Coso Rock Art

December 5, 2010
The Coso Mountains in Eastern California hold the greatest concentration of rock art
in the Western Hemisphere.  These mountains and their rock art are largely within
the boundaries of the Naval Air Weapons Station, China Lake, and as such access is
restricted.  One must arrange for a private tour of this area, part of a secure
weapons testing range, or the easier way is to take a tour with the Maturango
Museum out of Ridgecrest.  Even then some preparation must take place - only US
Citizens are allowed on the tours and you must bring a copy of your birth certificate.  
And the tours are very popular and often fill up so if you want to go, book as far in
advance as you can.  A few months ago I booked a tour for myself and my friend
Albert and today we went and had a great time.

Once you've paid your $35 to reserve your space on a tour, you must arrive at the
museum at 6:15 am on the day of and sign a lengthy waiver.  Then you have to watch
two orientation videos containing many rules and regulations you must follow.  There
are three escorts on every tour - one to be in the back of the group, one in the
middle, and one in the front - while driving and hiking.  Carpools are arranged, as only
seven vehicles are allowed on each tour, and drivers are checked and double-checked
to make sure they have their license, registration, and proof of insurance.  We are
warned to keep our cameras and cell phones in the trunk of our vehicles, and not to
take any photos from the time we enter China Lake until we reach the trailhead.  
Then we drove over to the China Lake main gate.

At the gate we exited our vehicles, opened up all the doors, trunks, and hoods, and
waited while security personnel checked for weapons, glass containers, etc.  Another
security officer checked our ID's and read us some more rules then it was off to the
canyon.  It takes about an hour to reach Little Petroglyph Canyon, high in the Coso
Mountains, part of the Coso Rock Art District National Historic Landmark.  Yep, an
hour - this is the Navy's biggest piece of real estate - 1.1 million acres.  Most of the
way is on a paved road that crosses the ancient China Lake bed and then climbs up a
beautiful canyon into this high desert range.  The last few miles are on a good graded
dirt road winding through a beautiful Joshua Tree forest.  The views across the
Indian Wells Valley to the Southern Sierra are amazing - this could be a National Park
if it wasn't a weapons testing range.

Once we were at the canyon trailhead we were once gain warned to stay together and
to not climb the canyon walls.  Then we set off into the canyon.  It's a pretty easy
walk - sandy in spots, rocky in others, but not too difficult for people like me who
frequently hike cross-country in these high desert environments.  As we started
hiking we immediately began seeing petroglyphs on the rocks - they were everywhere!  
Up high, down low, on almost every carvable surface.  Thousands and thousands of
them!  I've seen a lot of rock art in my life but this place is indeed incredible!   
35,000 petroglyphs have been recorded, but the conservative estimate is that there
are 100,000 images total, some that date back to 12,000-16,000 years ago...  
Definitely worth all the time and trouble to take a tour!

We spent a few hours in the canyon, wandering and wondering and photographing.  This
is just one of many canyons in the area that contain petroglyphs.  Many of the
petroglyphs are of animals, many of people, many stylized designs that provoke all
sorts of creative responses to, "what do you think that is?"  A shish-ka-bob?  A
musical instrument? A calculator?  A chess game?  A two-headed sheep?  Who knows...

After a time we hiked back to the trailhead, then loaded up the vehicles and headed
took the long road back into Ridgecrest.  It was a very enjoyable trip - hope you enjoy
the photos!
A skull?
Mountain lions
Dancers and a dog?
Looks like someone caught a rabbit
older, deeper carved sheep petroglyphs -
the one above is almost life-sized