The Hidden City of Death Valley

Death Valley Cave

Death Valley Cave

Mummies — Giants — Underground Caverns!

So said a San Diego, California newspaper in describing an event in Death Valley in 1947.

Death Valley is a land of extremes, one of the hottest, driest, and lowest places on earth. With summer temperatures averaging well over 100 degrees and a long history of human suffering in the vast desert, the valley appears to be aptly named. But people have been calling this rugged and desolate land home for as long as 9,000 years.

Trace of Giants Found in Desert: 

In early August 1947, a man named Howard E. Hill of Los Angeles, California spoke before the city’s Transportation Club and told a sensational story. The tale described the work of a man named Dr. F. Bruce Russell, who claimed to have discovered a series of complex tunnels deep below Death Valley in 1931. Russell, a retired Cincinnati, Ohio physician, and a colleague named Dr. Daniel S. Bovee, who he had worked with on archaeological excavations in Mexico several years earlier, allegedly stumbled upon these caves quite by accident. Russell, who had reportedly moved west for his health, decided to check out mining opportunities. According to the tale, while Russell was sinking a shaft for a mining claim, he fell into a cave when the soil gave way and discovered a catacomb of tunnels leading off into different directions.

A Mummified Giant found in California

A Mummified Giant found in California.

When Russell and Bovee began to explore the caverns, they followed one tunnel where they were extremely surprised to find the mummified remains of three gigantic men 8-9 feet tall. The giants were clothed in garments consisting of a medium-length jacket and trousers extending slightly below the knees. The material’s texture resembled gray dyed sheepskin, but they believed it to be taken from an animal unknown today. The room also held several artifacts that resembled Egyptian and American Indian designs, and hieroglyphics were chiseled on carefully polished granite. The explorers believed they had found the burial place of the tribe’s hierarchy.

Following another tunnel, they came across what they described as a “ritual hall” of these ancient people. Here, they once again found artifacts and marking and the well-preserved remains of animals, including dinosaurs, elephants, and tigers. Later, it was suggested that perhaps these bones belonged to ancient saber-tooth tigers and mammoths.

Further, Russell had described to Hill that he and Bovee had only touched the surface of their discovering, stating that there were at least 32 tunnels and estimating that they ran across 180 square miles across Death Valley and parts of southern Nevada.

Professional archaeologists were skeptical of the story, and Los Angeles County Museum scientists pointed out that dinosaurs and saber-tooth tigers appeared on earth 10 to 13 million years apart. No one in the professional world of archeology was interested enough in the story to check it out personally.

Despite scientists’ disinterest, Dr. Russell and a group of investors created a corporation called  “Amazing Explorations, Inc” to handle the release, and hopefully profit, from this remarkable find. But, in the constantly shifting sands of the deceiving desert, Russell could not find the site the next time he tried to show his friends. Afterward, Russell disappeared. Months later, Russell’s car was abandoned, with a burst radiator, in a remote area of Death Valley. His suitcase was still in the car. Of Dr. Bovee, he seemingly disappeared into the shadows, far away from this mystery.

Nothing but a hoax, perhaps?

But that is not the end of the story — nor is it the beginning.

Caves & Tunnels dot the landscape of Death Valley by Kathy Alexander- Alexander, February, 2015.

Caves & Tunnels dot the landscape of Death Valley by Kathy Alexander- Alexander.

The Kingdom of Shin-au-av:

For centuries, legends of an underground city and an ancient race in Death Valley have been told in the Paiute Legend of the Kingdom of Shin-au-av. This place, meaning “God’s Land” or “Ghost Land,” is sacred to the Paiute.

According to the legend, thousands of years ago, an important Paiute chief lost his wife. Devastated, the leader was so overcome with grief and sorrow; he began to think that life without her was not worth living. He soon decided to take his earthly body into the land of the dead. Following the trail of brave Indian spirits through endless underground passages, the journey was long and difficult. As he traveled, he was besieged by evil spirits, fierce beasts, and supernatural demons. Finally, though, his brave journey was rewarded by glorious sunlight at the end of the trail. But, he had yet one more ordeal — crossing an extremely narrow rock bridge that arched over a bottomless canyon. But, he could see the beautiful green meadows of the Spirit Land across the way and determinedly made his way across safely.

Indian Maiden

Indian Maiden

Entering the great kingdom ruled by Shin-au-av, he was welcomed by a beautiful maiden who was the daughter of Shin-au-av. The princess took the hand of the brave chieftain and led him to a large natural amphitheater. There, the chief looked upon thousands of dead and happy Paiute dancing in a huge circle. Though he was no doubt pleased to see that the dead were happy, he bemoaned, “I will never find my wife in the crowd.” The princess promised him that he would and instructed him to sit at the edge of the circle watching until his wife would pass. She then left him momentarily, returning with food and drink to make him comfortable. When she returned, she left him with one more directive: “When you see your beloved wife, carry her off quickly without either of you making a backward glance. Then travel back the way you came.”

