Cocoraque Butte: A Trip Report


We rolled over the crest of Gates Pass on the skinny mountain road to witness vast Avra Valley stretching out before us. On the other side of this expanse, at the southern end of the Ironwood National Monument, we saw our destination. Just a few bumps, these small mountains would begin to rise in stature as our journey continued closer to them. Amongst this lies Cocoraque Butte, a sacred spot, filled with ancient petroglyphs.


The bottom of Arva Valley is a creosote forest. The bushes are alive in blooms of yellow flowers and those translucent little puff balls that look like dew drops. DF takes a cue from the Wizard of Oz singing, “Follow the yellow dirt road.”  The soil is very sandy. The topsoil is decimated in large tracks by cattle grazing where creosote keeps most of the ground cover at bay. There is a lot of desolate looking land.

Texas Longhorn

Partly because of this, there is hard evidence of the deep rutted slush that rains bring. Our directions warned of straddling dips and mud puddles, but these are not applicable in the middle of this drought season. There are plenty of hard ruts and bumps to crawl over.

Getting off of the pavement through the first of four gates, the trail becomes mostly deep sand akin to a sandy wash. There is much push to hold the steering in place and momentum is necessary in certain areas. It is a very long sandbox. Last year, my son preceded us here in his 4×4, getting a friend out of being stuck in the middle of the night.


One thing that was in evidence in this land of wide open desolate country is the fact that we are alone. We can see for miles. A vehicles dust cloud can be seen at great distances and sound travels. In-between the mountain ranges, there is little here for people to want. Soon we enter a place of foothills, which are populated by ironwood trees, mesquite and paloverde. In this bajada, the desert becomes lush and diverse.


Not far from the fourth gate, there is chain-link pedestrian gate. To the southwest there are hills in the distance. This is our apparent destination. I decide that I will need no backup clothing out here. It is approaching 90F and no one has been seen for a dozen slow miles. Then, I grab my wraparound to cushion my shoulder from the straps of my water bottle and camera. DF recommends that we carry shoulder protection from the sun. We don’t know how long that we will be out there. It is 11:00am. I concur.

We begin our hike, finding more sandy washes. The locomotion is more strenuous, like trudging through sand at a well frequented beach. There are tracks from previous footsteps and moister hasn’t graced this place in a couple of months.


Each step must be taken mindful of the many cholla clumps scattered everywhere. These are like landmines from exploding cactus. A small one gets past my gaze and makes a home between my five-finger’s toes. I manage to pick it out and discard the menace.

This place is well enough known to have a sandy trail leading out to it, but the thick loose sand gets tiresome. We take off into the desert for solid footing on occasion, when landmines become sparser. I lead us off of the trail toward the huge mounds of loose rock formations facing north, scouting for petroglyphs.


Walking around the base of this hill, we find little to do with our goal. As we begin to get to the south side, the regular trail emerges and we are led to a fire pit and a small warning sign on a stake. There we can see numerous petroglyphs among the steep mass of boulders. The sign warns of the penalties for defacing these national treasures. Touching them, or climbing on them can destroy them. Water spilled can take away the clues to their age, stealing the potential for accurate historical clues. The message is respectful.


We look for a trail. We know that others have ended up on the top where an ancient, but dead, ironwood stands. These trees can live for many hundreds of years. I have seen photos of friends on the branches of this one like Christmas ornaments. There is no trail, and little evidence of a popular route up there. It will be our scramble and exploration that finds our way.


The movement is slow. The surfaces of the rocks flake off like egg shells sometimes, making for an unwelcome potential for a disastrous slide. The rocks can cradle rattlesnakes in the shadows. These are boulders stacked up, a pile of them.


Seldom, but on occasion there is a surprise as one is just balanced and wobbles under foot.


Now, afternoon sun makes these black pieces hot to the touch. They sound like iron clinking together. Frodo climbing a peak comes to mind.


I notice my naked vulnerability. This is okay today, but I wouldn’t climb these nude on a hotter day.

