By Denise Ortuno Neil
With Halloween just around the corner, there’s nothing better than a creepy local tale of a legendary witch. This is not your typical broom touting, green skinned, pointed hatted witch… or is it? If you look at the famous Tahquitz Canyon at certain times of the day, the shadow cast upon the mountain will beg to differ.
The story about the famous Tahquitz Canyon is over 2,000 years old and has produced much speculation, curiosity and fear over time. It all started with the Agua Caliente Cahuilla Indians who have been in what is now the Palm Springs area for over 3,000 years. They were a peaceful tribe living off the desert land, protecting, respecting and nurturing it. The tribe was led by a brave chief, who was a trusted and well regarded leader of his people. The chief, like many in positions of leadership, had a counsel of sorts, who he would turn to for advice. One of these wise men was the great shaman Tahquitz. Tahquitz, had knowledge of plants that would help the ill, as well as magical powers.
Over time the shaman took his powers too far, and the magic that he possessed once used for good, he was now using for his own evil purposes. Tahquitz would enjoy scaring little children, taking on different disguises before revealing his true identity. Trickery was his focus, deception his game. He then took his pranks to new levels, and was accused of murdering fellow tribal members while on an excursion to hunt for food. The shaman was transforming into a monster, the chief knew that he had to take action, and banished the once valued shaman to the canyon that now bears his name.
It’s clear that the chief must have thought that this exile would shorten the shamans reach from the tribe, but to his horror it did not. The action only enraged Tahquitz and made the demons within him healthy with hate and darkness. The shaman cursed the tribe, and promised to destroy them.
The tribe encountered a period of peace after the shaman’s absence but the serenity would not last. The chief in his charitable manner would still have food brought to Tahquitz, not wishing for his once close friend to starve. It was on one of the delivery missions that Tahquitz flexed his evil muscle, killing the innocent who had been sent there to nourish him.
When his tribe members did not return, the chief sent his son to investigate. Time passed, and when his son did not return, the chief went himself to face Tahquitz. What he found was a gruesome sight. Dismembered bodies were strewn over the canyons floor, confirming the human meltdown that the shaman had succumbed to. The chiefs’ son was dead, devoured by the demon. He left the canyon vowing to kill Tahquitz, and started preparing for the battle. He thrust himself into a mode to strengthen his mind, soul and spirit, knowing full well that is what would be needed.
He returned to the canyon, and with the strength of his ancestors behind him triumphed over Tahquitz. As the tribe burned the shaman’s body, his evil spirit bellowed up for the ashes and into the rocks of the canyon, where his spirit no doubt lives on today. The chief warned his tribe never to enter the canyon, for it would be certain that the shaman would continue his evil ways from beyond.
The story is one of the great legends of Palm Springs and the Coachella Valley, and has inspired many bedtime and campfire tales, some true and some exaggerated. The canyon itself had a time of closure for about 30years. It had a reputation as a place for people to party, and the homeless to live. The chain linked fence that barred the public from the canyon was a weak deterrent at best. If you wanted to get in bad enough, you could. But the danger that lurks in the canyon has always been real. With very steep terrain and limited daylight it is easy to lose your step in the canyon.
I recall a time while hiking with a friend of mine when we got lost in the canyon. Dusk had snuck up on us and before we knew it, it was black… our only guide was the stream which I knew would eventually lead us back to the highway. As we walked through the stream, we could hear calls from high upon the canyon, calling out to us “Hey little girls, are you lost?” It was frightening and made our escape out of the canyon more urgent. It felt like we were in a Lifetime survivor movie. We finally made it out, cold and slightly worn, but intact.
Today Tahquitz Canyon is opened to the public every day during the season and offers ranger or self-guided tours. Gone are the homeless and party animals of the past. It is relatively safe nature destination to visit and a proud part of the Agua Caliente Cahuilla Indians legends.
I still don’t know who called down to us from the canyons that day when I got lost at Tahquitz, maybe it was just some homeless guy messing around with a couple of misguided girls. Or maybe it was something else; perhaps it was the shaman himself giving us a warning…..to beware of the Tahquitz Witch!
For more information on Tahquitz Canyon visit www.tahquitzcanyon.com