Little Petroglyph Canyon - Etchings in the Rock - Blog

Written By on Mon Apr 20, 2015 View Comments

Things to Know

Deep in the heart of the China Lake Naval Base is a small canyon, with walls barely tall enough to call it a canyon. The rock is volcanic and the etchings carved deep enough that they have lasted the impacts of time and wear. The place is called Little Petroglyph Canyon and is only accessible by special permission from the Naval Base. Thanks to the efforts of the Maturango Museum in Ridgecrest, CA and the tireless volunteers who serve as guides, a few of us are able to visit the canyon each year.

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.





More from the Blog section.


Managing Agency: China Lake Naval Base - permission to visit through the Maturango Museum in Ridgecrest.

Entry Fee: Cost for the tour is $40 for the tour (Maturango Museum members $30)

Keywords: rock art,petroglyphs,coso,cos people,ridgecrest,china lake

Location: Owens Valley,Eastern Sierras,Ridgecrest,

State: California

Getting There:

The drive to Ridgecrest takes about four hours. Quickest route is via Hy 126 to the Magic Mountain area, south on Interstate 5 for 10 miles to Hy 14 and then on it through Palmdale and Lancaster to Mojave. At Mojave you’ll take Hy 395 — which will take you up the Owens River Valley to Bishop, the Mammoth ski area and Eastern Sierras. You’ll pass through Red Rock Canyon a half hour north on Hy 395 and a half hour beyond that the turnoff to Ridgecrest.

Get Directions To The Trailhead

Driving Directions
Get Directions to Little Petroglyph Canyon - Etchings in the Rock which is located at 35.630146,-117.669372.

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Additional Resources

Little Petroglyph Canyon


Fine Cuisine

Bring your own lunch for the tour. No glassware; plastic bottles or cartons only for water or other drinks.


Notes from Wikipedia .....

Coso Rock Art
The Coso Range Canyons are home to the Coso Rock Art District, an area of some 99 square miles (260 km2) which contains more than 50,000 documented petroglyphs,the highest concentration of rock art in the Northern Hemisphere.

No one knows for sure how old these petroglyphs are. A broad range of dates can be inferred from archaeological sites in the area and some artifact forms depicted on the rocks. Some of them may be as old as 16,000 years, some as recent as the 1800s. Designs range from animals to abstract to anthropomorphic figures. Opinions vary widely whether the petroglyphs were made for ceremonial purposes, whether they are telling stories to pass along the mythology of their makers, or whether they are records of hunting hopes or successes, clan symbols or maps.

Little Petroglyph Canyon contains 20,000 documented images, which surpasses in number most other collections.

Coso Rock Art District
The Coso Rock Art District, containing the Big and Little Petroglyph Canyons, is a rock art site containing over 100,000 Paleo-Indian and/or Native American Petroglyphs.

The Coso Range is between the Sierra Nevada and the Argus Range. Indian Wells Valley lies to the south of this location. This north-south trending range of about 400 square miles (1,000 km) consists of rhyolitic domes and outcrops of volcanic rock.

Also known as Little Petroglyph Canyon and Sand Tanks, Renegade Canyon is but one of several major canyons in the Coso Range, each hosting thousands of petroglyphs (other locations include Haiwee Springs, Dead End Canyon, and Sheep Canyon). The majority of the Coso Range images fall into one of six categories: bighorn sheep, entopic images, anthropomorphic or human-like figures (including animal-human figures known as pattern-bodied anthopomorphs), other animals, weapons & tools, and “medicine bag” images.

Fortunately for the petroglyphs, most of the Coso Range is on the Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake, where visitation is restricted, vandalism is low, and preservation is most likely. China Lake is located near the towns of China Lake and Ridgecrest, California. There are several other distinct canyons in the Coso Rock Art District besides the Big and Little Petroglyph Canyons. The most popular subjects are bighorn sheep, deer, and antelope. Big and Little Petroglyph Canyons were declared a National Historic Landmark in 1964. In 2001, they were incorporated into a larger National Historic Landmark District, called Coso Rock Art District.

China Lake Naval Station
China Lake is the United States Navy's largest single landholding, representing 85 percent of the Navy’s land for weapons and armaments research, development, acquisition, testing and evaluation (RDAT&E) use and 38 percent of the Navy’s land holdings worldwide. In total, its two ranges and main site cover more than 1,100,000 acres (4,500 km, an area larger than the state of Rhode Island

The 19,600 square miles of restricted and controlled airspace at China Lake makes up 12 percent of California’s total airspace. Jointly-controlled by NAWS China Lake, Edwards Air Force Base and Fort Irwin, this airspace is known as the R-2508 Special Use Airspace Complex.

The Navy established China Lake as the Naval Ordnance Test Station (NOTS) in November 1943. Its mission was defined in a letter by the Secretary of the Navy, ".... a station having for its primary function the research, development and testing of weapons, and having additional function of furnishing primary training in the use of such weapons."

Things to Know

Maturango Museum • 100 E Las Flores Ave • Ridgecrest, CA 93555
Open 10:00 am – 5:00 pm • (760) 375-6900

Registration Required
You must be an American citizen to go onto the base at China Lake. Cost for the tour for non-members is $40.

To join one of the tours you need to register early. Tours this spring are already full but they resume again in the fall when the temperatures cool down. For more information about the tours, trip dates and the like visit the Maturango Museum site.

Early Morning Rising
The Little Petroglyph trip is not for late risers. You’ll need to be at the Museum no later than 6:30am for the introductory stuff. First is a check to make sure you have all of the documents filled out and the proper walking gear. You’ll need proof of citizenship (foreigners not allowed on base), and several forms completely filled out. See the Tour site for links to the forms. After a brief talk and video you’ll head to the entry point into the Naval Station where you’ll get a second briefing from the base personnel as well as have your car searched before being allowed in.

Side Trips
If coming from out of town, you'll need to spend the night. On the way to Ridgecrest, Red Rock Canyon provides plenty of opportunities for off-road exploration and hiking. Side tracking to the old mining town of Ransburg on the way there or on the way home provides an opportunity to explore one of the most unique mining towns in the Mojave Desert and is still actively being mined.


Access Map


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Last Updated: Tuesday, July 28, 2015