NEW YORK TIMES- It was 105 degrees, and I was in the Mojave Desert looking for ancient images of goat-like creatures. I scanned the rock formations with my binoculars and then scrambled over some boulders and descended into a wash that was once a river. I guessed that only a handful of people in the world even know about the goats — they are that obscure. In the wash, I noticed the fine gravel was disturbed by a large animal. There were no droppings of wild burros, so that ruled them out. The only other large animals would be bighorn sheep, mountain lions or mule deer, but they would not compress the gravel in such an irregular pattern.
The only thing that could have made that sign was humans. I squatted down and looked closer. There were heavy steps each way. They could have been made two days ago or two years ago. Such imprints in the desert do not go away easily. I tracked the disturbed gravel up the wash, and off in the distance was a rock wall stained the color of rust and blood. I had found the site of the rock art known as 21 Goats.
Earlier in the afternoon, I had written in my notebook, “Gold Butte is beautiful but not breathtaking.” I was thinking about how it compares with other great destinations of the American West such as the Grand Canyon, the Badlands or Devils Tower. Gold Butte National Monument is inhospitable desert country with some small, plain-looking mountains and buttes. It certainly has some wondrous rock formations and a rugged beauty and remote emptiness that I admire, but I did not initially think it would ever, as I wrote, take my breath away. I was wrong.
When I spotted the goats, I made a sound that was a cross between a gasp and a hiccup. Although the site is called 21 Goats, the petroglyphs are commonly interpreted to be desert bighorn sheep, the monarch of the Mojave Desert. The bighorn is considered one of the greatest trophies among modern hunters. Among the sheep were snakey lines and bull’s-eye circles.
This collection of petroglyphs is one of the reasons Gold Butte is one of America’s newest national monuments. It was designated by President Barack Obama during his last days in office using the Antiquities Act, which gives presidents the authority to create national monuments. The Gold Butte proclamation protected 296,937 acres of land. However, some people think that is too much, and that caught the attention of the Trump administration. In April, President Trump issued an executive order calling for a review of 27 monuments. He asked Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to lead the review and make recommendations to possibly rescind the monument status, reduce the acreage or let it stand. Presidents have amended national monuments, but none have ever delisted one.
Of the monuments to be reviewed, Gold Butte may be the least known. Even Google Maps hasn’t recognized its borders as a national monument yet. On the interactive map, the area of Gold Butte remains white while all the surrounding lands that have some sort of protected status are demarked in public-place green.
While preparing for the trip, I asked around in the nearby town of Mesquite if there were any official maps for the Gold Butte area. Something that showed the topography, back roads and way points. All the answers were negative with one guy saying I should try to find “one of them old B.L.M. maps,” referring to the Bureau of Land Management, which manages the monument. I made do by hobbling together a sheaf of maps of varied detail that I printed off the internet. As I would later learn, there are designated routes for off-road vehicles and a main road, Gold Butte Road, which is designated as a National Backcountry Byway by the B.L.M., but as for hiking, you have to figure that out as you go along.
I stopped at the library in Mesquite and asked if they had anything on Gold Butte. The helpful librarian guided me to a shelf of books on Nevada history, but none of them mentioned Gold Butte in their indexes. However, from behind the desk she did find a book from a local author. She handed me a 1992 copy of “Crazy Ed’s Sagas and Secrets of Desert Gold” by the late Eddie Bounsall.
Mr. Bounsall, a prospector and maker of build-your-own-airplane kits, educates the reader about mining and minerals in the region but also covers a lot of ground on other subjects. “I’ve never believed in ghosts before but in the last 22 years living in the Gold Butte area we have had many very strange supernatural incidents happen with my family and to people who either worked for us of who were just visiting,” Mr. Bounsall wrote before recounting some goosebumps-inducing events. In a chapter on U.F.O.s, he presents a sure-of-himself argument that the human-shaped petroglyphs found on the rocks are space people, and the local Native American tribes have been in touch with them for a long time. He also theorizes about how the early Spanish explorers left behind hidden treasure vaults of gold and silver in Gold Butte and the surrounding region. The Spaniards figured they could always get it later, so they left symbols etched to rock walls that indicated the secret way to the motherlode.
Suddenly, Gold Butte National Monument got a lot more interesting.
On the way to Gold Butte, I crossed the Virgin River. On the north side of the river were two flagpoles, each with an American flag flying. Atop one pole was some metalwork that said “We The,” and the pole next to it was topped with “People.” Down below on a fence, a tattered banner hung limp. It read:
FOR GOD WE STAND
This is the stomping ground of Cliven Bundy, the anti-government provocateur who grazed his unpermitted cattle on Gold Butte rangeland and had a standoff here with government authorities in 2014. His ranch is right down the road. Across the bridge and at the turn off for Gold Butte Road, there is a gravel pull-in with some Plexiglas-covered B.L.M. signs about respecting and enjoying the desert, packing out trash and encouraging drivers to stay on marked routes. The signs are peppered with bullet holes. This is a common affliction among signs in the Gold Butte area.
Past the Bundy Ranch and some horse farms, the road goes into an expansive valley, and another sign appears, one so new that it hasn’t been shot yet. It’s the only official B.L.M. sign that I saw naming this place as a national monument. This is the jumping-off point. There is no ranger station, no information kiosk, no visitors’ center, no restrooms, no water, no shelter. This is also where cellphone coverage peters out.