The chief agreed and sat patiently waiting to see his wife dance by. After several days, he saw several people he had known in the past, including friends and enemies, but had not yet seen his beloved wife. Just as he was beginning to despair, he saw her approaching late on the third night. He ran to her with his arms spread wide, grabbed her, and the two then fled the valley hand in hand, moving towards the ribbon bridge that crossed the great chasm. But for all his bravery and determination, the chief risked a quick look back at the beautiful valley. In that brief moment, he was suddenly standing alone.

In the end, he made his way back to his people, where he spent the rest of his life telling the story of the wonders and beauty of the Kingdom of Shin-au-av. And thus, the legend was born, passed down from one generation to the next for years to come.

More Catacomb Tales:

Desert Prospector

Desert Prospector

Many years later, in the 1920s, a prospector named White claimed he had fallen through the floor of an abandoned mine, at Wingate Pass in the southwest corner of Death Valley, into an underground tunnel. Going deeper into the labyrinth, he came to a group of rooms where he found hundreds of leather-clad human mummies surrounded by gold bars and other treasures. The rooms and a tunnel that extended deeper into the catacombs were lit with a pale greenish-yellow light of unknown origin. However, White did not follow the tunnel deeper into the unknown.

White claimed he had explored the catacombs two more times after his initial find. During his second visit, he was accompanied by his wife, and on the third, by his prospector partner, Fred Thomason.

In the meantime, after hearing about White’s find, a Paiute Indian named Tom Wilson, who worked as a trapper and guide, told a somewhat similar story. Wilson claimed that his grandfather had discovered the below-ground caverns of Death Valley many years before. As he told the tale, his grandfather had gone into a cave that led to numerous tunnels and large rooms beneath the valley floor. After wandering for miles, his grandfather had come to an underground city where he found a group of fair-skinned people that spoke an unknown language and wore leather-like clothing. He also said that the people had horses, were sustained by the food he had never seen before, and pale greenish-yellow lights illuminated their “city.”

Paiute Indians by Thomas Houseworth & Co., 1860s

Paiute Indians by Thomas Houseworth & Co., 1860s.

The Indian, after having been missing for some time, finally returned home to tell his people of his discovery. Upon hearing his story, most of them were dubious about the authenticity of his adventure. But, his grandson, Tom Wilson, absolutely believed the tale.

Prospector White agreed to lead Tom Wilson and a group of archeologists to the underground city entrance, but, on this trip, White was unable to locate the cavern. However, they did locate a curious dead-end tunnel that had been carved out of solid rock. No doubt, they were all disappointed. That didn’t stop Tom Wilson, who spent the rest of his life searching for the underground city until his death in 1968.

The area around Wingate Pass was eventually absorbed into the China Lake Naval Weapons Center and is now closed to the public.

Interestingly, another tale with remarkable similarity was told by an old prospector named Bourke Lee in his book Death Valley Men, published in 1932. Lee also tells of an underground city located in the Panamint Mountains of Death Valley. In his story, two men named Jack and Bill were exploring near Wingate Pass when one of them fell through the bottom of an old mine shaft. His partner obviously followed into what was described as a natural underground cavern. The pair allegedly followed a tunnel some 20 miles northward into the heart of the Panamint Mountains.

Panamint Mountains, California

Panamint Mountains, California

These two men eventually arrived at large ancient underground rooms where they reportedly found several perfectly preserved human mummies adorned with thick armbands and held gold spears. Further, they said that the cavern rooms were illuminated by a system of lights fed by subterranean gases, and the rooms were filled with treasure. However, this time, the report of the riches was more descriptive, with the men claiming to have found large statues of solid gold, stone vaults, drawers filled with gold bars and gemstones, and a beautifully polished round table. Further, the story describes perfectly balanced heavy stone wheelbarrows and huge stone doors, which were almost perfectly balanced by counter-weights.

After finding this incredulous room, the two men carried off a few artifacts and some of the treasure before continuing their journey through the tunnel, which inclined upwards to the point that opened about halfway up the eastern slope of the Panamint Mountains. When the two men returned, they displayed the treasures they had brought down, which they hoped might lure archeologists to the site. But, in this tale, like so many others involving hidden riches, there would be a twist in the plan. Allegedly, a “friend” made off with the artifacts, and when the two men tried to lead experts to the mine opening, they could not locate it again. Jack and Bill claimed that a recent rainstorm had altered and rearranged the terrain.

Like the former discoverers, these two were also determined to find the cavern entrance and were allegedly last seen preparing to climb the east face of the Panamint Mountains. After which, they were never heard from again.


Kathy Weiser-Alexander/Legends of America, updated August 2021.

Death Valley, California by Kathy Alexander.

Death Valley, California by Kathy Alexander.

Also See:

Death Valley National Park

Death Valley Photo Gallery

Legends, Ghosts, Myths & Mysteries

The Queen Of Death Valley


Ancient Stuff (Dead Link)
Brandon, Jim; Weird America, Plume, 1978
Childress, David Hatcher; Lost Cities and Ancient Mysteries of the Southwest; Adventures Unlimited Press; 2009
Genisis 6 Giants
Lee; Bourke; Death Valley Men; Macmillan Co., 1932
Mysterious Universe
San Diego Union Newspaper; August 5, 1947