Little Petroglyph Canyon represents one of the most outstanding and best preserved displays of Native American rock art in the country. This area, located in the Coso Range west of Death Valley, has been occupied for millennia by Native Americans; current groups are of Paiute-Shoshone descent.
Paiute-Shoshone peoples have been in this area at least 600–800 years, practicing a hunter-gatherer lifeway. They would seasonally move to harvest resources by a carefully planned schedule that required constant monitoring of potential resource areas as well as knowledge of which resources were useful. (source: Maturango Museum)
(I am not making this up)
The US Navy assumed management of the area in 1943, and the site lies within the Naval Air Weapons Station (NAWS) China Lake. The Navy’s presence has helped ensure the excellent preservation of the petroglyphs as we see them today, but has added some interesting complications to visiting the site.
Tours are organized by tireless volunteers at the Maturango Museum in Ridgecrest, CA. After reserving our spots well in advance and filling out mountains of Navy-required forms, we received a fairly lengthy briefing.
During this briefing our vehicles were searched and we were warned about the following, including but not limited to:
- the heat,
- not missing the turnoff,
- drinking enough water but not peeing in the canyon,
- not stowing 60mm mortar shells under your front seat (this happened last year),
- herds of tarantulas migrating across the desert (yes, really),
- mustangs, burros, and sundry wildlife,
- tripping on things,
- not climbing on boulders to get closer to the art,
- not driving faster than the speed limit,
- flat tires and horrendously expensive helo rescues with the potential of one’s car ending up as a bombing target,
- not touching the art, and
- the possible existence of unexploded ordnance from mistakes made during bombing runs.
Finally, escorted by guides, our group of about 20 people drove 40 miles up through healthy groves of Joshua Trees to the 5000′ plateau at the head of the gently sloping canyon. We walked down-canyon about 2 miles, turning back at a 75-foot dry waterfall.
This petroglyph site is one of more than 400 documented in the area. Here is a tiny fraction of the staggering amount of rock art we found in this canyon.