Cerro Prieto: The Hill Cumorah?

Cerro Prieto is a small hill southwest of Mexicali, Mexico near the place where the Baja California peninsula joins itself to the rest of the North American continent.

Courtesy bionero

Image Courtesy bionero

This little hill is identified as the Hill Cumorah in our model of the lands of the Book of Mormon.

The purpose of this article is to give Cerro Prieto a proper introduction so that those who study our model can start to understand the characteristics of the hill and its surroundings as well as its prominence in the area.

It is not uncommon to see Cerro Prieto spelled Cerra Prieto or Cerro Prieta in various publications. Translated to English, the name means “Brown Hill” which is an appropriate description of the hill’s dark appearance that contrasts sharply with the surrounding lighter-colored terrain.

The hill is actually a volcano. The western portions of the hill are a volcanic dome while the eastern portion is a volcanic cone whose bottom is filled with wind-blown sediment. Sources of information often disagree with each other regarding whether the volcano itself is considered dormant or active, but there is no disagreement about the fact that it is still surrounded by strong geothermal activity.

As far as we are aware, no scientific dating has been performed or published to help us narrow down the age of the formation of the volcano, but rough published estimates indicate that the lava dome and cone probably formed between 100,000 and 10,000 years ago.

Locals from Mexicali and the surrounding areas like to make day-trips and overnight camping trips to the hill. One of the most popular activities during these trips is to write messages using dark rocks on the light-colored interior sand:

While these artistic expressions are best viewed from the rim of the volcanic cone, they can also be easily discerned using Google Earth or similar high-resolution satellite imagery. Here are some links to view it on some online maps:

The modern hill hosts a road on the eastern slope of its cone. This road leads up to several large radio towers that utilize the high-ground of Cerro Prieto to transmit and receive signals. Mining roads are visible on the northern face of the hill.

While these modern features and amusements are fun, the geologic and geographic characteristics of the hill and its surroundings are absolutely fascinating. The most difficult part of describing Cerro Prieto is deciding what to talk about first, because this little volcano stands as a landmark where many different and interesting features converge. We will start by describing what can be found in each direction around the hill:

  • To the southeast:
    • Cerro Prieto itself sits inside an area of active and ongoing geothermal activity. Mud Volcanoes and steam geysers regularly appear in the area immediately around the hill on all sides, but this geothermal activity is especially active to the southeast of the hill. You will notice in the satellite images that there is a large blue-colored lake to the southeast called Volcano Lake. A closer examination of this lake will reveal large steam plumes rising from many geothermal wells. Volcano Lake is so active with geothermal activity that it has become the second-best producing geothermal power plant in the world.

      The combination of the geothermal plant and the fact that the Colorado River no longer reaches its delta have significantly reduced the geothermal activity compared to what we read about it in descriptions from the 19th and 20th centuries and from descriptions found in the oral traditions of the nearby Native American tribes. Stories of geysers reaching 1000+ feet high were reliably recorded in 19th century US military records. In addition, there are many descriptions of plumes of fire that could be seen at night as underground gasses would escape and ignite.

    • Continuing southeast beyond Volcano Lake you will find the delta of the Colorado River, which is now a desolate wasteland due to modern dam building along the river, but which used to be a lush green area teaming with freshwater fish (including some that were quite enormous), and tall Cottonwood trees.
  • To the west:
    • Bordering Cerro Prieto to the west is another smaller area of geothermal activity, but just beyond this you will find large swaths of alluvial sand which are eroding down from the nearby Cocopa mountain range. This mountain range and the salt flats to its west, in conjunction with the Colorado River delta, the Salton Trough, and other nearby desert features, work together to form imposing geographic barriers to east-west travel in the region. These features largely (though not completely) isolated Southern California and Baja California from the rest of the southwest in prehistoric and early historic times.
  • To the north:
    • Cerro Prieto marks the southern boundary of the Salton Trough, an area that is below sea-level and which sometimes filled with water, becoming Lake Cahuilla in prehistoric and even during historic times. This would happen when when sediment buildup (or mistakes in canal construction in the early 20th century) caused the Colorado River to flow northward into the trough instead of southward into the delta. This means that if you travel North from Cerro Prieto today you will find yourself inside the Salton Trough in Mexicali, Mexico and Imperial Valley California, but if you made the same trip in the past (even as recently as the early 20th century) you would find yourself either in an enormous freshwater lake, or in a desiccated lake-bed, or in an area transitioning between these two states.
  • To the east:
    • Directly to the east of Cerro Prieto is a feature that is very intriguing when it is considered in conjunction with the story of Omer in the Book of Mormon. The Book of Mormon describes Omer fleeing the imminent overthrow of his kingdom and traveling to a place called Ablom, which is “by the seashore”.

