Pipes Canyon

Pipes Canyon is a pleasant and easy hike. The trail heads out from the visitor center at the Pioneertown Mountains Preserve and follows the canyon up into a riparian habitat. The canyon is usually dry, but water does occasionally surface to support this isolated oasis.

Keep an eye out for faint petroglyphs along the way. Normally, they would be my primary reason for exploring this canyon, but I came across a bit of history that got me interested in checking out a spot higher up the canyon.

John Olsen

A couple of miles from the mouth of Pipes Canyon are the remains of a stone cabin. Swedish miner John Olsen built it (along with his partner Pete Lager) in the 1930s as a winter cabin for their mining operations. They worked the Onyx Mine up in the mountains high above the cabin.

On a snowy January 12th in 1945, the 76-year-old miner was living alone in his cabin when a twenty-year-old stranger knocked on his door, out there in the middle of nowhere, and asked for food and lodging for a few days. Mr. Olsen, being the friendly sort of fellow, made his guest welcome. The young guest was Edward E. Emmery. He quickly took a keen interest in Mr. Olsen’s rifle.

Three days after arriving, he shot Olsen in the chest. And instead of going for help, he left the elderly man for dead.

Four days later, his old mining partner Pete Lager, came by to visit and found Olsen lying on the cabin floor and barely alive. He had survived by crawling over to his pantry and eating some dried peaches that he could reach.

Pete quickly drove him to a neighbor’s house and called for an ambulance. Olsen was taken to a hospital in Palm Springs where he died twelve days later. Olsen was one of the earliest settlers to the Pipes Canyon area and was well-liked by everyone who knew him.

Of course, a manhunt was immediately on after the killer. Emmery was found by sheriff’s deputies a few days later hiding out only a half-mile farther up the canyon with many of Olsen’s supplies; including his rifle. He had deserted from the Army at Fort MacArthur in San Pedro two weeks earlier and came to Pipes Canyon to hide out when he stumbled upon Olsen. Emmery was charged with murder but sadly, I could not find out if they convicted him. 

If you have anything to add to this story, please let me know.

Getting There

The trailhead for this hike is at the visitor center in the Pioneertown Mountains Preserve run by The Wildlands Conservancy.

To get there, drive out to Pioneertown, CA. (It is a few miles north of Yucca Valley.) Follow Pioneertown Road to the west end of town and continue on it as it makes a right turn northward. Follow it 3.5 miles (5.6 km) north to the intersection of Pipes Canyon Road and turn left into Pioneertown Mountain Preserve. It is a short, graded dirt road to the visitor center. The Preserve is open from sunrise to sunset.

Hike Directions

This hike is more of a pleasant stroll in Pipes Canyon than a hike. The trail is wide and easy to follow, and it never ventures far from the streambed. The creek typically only runs in the winter (or after a big storm), so go after some rainfall if you want to see any water and get your boots wet at the stream crossings.

From the parking lot, walk west passed the gate and the smaller parking lot in front of the ranger station. Don’t count on someone always being there. It is often closed while the staff is working on projects in the field or on patrol. The dirt road continues to another gate, where we pick up a trail that descends into the rocky wash itself. The rock lined trail crosses the wash and follows along the opposite side. The trail goes up the canyon and is flat and makes for easy walking.

At 0.6 miles (1 km), there is a small turn-out at a rock outcrop. Look closely or you will miss petroglyphs here. They are abstract designs and either of Desert Archaic or Serrano Indian origin. Don’t expect much.

At 0.8 miles (1.3 km) in, the trail drops into the wash and loses its manicured edges. The trail continues to meander in and out of the rocky wash until 1.2 miles (1.9 km) where we reach dense riparian vegetation. Up until now, the wash and surrounding hillsides have been mostly barren; scorched by the 2006 Sawtooth Complex wildfire, but now we reach denser vegetation. Growing here due to year-round groundwater. Even in the summer, water must stay close to the surface to support this plant life.

Our trail enters the thicket, and you are flanked by tall riparian plants much more commonly seen along Southern California streambanks and not in the arid Mojave Desert. The verdant greenery is a tiny oasis on the dry side of the San Bernardino Mountains. Willows (Salix spp.), Baccharis (Baccharis spp.), White Sage (Salvia apiana) and California Mugwort (Artemisia douglasiana) all grow along the banks of the creek.

The trail continues and dodges in and out of the bushes. It climbs a little hill and drops back into the thicket before reaching the stone ruins of the Olsen cabin at 1.8 miles (2.9 km) out. The ruin sits on a slope above the creek and is a good spot to take a break and listen to the sounds of the nature all around. With perennial water here, Olsen picked a good spot for a cabin.


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Last Updated on May 21, 2021 by Guy Starbuck