After this sign, the valley widens and Joshua trees, which are primarily found in the Mojave Desert, appear. It’s not a woody tree but more of a fibrous sponge that stores water. I inspected a dead one, and it had the feel of a crusty coconut husk.
While driving along, a shiny gleam in the creosote bushes caught my eye. This, of course, must be some of that Spanish silver Crazy Eddie wrote about. I stopped the Jeep and got out. Time to get paid. About 150 yards off the road, I found it: a Mylar party balloon with the words, “Way to Go Grad 2017.”
While pondering how man-made rubbish can still find its way far into no-man’s land, a covey of Gambel’s quail flushed off to my side. They are prized game birds among Western upland hunters. Gold Butte also holds chukar partridges, found in higher elevations. It is said that you first hunt chukars for fun, and the second time you hunt them for revenge because the cardiovascular workout is so brutal.
Gold Butte was deemed worthy of monument designation for historical and cultural assets but also for environmental and conservation reasons. It is where the Great Basin, Mojave Desert and Colorado Plateau merge. The Joshua trees are a rare and iconic American treasure and Gold Butte has plenty of them, along with its cousin, the Mojave yucca. It holds multiple subspecies of cholla and prickly pear cactuses. All of the plants take a long time to grow. The barrel cactus that dot the hillsides can live to 130 years. Near 21 Goats, the Las Vegas bearpoppy is being restored. The plant grows only in Clark County, where all of Gold Butte is located, and cannot be transplanted. Near the Devil’s Throat, a giant sinkhole over a hundred feet deep, grassland is being restored after wildfires in 2005.
The desert was surprisingly full of life. Every time I hiked through the scrub, road runners, fence lizards, kangaroo rats and blacktail jackrabbits skittered under the creosote bushes. Up above, I spotted a golden eagle soaring on the drafts, and in the distance, I caught a glimpse of a prairie falcon diving at some doomed ground-dwelling creature.
Gold Butte is a large, flat-topped hill, and the only settlement here went by the same name. Upon my arrival at the ghost town of Gold Butte, jackrabbits bolted from every direction. At one time, this spot had a post office, store, saloon and hotel. An estimated 2,000 miners lived here — mostly in tents — during its peak in 1908. They mined copper, gold, zinc, lead and magnesite. The boom died off in 1910.
I hiked around and found mattress frames, tangles of rusty wire, an old oven, a sink, water tanks, an old stovetop range, a collapsed corral, metal drums, a couple of concrete pads and a large mining contraption. Most of these items had been used for target practice. There are two graves surrounded by a fence of metal piping.
On the hillside, I found a mine. The entrance to the mine was fenced off, but there was no sign stating you can’t go in there, so I climbed over the fence. When I illuminated the mine with my penlight, there was an odd-shaped rock. It slithered. Maybe a panamint rattlesnake or a Gila monster. I climbed back over the fence.
Although the ghost town left me unimpressed, the highlight of the trip was another petroglyph site near 21 Goats. It was a grouping of sandstone formations; if you imagined for a moment, you could see how the early Native Americans of Gold Butte survived within this harsh landscape. The formations provided shelter and shade and even water by way of tinajas, which are smooth-sculpted holes that can hold water for a long time.
Hidden in the cliffs is the image of a man falling. The Falling Man is a mystery. No one is sure what it means, much like similar images in the Cave of Swimmers in the Sahara. It stands completely alone from the other rock art and this is contrasted by a nearby boulder that is completely covered with petroglyphs. It’s Newspaper Rock, one of many newspaper rocks that are scattered over the deserts in the American West. It’s like an ancient storyboard, but good luck making any sense of it. There are human footprints, a tortoise, more bull’s-eyes, more goats, squiggly lines and a rainbow. I sat in front of it and pondered the images until thirst set in and I had to hike back to the Jeep for water.
I’m sure Crazy Ed led a hell of a life chasing Spanish hoards and prospecting for gold, but the real treasures of Gold Butte aren’t buried underground. They are often right in front your face. You just need to burn some boot leather, and then at the right spot, look up. There they are. They will take your breath away.
If You Go
How to Get There
Fly into Las Vegas, rent a four-wheel drive vehicle and head toward Mesquite, Nev., approximately 90 minutes away. On Highway 15, take exit 112 and head south on Riverside Road. Once you cross the Virgin River, you are in Gold Butte country.
Some road sections of Gold Butte can be handled by a 2WD vehicle, but a high-clearance 4X4 is the smartest and safest way to explore the rugged back roads. On the dirt roads, you will have an average speed of 10 to 15 miles per hour, and your teeth will still rattle. It is very slow going on some roads.
Pack enough food and water to last for at least three days, along with standard emergency and survival gear. Bringing a can of gasoline is also wise. The possibility of a vehicle breakdown deep in the backcountry, with no cellphone signals and the extreme heat of the Mojave Desert, can make for a dangerous situation. During my explorations of Gold Butte, I saw only two other vehicles and not a single person. The possibility of nobody coming along to help you for a very long time is real.
Mesquite is the best town to start or end an adventure in Gold Butte. Think of it as a miniature Las Vegas. It has a handful of affordable resorts, casinos, all-you-can-eat buffets and restaurants. In town, you can gather provisions and last-minute supplies at convenience stores and supermarkets and, most important, top off your gas tank.