      Interestingly the hill Cumorah is mentioned as a waypoint along Omer’s journey. We are told that Omer traveled past the Hill Shim then “down by the place where the Nephites were destroyed (Cumorah) and thence east to Ablom”.

      Cerro Prieto is the landmark that marks the western boundary of the line of high-ground that separates the Colorado River Delta from the Salton Trough (ancient Lake Cahuilla). This high-ground runs from Cerro Prieto on the west to Pilot Knob in Arizona on the east. Underground between these two hills is a volcanic dike which is instrumental in maintaining the division between the delta and the Salton Trough. Because of its position as the gateway to this high-ground, Cerro Prieto would be a natural waypoint to mention in relation to Omer’s journey. This path is the natural course of travel across the delta and was home to the first wagon trails, the first railroad tracks, and the first automobile roads between Arizona and California.

  • To the northwest:
    • Whether or not a traveler was making a journey during a high-stand of Lake Cahuilla, the most common road traveled to or from Southern California involved Cerro Prieto as a waypoint. From Cerro Prieto you can travel east across the delta as described above, but completing the journey to or from the west (Southern California) meant following a trail that started at Cerro Prieto and led northwest, skirting the foot of the Cocopa Mountains until it reached Signal Mountain (the Hill Shim in our model). From there the trail turns directly west towards the fertile lands of Southern California.

Our list of Cerro Prieto factoids doesn’t end here. Here are some other things of interest regarding this remarkable little volcano:

  • Because of its unobstructed view, Cerro Prieto is a popular place to photograph and observe the broad landscapes it overlooks. If Cerro Prieto is in fact the Hill Cumorah mentioned in the Book of Mormon, it comes as no surprise that this is the place where Mormon, along with a few other survivors, surveyed the destruction of his armies after the Nephites’ were ultimately defeated by the Lamanites.
  • Although I have no data to back up this argument, I offer it as my opinion that if Cerro Prieto was the focal point of the destruction of the Nephite and the Jaredite nations, that archaeological evidence associated with those battles would be very hard to find after fifteen centuries of the Colorado River, the corrosive mud volcanoes, and the alluvial sands from the Cocopa mountains obscuring artifacts left behind.
  • As mentioned above, sediment buildup would periodically cause the Colorado River to flow north, away from its delta, and fill the Salton Trough, forming Lake Cahuilla. It is interesting to note that once the lake was filled, the overflow back into the delta would spill over right next to Cerro Prieto. Even during times when the Colorado River was not flowing into the Salton Trough, its course would often take it right past the base of Cerro Prieto.

    Imagine for a moment what it would be like to be a member of Limhi’s search party, described in the Book of Mormon, who became lost but eventually found their way back and described “having traveled in a land among many waters” to the north (Mosiah 8:8). If our model correctly identifies the Baja peninsula as the lands of the Book of Mormon, imagine the contrasting beauty of the area around Cerro Prieto compared to the wildernesses and oasis’ that peninsular Nephites would have considered to be normal. The fact that Cerro Prieto exists in “a land of many waters” would be perhaps the most noteworthy characteristic for Limhi’s search party to report.

    Mormon himself was generous in his description of water features associated with the hill Cumorah, telling us that “it was in a land of many waters, rivers, and fountains”. Could there be a better description of the Colorado River, its beautiful green delta, and the geysers and other geothermal features surrounding Cerro Prieto?

    While these associations with Book of Mormon passages are not the only possible way to interpret the text, the relevant descriptions seem both logical and poetic when considered in relation to Cerro Prieto and its surrounding water features.

  • It worth mentioning that modern studies indicate that Lake Cahuilla did not experience any detectable high-stand between the years from 0 AD to 700 AD. Just to clarify: Our model of the Lands of the Book of Mormon do not rely on the existence of Lake Cahuilla during the time period when the Nephites would have occupied this “land northward”, so our model fits nicely with the data produced by these modern studies of Lake Cahuilla, but it is worth mentioning that the studies leave open the possibility that the lake might have been partially filled (rather than at a high-stand) during that time period.

    While Lake Cahuilla was probably not at a high-stand during Mormon’s lifetime, there is a strong possibility that it existed during the final centuries BC which coincides with the time when the Book of Mormon mentions the “waters of Ripliancum” in association with Cumorah and the final struggle of the Jaredite nation.

