Mysterious Blythe Intaglios | Sacred Symbols in the Desert

Mystery surrounds the origin of the Blythe Intaglios—AKA the Blythe Geoglyphs—and scientists continue to attempt to date them as they develop new radiocarbon dating technologies. Although Native people of the area have known the sacred sites for generations, the forms were “lost” to European eyes. “Lost” until the 1930s when a pilot saw the figures from above.

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I’d never heard of the Blythe Intaglios located just over the Colorado River in California until my recent visit to Minnesota. What? That’s a roundabout story! Yes, the tale begins when aerial images of giant geoglyphs projected on my sister’s television screen on a cold winter’s night outside Minneapolis captured my attention. As we watched Aerial America on the Smithsonian Channel, the camera took us soaring over puzzling pictograms in the baking-hot California desert. Never before had I seen anything like the Blythe Intaglios—also called Blythe Geoglyphs. So, when hubby Dan wanted to go dirt biking in Quartzsite last weekend, I invited myself along. That way, I could investigate the mysterious symbols for myself.

Obsure Origin Dates of the Desert Effigies

aerial photo of dark red desert floor with human figure scraped into the desert varnish - the figure, one of the Blythe Intaglios, is light tan in color
Blythe Intaglios – Human Figure 1, October 2016 | Photo by Rsfinlayson via Wikipedia

Mystery surrounds the origin of these ancient forms, and scientists continue to attempt to date them as they develop new radiocarbon dating technologies. Although Native people of the area have known the sacred sites for generations, the forms were “lost” to European eyes. “Lost” until the 1930s when a pilot saw the figures from above.

Almost invisible from the ground

The Blythe Intaglios are challenging to see because of their sheer size and horizontal position on the harsh desert land. When you walk next to the gravel glyphs, up to 171 feet long, the etchings can look like simple trails. Those with untrained eyes could walk along the markings without ever knowing the human and animal forms were there. Unfortunately, some have ridden wheeled vehicles over the sacred sites creating scars in the desert glyphs. Consequently, the Bureau of Land Management built protective fences around them. Geoglyphs or intaglios are more tricky to see than petroglyphs, which are often positioned on the sides of canyon walls, making them easier to detect with the human eye.

See the Sacred Glyphs the Same Way that the Ancients Saw Them

two men read interpretive signage at Blythe Intaglios near fence with wooded poles
At the Blythe Intaglios site, you can see much from the ground

Although the Blythe Intaglios are best seen from the air, you can observe much from the ground. You will experience the desert and the glyphs the same way the ancient people experienced them. From their setting on the high mesas, you can discern the blue waters of the Colorado River below to the east and the Big Maria Mountains to the west.

Remember, these sites are sacred to Native people, so please show respect when visiting. Leave no trace principles apply to all outdoor areas.

Can you visit the Blythe Intaglios? What’s it like to visit the Blythe Geoglyphs?

The Blythe Geoglyphs are located on wild, Bureau of Land Management (BLM) public lands, so there is no entrance fee. You may visit the Blythe Intaglios any day of the year. But since the effigies are positioned on dry terraces or mesas in the most arid region of North America, you’ll need to bring plenty of water, sunscreen and sunhats. Unfortunately, no water or other services are available at the site.

Although we drove a 4WD vehicle to the sacred sites, you can reach the ancient forms, which some call the sleeping giants of the desert, on a gravel road in a two-wheel-drive vehicle.

Blythe Intaglios location

The Blythe Intaglios are located just west of California State Highway 95, 15 miles north of Blythe, California, and 74 miles south of Lake Havasu City, Arizona. The geoglyphs lie within the traditional bounds of the southern Yuman tribes.

Blythe Intaglios map

Below is a Blythe Intaglios map that shows the position of the “lost” sacred sites

long light-colored lines in the sand offset by darker colored background of desert-varnished pebbles at Blythe Intaglios
Blythe Intaglios, January 2022 | UNSTOPPABLE Stacey photo
BLM sign in the desert reads "Blythe Intaglios" near dusty gravel road
Watch for this sign on the west side of California State Hwy 95, 15 miles north of Blythe

How old are the Blythe Intaglios?

As I mentioned earlier, scientists are still trying to pinpoint the age of the Blythe Intaglios. The BLM website states that the Blythe Intaglios are between 450 and 2000 years old. However, a study using accelerator mass spectrometry (AMS) radiocarbon dating tightens the time range of the Blythe Intaglios from A.D. 550 to 1150. According to that report, the Blythe Intaglios are between 870 to 1470 years old.

