High Desert Memories - A Hometown Journal Commemorating Ridgecrest California
Located on the Naval Station at China Lake California is the largest and most well preserved site of petroglyphs in the Western USA. This art is chiseled into the walls of the canyons and is covered with a sort of natural varnish. They reside in Long and Short Petroglyph Canyons of a combined length of a little more then 4 miles.
The drawings left here by natives of the land over thousands of years line the walls and outcroppings of the canyons. They depict animals of the time and people, tools used at the time, ceremonial pictures and a variety of abstract motifs.
The Maturango Museum provides guided tours several times a year to the petroglyphs and in depth exploration of the area.
To Identify what some of these drawings mean visit the Rock Art Gallery For a description of the area and information about a tour visit Desert USA's Petro page. To get information about when tours are run and how to join one visit the Maturango Museum website.
All photos courtesy of Cathy Schmeer
It was during the 50'th anniversary celebration (Fall, 1993) of the China Lake Naval Weapons Center that the Maturango Museum selected me to lead a Petroglyph tour. The group consisted of a university professor/cancer researcher and his son - both from New York. Unlike other tours that I had previously led, this one was special and will become apparent as you continue reading.
Petroglyph Canyon constitutes part of Wild Horse Mesa, an area situated in the north range that was once open to chuckar hunting a few decades earlier. My memories hearken back to the 60’s when I hunted there. Always during the fall season we’d depart from the base very early in the morning to arrive atop the mesa after about an hour's drive. It was usually around 5 a.m. that we reached our destination only to be met by freezing temperatures and howling wind. Once there, we’d collect our gear and then set about stalking the birds hoping to get bounty for the evening's repast. After hunting all day long we sometimes wouldn’t even see a single chuckar and go home empty-handed as a result.
But this particular trip was special. Our tour group descended into the canyon and was amazed at the spectacle awaiting us. The canyon's floor and walls were covered with thousands of chukar as far as the eye could see. Thousands of ‘em. Everywhere! Probably searching for tasty morsels of food, the birds pecked about quietly. The silent activity of that isolated area was peacefully colored over by their soft clucking. And not displaying any nervousness, the birds ignored us. They never exploded into an alarming and thundering take-off as is characteristic when hunters approach a covey.
We made our way down the canyon amidst the birds. They wouldn’t even move out of the way as we walked here and there to admire the ’glyphs. Yet, the birds would occasionally interrupt their feeding activities to observe us with quizzical eyes…as we they. Later that afternoon with the tour completed, we made our way back up the canyon to the parking area. On the way up we rounded one corner of the canyon and were met by a golden eagle that was on the hunt. How majestic it was. As it slowly and leisurely glided along the canyon walls, the raptor turned and flew straight for my head. He bore down on me; I immediately fell flat onto the sandy floor of the canyon to avoid a collision. That was quite a memorable experience! Afterwards I got back on my feet and watched the golden bird lumbering along quietly as if nothing had ever transpired between us.
The tour group returned to civilization wearing a slight grin on their faces as a result of the unexpected flyby. That tour served as quite a nice culmination to China Lake's 50’th anniversary celebration.
Terry Kokosenski '71
CHINA LAKE, Calif. (NNS) -- The Navy held a dedication ceremony for the Coso Rock Art National Historic Landmark May 20 at Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake, Calif. The designation as a National Historic Landmark is the highest recognition the United States can give to a property.
The ceremony honored more than 250,000 pre-historic rock art drawings preserved at the naval base and the many partnerships between the Navy at China Lake, other government agencies and the local community that have helped preserve, protect and provide access to the site.
“This is a high bar to achieve. It’s not easy to become a National Historical Landmark,” said Richard Martin, superintendent of the Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks.
The Coso Rock Art District consists of 36,000 acres, including 360 acres of the Big and Little Petroglyph Canyons National Historic Landmark, established in 1965. According to the Department of Interior, the district contains the most extensive and best-preserved concentration of prehistoric rock art in the United States.
“This is really a special place,” said Carolyn Shepherd, the director of China Lake’s environmental programs. “The petroglyphs are high art. It’s like nothing you will see in your life.”
Most of the rock art found at China Lake is thought to be 1,000 to 3,000 years old and is located mostly in the Big and Little Petroglyph canyons on a remote mesa some 40 miles into the base.
Since the Navy selected China Lake in the 1940s as a weapons testing facility, it has balanced mission requirements with its environmental and cultural resources responsibilities.
“The Navy not only protects our country in the warfighter sense, but also in a historical preservation sense,” said Shepherd. “The Navy has a real appreciation for history and culture.”
Richard Stuart, a Tradition Bearer with the Big Pine Paiute Tribe of the Owens Valley, said the Navy has struck a good balance between accomplishing its military mission, preserving the cultural and historic sites on the 1.1 million acre base and allowing public access to the sites.
“These and the other cultural and natural resources here are amazing,” said Capt. Mark Storch, commanding officer at Naval Air Weapons Station, China Lake. “It’s our responsibility to preserve these cultural resources and share it with the public.”
After the ceremony, guests were provided a guided tour of Little Petrogylph Canyon to view the rock art.
“I was amazed,” said Hospital Corpsman 3rd Class Peter Poole, from Health Clinic China Lake. “It makes me feel good to be a part of this. Once I saw what was down there, I realized how important this site was.”
The rock art sites are open to public tours either directly through the base’s public affairs office or through the Maturango Museum in Ridgecrest, Calif.