone pavements are born at the surface.” Thus, due to heave, stones remain on the surface. However, a deposit of windblown dust must build up the soil beneath the pavement. I don’t even attempt to understand this, but for geologists this means that this dust is a record of ancient climate just as it is on the deep sea floor and in the world’s ice caps.

(Alden, Andrew. “Theories of Desert Pavement.” ThoughtCo, Feb. 11, 2020, thoughtco.com/theories-of-desert-pavement-1441193.)

The footpath…

You are quite right noticing the rock piles beside the trails…

And yes, some sleeping circles lie ahead (pun intended)…

Desert pavement, footpath, and sleeping circle…


Remnants of Trail Shrines…


A view of Thousand Palms Oasis… Do you see the dark green palm trees in the distance?

A cactus “tale”… beavertail cactus, that is…

A barrel full of barrel cactus…

Back on the marked trails again… bird’s eye view of Thousand Palms Oasis and Thousand Palms Canyon Road.

And here’s a view of the trail and washes along Bee Mesa…

And this view of Mt. San Jacinto hovering over Palm Springs and the desert cities…

There is nothing dull about the desert! There is always more to discover!

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