How many Blythe Geoglyphs are there?

man seen between tow mesquite bushes walking up rubble in drt creek bed
Hubby Dan bushwhacks through dry streambed to the third Blythe Geoglyph site

Although there are over 300 geoglyphs in the surrounding Lower Colorado River desert area, there are six Blythe Intaglios at the BLM site. The six geoglyphs, including human, animal and spiral forms, are positioned at three locations. You may drive to two of the locations that have small parking areas and interpretive signboards. Then, you’ll have to bushwhack through a dry creekbed to the third location, which is on a high mesa south of the gravel road between the two other Blythe Geoglyphs sites.

How were the Blythe Intaglios made?

disembodied hand points at dark colored pebbles on ground surface
UNSTOPPABLE Stacey points to thin surface layer of pebbles, cobbles, and stones coated in a manganiferous rock varnish
The terraces or mesas on which the Blythe Intaglios were created have a thin surface layer of pebbles, cobbles, and stones coated in a manganiferous rock varnish. Scientists believe the coating is made of clastic clay minerals cemented by chemical deposits of manganese and iron oxides. Black rock varnish covers only the pebbles, cobbles and stones on the surface layer. Underneath this thin layer are lighter colored silts and unvarnished pebbles, cobbles and gravel. When the darker rocks scraped from the surface between 870 to 1470 years ago, the lighter colored silts and unvarnished pebbles, cobbles and stones were exposed. Using this scraping method, people created earthen art depicting humans, animals and spirals.

How long did it take?

When considering ‘how were the Blythe Intaglios made?’ ask yourself these questions: How long do you think it took people to create these large forms? Was it one artist, or were there many artisans working together who made the images in the desert pavement? What do coordinated efforts say about the ancient people’s culture or spirituality? Scientists who studied the Blythe Intaglios, Jay von Werlof and Harry Casey, used AMS technology to analyze the manganiferous rock varnish. They postulate that the extended time range measured (A.D. 550-1150) indicates that the sites were made over long periods of time. “Perhaps the process of geoglyph making was as important, and maybe more important than, the product,” they hypothesize. Check out Harry Casey’s new book on our reading list below. In any case, archaeologists agree that geoglyphs are an essential and recognized part of the Yuman culture.

What do the figures mean?

And today, Mohave and Quechan people, part of the Yuman tribes, concur. Native people report that geoglyphs played an active role in certain Yuman rites. They say sacred ceremonial dances were held near the intaglios to honor the creation and that the human figures depict Mastamho, the Creator of all life. Why do you think the Creator’s arms or so long? Why are they outstretched?

Clues to the Identities of These Mysterious Forms

animal figure with long hanging tail is represented by two of the Blythe Intaglios
Blythe Intaglios – Animal and Spiral Figures, October 2016 | Photo by Rsfinlayson via Wikipedia
aerial view of stick man in the desert
Blythe Intaglios – Human Figure 2, October 2016 | Photo by Rsfinlayson via Wikipedia

Clues to the identity of the animal figures include their hanging tails. According to traditional Mohave songs, two feline brothers Hatakulya, a mountain lion with a hanging tail and Numeta, a jaguar with a tail that stands up, departed ways somewhere to the north of here. Hatakulya came south according to the song translated by cultural anthropologist A. L. Kroeber.

When You Go

picture of white ford pick up at parking pull off in desert - blue skies
Parking pull off at Blythe Intaglio site

Make sure to go in the winter as temperatures reach the high 80sF in Blythe in April. November through March are the best months to go. Visit Blythe Intaglios early in the morning or late afternoon to get the best photos.

Bureau of Land Management Blythe Intaglios Site

www.blm.gov/visit/blythe-intaglios 

Blythe Geoglyphs Reading List

Learn more about the Mohave people in A. L. Krober’s Handbook of the Indians of California. (Link below)

I was excited to learn that the Hardy Boys series includes a book about the Blythe Geoglyphs. You can order your copy of The Mystery of the Desert Giant (Hardy Boys, Book 40) here.

National Geographic ran an article about the glyphs in 1952, and I’ll add more to this post once I find the article, so if you haven’t already, make sure to subscribe to this travel blog.

This blog, UNSTOPPABLE Stacey Travel, contains affiliate links. If you make a purchase through these links, Stacey earns a commission at no extra cost to you. These commissions help reduce the costs of keeping this travel blog active. 

Further, as an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases. Thanks for reading.

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2 thoughts on “Mysterious Blythe Intaglios | Sacred Symbols in the Desert”

  1. Always fascinating locations and explanations! Thanks for brightening “arm chair travel” for now.
    Would love to see these amazing desert figures in person, some day.

    Reply
    • I hope you can visit the Blythe Intaglios in person! Let me know when you’re headed this way, Karen! Thanks for your comments!

      Reply

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