    Lake Cahuilla might also have been at a high-stand when Limhi’s party stumbled across “a land of many waters”, although the Colorado River and its delta near Cerro Prieto also fit this description well even if Lake Cahuilla was empty when they arrived.

  • There is a LOT of ongoing tectonic activity around Cerro Prieto. In fact, its earthquake activity is so high that the website earthquakepedia.com uses Cerro Prieto as its example on its homepage when describing the definition of the term “Earthquake Swarms”:

    “Earthquake Swarms: Earthquake swarms are sequences of nearby earthquakes striking in a short period of time. They are differentiated from earthquakes succeeded by a series of aftershocks by the observation that no single earthquake in the sequence is obviously the mainshock.

    One example is along the Cerro Prieto fault near Mexicali, BC in Mexico where over 500 quakes and aftershocks hit in February, 2008…

    These tremors are not particularly surprising when we consider the location of Cerro Prieto in relation to the fault systems in Southern California and Northern Baja California and considering the ongoing geothermal activity surrounding the hill.

  • We should remember that two completely separate civilizations chose to make their final military stand around the same location: The Hill Cumorah.

    Cerro Prieto is strategically positioned at the bottleneck separating Southern California and the Baja Peninsula from other fertile lands in the Southwest. A large population of people could hope to protect themselves from an opposing nation by defending this particular position.

    The Book of Mormon clearly describes the fact that the Nephites were able to hem in their enemies in the south by defending a “narrow neck” of land. This prevented their enemies from invading the “land northward” for many years, but eventually those defenses failed:

    And it came to pass that they came against us again, and we did maintain the city. And there were also other cities which were maintained by the Nephites, which strongholds did cut them off that they could not get into the country which lay before us, to destroy the inhabitants of our land…And it came to pass that…the Lamanites did come again against us to battle, and…they did tread the people of the Nephites under their feet…and those whose flight was swifter than the Lamanites’ did escape, and those whose flight did not exceed the Lamanites’ were swept down and destroyed. (Mormon 5:4-7)

    The defenses protecting the land northward failed, but Mormon described a new strategy:

    we did march forth to the land of Cumorah, and we did pitch our tents around about the hill Cumorah; and it was in a land of many waters, rivers, and fountains; and here we had hope to gain advantage over the Lamanites.(Mormon 6:4)

    Cerro Prieto aligns well with the military objective described by Mormon. It is a place where they might “hope to gain advantage over the Lamanites”.

  • A person can travel south from Cerro Prieto to flee an army that is attacking from the south. It seems strange that the Book of Mormon describes Nephites fleeing into the “south countries” to escape the Lamanites. After all, the Lamanite have consistently been attacking from the south. Cerro Prieto is uniquely positioned at a location where Nephites could have fled south (into mainland Mexico) to escape an army attacking from the south (from the Baja Peninsula).

As you can see, Cerro Prieto is fascinating to learn and speculate about and provides numerous detailed correlations with descriptions of the Hill Cumorah in the Book of Mormon. To conclude, let’s take a moment and briefly summarize these correlations in a shorter list:

  • Cerro Prieto exists in a land of many “waters, rivers and fountains”, especially in contrast to the Baja Peninsula.
  • Cerro Prieto is a natural waypoint for Moroni to mention in relation to Omer’s Journey to Ablom.
  • Cerro Prieto exists near an intermittent, but HUGE lake that is worthy to be called “Ripliancum, which, by interpretation, is large, or to exceed all” (Ether 15:8)
  • Cerro Prieto is a VERY strategic military position.
  • Not only is Cerro Prieto a stategic military position, it happens to be located just north of a narrow neck of land. Once the “narrow neck” military stragety failed, it makes sense that this location would logically be the next place to regroup and defend.
  • Cerro Prieto offers a vantage point that Mormon could have used to survey the destruction of his armies.
  • You can flee south from Cerro Prieto (into mainland Mexico) to escape an army that has taken the lands to the south (in the Baja Peninsula) and which has been consistently driving you north.

Perhaps the most noteworthy thing of all is that the hill itself is so noteworthy. Very few geographic features are mentioned by name in the Book of Mormon’s “Land Northward”, and yet Cumorah shows up prominently in three completely different Book of Mormon stories. While there are other possible explainations for this prominence, it makes sense that if Cerro Prieto is actually the Hill Cumorah, that it continues to stand out prominently in modern times just like it did in ancient times.

While nothing presented in this article conclusively identifies Cerro Prieto as the Book of Mormon’s Hill Cumorah, I hope this introduction to the hill and its features has been helpful in relating our reasons for identifying it as Cumorah in our model.

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