Joshua Tree National Park has become a destination of taggers, and the graffiti has visitors and park officials outraged.
"We come to this place because it's not as touristy as surrounding national parks, and you don't run into as many people. You kind of feel like you're alone. In ancient times. There's nothing like this place," said Butch Wood, 51, a guitar builder visiting from North Aurora, Ill. "You don't like to see the modern world intruding on history. It's a shame.''
The graffiti in Rattlesnake Canyon, which meanders for a mile through the northern edge of Joshua Tree's Wonderland of Rocks, started with just a few markings but quickly became rampant. Vandals bragged of their handiwork on social media sites such as Facebook, attracting their like-minded friends to the same spot, paint in hand, park service officials said.
In all, 17 areas of the canyon have been defaced by graffiti, including several historic Native American cultural spots.
To the south, a mishmash of names, dates of conquest and scrawled professions of love have been carved into one side of Barker Dam. Cowboys cobbled the dam together with rocks and concrete a century ago, hauling in sacks of cement from Beaumont 60 miles away, to pool water for their herds during long cattle drives from Texas and Arizona to the coast.
"I've worked at six national parks in my career, and this is the most extensive that I've ever seen," said Park Ranger Pat Pilcher, who led reporters on a tour of some of the damage. "We hope it's isolated. We're hoping that the public will help us out by reporting any damage or vandalism that they see."
Park service law enforcement agents are investigating the vandalism at both sites, Pilcher said, adding that anyone convicted of defacing a national park could be sentenced to six months in jail and fined up to $5,000. The penalty could be much stiffer for those convicted of vandalizing a historic Native American site, he said.
"I don't know what these people were thinking when they did this. It's just meaningless, if you ask me," said a dismayed Pilcher. "Who knows, in a hundred years they may call this rock art."
The park service declined to provide details of the investigation, but the fact that some of the vandals appeared to have posted their handiwork online could make it easier to track them down. The park service has already found a picture online of a vandal spray-painting in Rattlesnake Canyon. Still others appeared to have scribbled their own names on the boulders, along with the date they were there.
"It's all about the fame. They want worldwide attention," said graffiti expert Dwight Waldo, a retired San Bernardino police investigator who consults with law enforcement agencies across the nation. "A lot of these things are posted on Facebook and stuff. These guys have their own pages."
Once posted, the message goes out to fellow taggers that the spot is a safe place to go to, Waldo said. That attracts even more graffiti.
The rash of graffiti at Joshua Tree National Park defies the trend at parks nationwide, where vandalism has been on the decline over the past decade, said park service spokesman Jeffrey Olsen.