Matt Riley's Fatal Mistake

Color photo of the wooden sign marking Matt Riley's gravesite. It reads "Matt Riley died of thirst July 4, 1905."
The gravesite of Matt Riley, who died of thirst hiking across the desert.

NPS / Kurt Moses

It was 114 degrees (46° C) in the shade and the distance to the nearest spring was 25 miles (40 km) when Matt Riley and Henry Kitto set off on foot from the OK Mine at 9 am. They had one canteen of water between them. Their plan was to refill the canteen at Cottonwood Spring, then continue on to Mecca to celebrate the 4th of July. Neither man knew much about the route. Kitto became ill 12 miles (19 km) out. He gave the canteen to Riley and turned back. Kitto survived the walk back to the mine.

Riley pressed on, trying to get to Cottonwood before he ran out of water. He never made it. His body was found under a bush next to the road to Mecca.

The tracks Riley left behind indicated he had passed within 200 yards (180 meters) of Cottonwood Spring before turning back and circling aimlessly—a sign of disorientation, which is a common side effect of extreme dehydration.

Matt Riley’s fatal mistake was to walk across the desert without enough water. To hike all day in the midsummer desert sun, a person needs to drink at least two gallons (7.6 liters) of water.

Riley and Kitto had set off with only one small canteen. There was no way they could have survived a 25-mile (40-km) trek in plus 100 degree heat with that small amount of water. Kitto’s decision to turn back saved his life. When Riley decided to continue on, he doomed himself.

Matt Riley died over a century ago, but his mistake is repeated by desert visitors every year. For a safe visit, be sure to carry adequate water with you when you venture into the park. Drink your water supply rather than trying to conserve it. When it is half gone, it is time to turn back.

Joshua Tree National Park

Last updated: February 23, 2017