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!

Lots more photos here at this link :)

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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