Celebrate California’s earliest residents and see one of the world’s greatest collections of ancient drawings at the Ridgecrest Petroglyph Festival. Tucked along Highway 395—on the way from Southern California to the High Sierra—the Kern County town of Ridgecrest is something of a hybrid: it’s high desert, on the edge of the Upper Mojave, but located a short drive from both Death Valley National Park and the giant trees of Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks. It’s also home to thousands of petroglyphs—carvings of animals and abstract designs, created by native residents thousands of years ago. Going to this annual festival, first launched in 2014, is one of the best ways to see this largely-off-limits natural treasure.
Coinciding with November’s Native American Heritage Month, the Ridgecrest Petroglyph Festival is largely centered in the town’s Petroglyph Park, 12 acres of trails dotted with replicas of those pictographs created by indigenous natives. During the weekend, the park is the home base for Native American live music and dancers, as well as a crafts-and-food street fair.
The other staple of the festival is away from the park: special tours to the world-famous Coso Petroglyphs, located in the Naval Air Weapons Station at China Lake. The Coso Rock Art National Historic Landmark covers 36,000 acres, and some of the petroglyphs carved into basalt rocks here date back more than 10,000 years (a few may have been created in the past two centuries). The area within it known as Little Petroglyph Canyon has over 20,000 documented images alone. The tours last about 4.5 hours (with two hours in the canyon), and include navigating over some rocks and uneven trail; you’ll want sturdy closed-toe shoes and plenty of water.
Outside the festival weekend, you can book tours during fall and spring through Ridgecrest’s Maturango Museum, where onsite exhibits further illuminate the natural and cultural history of the Upper Mojave Desert. And 36 miles northwest of the desert city is Fossil Falls, where you find neither fossils nor falls but rather a surreal, convoluted chasm of shiny, sculpted black lava. Formed by the interaction of rushing water from the Owens River with lava that poured from nearby volcanoes as recently as 20,000 years ago, today you can camp on there and enjoy terrific stargazing at night.