Little Petroglyph Canyon is not too far off of Highway 395, just before the Little Lake area between Red Rock Canyon and Lone Pine. Though only a few air miles of the highway, until the last few years the rock art has been almost impossible to visit because it is within the boundaries of China Lake Naval Air Weapons Station. Thanks to the efforts of Maturango Museum, the Naval Station has provided limited access to Little Petroglyph Canyon, you can now experience one of the most intriguing rock art sites in California.
More wash than canyon, with the walls extending up on either side only 30-50 feet, Little Petroglyph Canyon's initial impression is not impressive. However, within the canyon you never walk more than a few feet without encountering another of the beautiful petroglyphs. Though not handicap accessible the walk down the canyon is one that most anyone can do even though it is described as strenuous on the Museum website. You won’t go more than a half-mile down canyon but nevertheless it will take you the better part of the day to take the rock art in.
On the Road
Getting up at 6:30am is tough enough on most days but its even tougher when you need to be ready to go, grab a bite to eat and be at Maturango Museum well before the sun is on the horizon. I set the alarm for 5am, dragged myself out of bed at a local Best Western, brewed a cup of coffee and headed out for a quick breakfast a half hour later. Still dragging a bit I turned into the Maturango Museum parking lot a few minutes before the 6:30am deadline and found that almost everyone else had beaten me there. Wow!
There were twenty of us, gathered in groups, talking excitedly and ready to jump back in our cars and head out to the canyon. Procedure dictates that all of our permit applications, licenses and the like be checked and double-checked. Finally, we watch a film at the Museum that focuses on the importance of the rock art site and our role in enjoying it but ensuring that we do no harm. Then we are on the road, a caravan of eight vehicles, with one of the docents in the lead and another at the back to ensure no one gets lost.
Just when I thought we were finally heading into forbidden territory, the cars ahead of us pull over. A Base Sergeant and several of his crew is waiting there for us to give us a final look over. While the Sergeant explains all of the really bad things that may happen to us if we do anything we shouldn’t do — like photographing anything on the Base before we get to the rock art, our vehicles are being quietly searched — every nook and cranny, inside, outside, with mirrors on what look like selfie sticks inspecting every inch of the the undercarriage of our cars. Thankfully none of us get hauled off to the Brig and finally we pass the guard station and we’re on the Base! The anticipation of what lies ahead starts to build.
Into Forbidden Territory
Immediately, we work our way through the mundane, passing an elementary school, then what looks like a commissary and finally, the Base Station golf course. It looks pretty sad. Then we make a left turn and we begin to move deeper onto the base, and up into the hills. The drive is slow, our caravan moving along at a steady 45MPH pace. Once beyond the civilized part of the Naval Station the topography consists of rolling hills, sparsely covered with grass. The drive in is the same as our speed, which means it will take us just about an hour to reach Little Petroglyph Canyon.
China Lake Naval Base is not a small place. Covering more than 1.1 million acres, it is larger than the state of Rhode Island and the Navy’s single largest landholding. In short, we are going into the middle of nowhere, a place that the Coso people knew intimately but those outside the military know almost nothing.
A mother and daughter from the San Jose area have joined me for the drive in. With time enough, we begin to share expectations. We share thoughts about what the rock art will look like and what it may have meant to them. There are few things I’ve experienced that have the emotional impact that rock art has for me and I sense that the others who’ve made the trip out have experienced similar feelings. Much of the art is fragile, meaning that even the most well-intentioned of us can adversely impact it. “Respectful behavior,” is the guiding principle of today’s outing and the six docents along with us are there to keep our enthusiasm well within those bounds.
Before long we’ve gone over several ridges, up a number of side canyons and have gained a fair amount of altitude. At some point we level out and begin working our way up a series of valleys pock marked with volcanic rocks. In the distance Coso Peak stands tall at just over 8,000 feet and at altitude larger grassy areas begin to appear along with isolated stands of trees. At one point we pass a grouping of horses, heads down, working their way through the grass. We’ve been told that there is a large herd of wild horses in the area but tend to shy away from humans. Unfortunately no time to stop and enjoy their presence or take pictures of them. Finally we turn onto a short spur road that meanders over a small hill to our destination, a small parking area and one lone restroom. After another reminder about proper etiquette we're on our way into the canyon!
Rock Art Amazing
A four-foot-wide strip of rubber decking leads for several hundred yards to the canyon itself. Then we work our way down a small side drainage into the main canyon. Before we even hit bottom we begin to spot etchings on the boulders on either side of us.
There is a sense of dropping down into something special, a sort of brief time travel back into a period in which the Coso People lived in he valley, hunted in these highlands and for whatever reason, spent thousands of hours pecking away at the hard surface of the volcanic rocks.
The figures are so numerous that it is difficult to discern a pattern but as we work our way down the canyon they do emerge: the big horn sheep images are everywhere; there are also quite a few of what might be termed shield-like images; and in some ways the most spectacular, are the many intrigue designs that have a human-like appearance.
The rock art at Little Petroglyph Canyon has been described by the Far Western Anthropological Research Group as providing “a window into the past rituals, beliefs, and artistic abilities of its creators.” Here in Santa Barbara when discussing the rock art of the Chumash Indians, much of the discussion focuses on the idea of rock art as a symbol of an ancient culture attempting to influence the powerful forces of nature that surrounded them. I wonder is that might be true of the rock art here.
According to the Research Group, two major theories have been proposed to explain the rock art here: one of these theories focuses on the concept of “hunting magic” — hypothesizing the large number of the petroglyphs of big horn sheep were part of a ritualistic practice designed to insure that their hunts would be successful; the other focuses more on the concept of a rock art practiced by shamans or medicine men who drew the symbols as images of a “spirit helper” that might assist them in obtaining supernatural powers.
As I continue down the canyon, listening to others like me trying to make sense out of the rock art, I realize it may be too far a leap to find more meaning than what they are: beautiful representations of a culture past that built its own spiritual sense of the world from what little they could observe, feel and create. Perhaps they were just a people like us, possessed with a sense of wonder and a need to create, through the art, expressions of who they were.