Near the end of our 45 mile drive, on the top of Wild Horse Mesa, I spotted a gray mustang resting in the shade of a large Joshua tree. Our route had taken us to 5,000 feet, through a forest of some of the most impressive Joshua trees I had ever seen. Untouched desert wilderness seemed to extend as far as the eye could see… at least until we came upon a military-issue geodesic dome tent, its brown camouflaged sides fluttering slightly in the breeze. I half expected to see the muzzle of a gun poke out of one of the windows.
A herd of bighorn sheep still roam in China Lake
We didn’t stop to take pictures of the mustang or admire the surprisingly lush Joshua trees. Regulations prevented us from photographing or even touching photographic equipment until we arrived at our destination. We were driving through only a small portion of the 1.1 million acre Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake, the home of the Naval Air Warfare Center Weapons Division and where the Navy and Marine Corps have developed or tested nearly every significant airborne weapon system in the past 50 years. This was an active military testing range, and access was strictly controlled to ensure, in part, that no weapons tests were scheduled during our visit. My husband and I rode in the truck with one of our volunteer guides, Wilfred Nabahe, a former marine and member of the Lone Pine Paiute-Shoshone Tribe.
Our destination was a particular basalt canyon in the Coso Mountain range. It was home to a portion of the station’s hundred thousand petroglyphs — the largest concentration of petroglyphs in the western hemisphere. These petroglyphs were chipped, pecked or carved into the varnished basalt rock to expose the lighter colored stone underneath. It’s estimated that some of these petroglyphs date back more than 16,000 years. (To put that into perspective, sabre-toothed cats and mammoths may have interrupted some of these earliest carving sessions.) Native Americans continued to carve these petroglyphs as recently as 200 years ago.
When we parked above the canyon, we spotted a fox trotting above the rim of the canyon. Resident burrows and mustangs are known to dig for water in the dry riverbed below. Coyote, mountain lion and rattlesnakes can also be found here.
As soon as we walked out of the car and before we had even descended into the canyon, our other guide, Craig Siefkas, pointed out some scattered petroglyphs on small basalt rocks. I was mesmerized. If I stopped to look, small white petroglyphs were scattered everywhere in the rock rubble. Our guides advised us not to get too bogged down yet; we still had 1.5 miles of canyon to explore. This was just the tip of the iceberg.
Exquisitely decorated boulders are scattered along the path to the canyon like Easter eggs
The rest of the morning was spent in rapt observation of a mind-boggling array of animals, warriors, snakes, hunters, weapons, and other ceremonial symbols and objects that I could only guess at. The drawings at times were literally underfoot. We had to be careful not to climb on any rocks because many of them had petroglyphs carved right down to the floor of the canyon. Some rocks contained many layers of drawings. Others were decorated with one or two stark specimens. Thousands of years of drawing and human expression are contained in these canyons. Some scholars believe that it was the gathering place of shaman from all over the western United States. It is truly one of the most significant rock art sites on earth. Ironically, it’s the weapons testing nearby that has preserved this site so impeccably.
Pictographs appear on every surface
As the light changed and we changed position during our hike down the canyon, new petroglyphs would appear as if by magic while others would vanish. I like to think that this effect was the intent of the artists. All of the images took care and effort to create. I can only imagine that the placement and content of each mark was made with intention. As we walked, we also mused about the meaning of the sometimes confusing symbols that crawled up the walls and marched along almost every available surface of rock. Each of our own perspectives colored how we viewed the carvings. Whether a viewer is a conspiracy theorist, believes in aliens, is a scholar of ancient history or possesses a personal knowledge of Native American symbolism, there is something in the canyon that resonates with every visitor. For me, it was the feeling of communicating across 10,000 years of history with people who lived in a very different world and the hope that I could recognize even a very small part of what they had to say. Out of all of the secrets of the Naval Air Weapons Station at China Lake, this is the biggest mystery of all.
Aliens or atlatl?
To visit the petroglyphs at China Lake, you can join a tour with the Maturango Museum in Ridgecrest or arrange for a private, escorted tour through the Naval Air Weapons Station. The private tour will take some legwork, but it will allow you to avoid the crowds and arrange your own time and date. I recommend very early morning or late in the day for the best summer temperatures and the best light. Our tour guides were also fantastic and are highly recommended.
Click the link for additional petroglyph photos.