Same as a pictograph at De Anza

Same as a pictograph at De Anza

We find our way. About ¾ of the way we have spotted a tripod and another just above it. We have scanned, but have seen no one and there were no cars parked anywhere. If someone were to actually show up out of nowhere, belonging to the camera equipment, we would have to grin and bare it. As we approach the tripods, I inspect. There are cameras on them, trained on a couple of the most elaborate petroglyphs.


These are wired to two wooden boxes, custom apparatus for what reason we don’t know. Perhaps it is time lapse. DF suggests they may be there to protect the art from vandals. Perhaps something to do with the coming equinox is being researched. We can’t know.

Eventually, DF tells me that she has had enough, she is hungry. The water is half gone. We slowly make our way down the boulder field to the shade of an ironwood, still snapping pictures of the art along the way.


These are less usual than the petroglyphs that we are used to, that are recognizable animals. The shade of an ironwood is very pleasant. We adjust our route to it, strip completely and rest.


From up here we see just how alone that we are. DF comments that nobody really knows that we are here. I assure her that at least one does.

At the base of the hill we stand in yet another small piece of shade, drink and then take off again. Suddenly, DF says that she hears someone coming. We stop and listen. Soon, we discover the wind of a small dust devil coming up the trail. We watch as the foliage moves about as it passes. Yes, it WAS someone, but not human, nor one objectionable to nudity.

We pass through the trail route, commenting on the comical personalities that some saguaro depict. Two standing together have a romanting positioning, I imagine. What do you imagine?


The largest fattest barrel, that I’ve ever seen, bristles.


We pick up a couple of pieces of pottery chard, observe and replace them. The ironwood’s leaves are turning yellow to make way for lavender and pink flowers very early this year.


Animal tracks abound and then we begin to see our own coming at us.


Blue corn chips and some local green salsa from the farmer’s market are delicious with fresh water in the shade of the truck. There will be no need for clothing. There is a fine outdoor shower at our next destination.


Our friend’s Baktifest

We have friends with an alternative community, who once each year hold a Baktifest. This is a devotional gratitude sharing party. They experiment with alternative construction, plant propagation, experiments in lifestyle and promote practical sustainable construction at their desert home.

We arrive and I take us straight to an outdoor shower to get the trail dust off. This sandy soil is great for barefooting and I resolve to leave my shoes behind for the rest of the day. The outdoor shower will be delightful; there is a spiral of wall, like a simple maze to enter. When we walk in, there are belongings strewn around. Half way into our short shower we hear a voice state that it had come back to get its stuff and excusing itself. We tell it that there is no problem, come on in, but it over politely refuses.

There is a slight breeze as we step back into the open air. A 90F in the sun day suddenly produces a lasting chill, “Burrr!” We dress in festive gear and head towards music.

We stop at a house to deposit my conga drum, protecting it from the weather and sit in the shade with friends until our band’s turn to play comes about. We then notice a new feature; a Jacuzzi is pumping nice hot water. We make a resolution to visit it later that evening, and continue on to the festivities, potluck, friends, prayer in circles, firepit and some very fun music and kirtan.

There is a very curious structure there called ‘the turtle.”


It is a large ferro cement sauna which has been shaped as a tortoise. Its unorthodox shape has cups to hold sound and reverberate with the hard thin shell. It is a favorite spot to tone, spontaneously humming, om-ing, sing and enjoy vibration, while being naked in a cleansing sweat. We stop in and have a seat to enjoy it, this time without the wood burning heater on. Soon a spontaneous gathering of a dozen follows in to participate in the fun harmony.


The owner has a new experiment going to show us. He has attached an old satellite dish to the roof, which is funneling light down a shaft with a metallic mirrored coating. The light is very sharp and clean, as it comes out of the reflective shaft. He at first has a red glass filter hitting a small disco ball and producing red bands of light in a circle around the room.


He takes this off and we then enjoy swirling rainbows instead. Dang! Where was this in the sixties?

We make our way through teepees, geodesic domes and odd shapes to cap our evening lounging naked in the jacuzzi water, but the heavy special cover has been closed for lack of use. Instead, we find ourselves making our way through the night 45 minutes to a cozy bed.


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