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Native American Rock Art Sites in California

Native American Rock Art Sites in California

The Golden State offers numerous ways to experience petroglyphs, pictographs, and other ancient forms of expression

California boasts an abundance of Native American rock art sites, with some locations dating back an estimated 12,000 years. The state’s desert areas are especially rich with rock art but throughout the state you’ll find examples of both petroglyphs (images and shapes pecked into rock) and pictographs (paintings using natural pigments). Some locations are quite remote and difficult to reach for all but the most adventurous travelers. Others are deliberately unpublicized to protect them from vandalism—the biggest threat to the preservation of rock art.

When you’re out hiking and come upon prehistoric Native American rock art, there’s a tangible connection to people who lived hundreds, or even thousands, of years ago. The ancient past no longer feels quite so remote. And as you look at panels of petroglyphs or pictographs painted on the walls of a cave, the imagination runs wild, wondering who created the art, when, and why?

Here's a quick introduction to rock art in California, with a selection of destinations where you can see petroglyphs and pictographs around the state. The places listed below were chosen for their accessibility, although even these might require travel on unpaved roads and hikes of varying lengths.

When you visit a rock art site, treat the area with respect. It is a serious cultural violation to Native Americans and against an assortment of local, state, and federal laws to in any way deface or alter rock art. Thieves have also literally cut petroglyphs and pictographs out of rocks.

And tempting as it might be, please don’t touch pictographs and petroglyphs because even small amounts of oil from fingers can darken the art and accelerate deterioration.

Types of Rock Art


Most common in desert areas, petroglyphs were created by using a hard stone tool to peck, chisel, or scratch into desert varnish, a dark, oxidized patina found on many boulders. The cutting action then reveals the lighter material beneath the patina. Cupules, small and rounded depressions that are pecked or pounded into rocks, are another kind of petroglyph that might have been created for fertility, rainmaking, or other ceremonial purposes, depending on the tribe. Some petroglyphs are figurative and depict easily recognized scenes, such as hunts for bighorn sheep or deer. Others, especially the most ancient of petroglyphs, take abstract forms, including lines and concentric circles.


Created with pigments blended from plants, minerals, and other natural materials that are then applied using fingers or brushes crafted from yucca fibers, pictographs are a colorful and vibrant form of rock art. Pictographs are rarer than petroglyphs and more subject to deterioration from weathering. Although it’s not accessible to the public, the closely guarded Burro Flats Painted Cave in Southern California’s Simi Hills is considered a globally significant rock art location. This Chumash site, with its geometric marks, was likely created to mark the winter solstice and continues to be used as a ceremonial site. 

Intaglios or Geoglyphs

These huge ground drawings were created by scraping away surface areas to expose lighter underlying rock. They’re found in desert areas near the Colorado River.

Where to See Rock Art in California

The following rock art destinations are listed from south to north.

Anza-Borrego State Desert Park

Pictograph Trail. Off a dirt road in the park’s Blair Valley area, a two-mile roundtrip hike on the Pictograph Trail leads to a large boulder with abstract symbols painted in red. The pictographs were likely created by the ancestors of today’s Kumeyaay people, who comprise 12 related but separate bands in San Diego County.

Native California Rock Art, Blythe Intaglios

Blythe Intaglios

The Blythe Intaglios, just off U.S. Highway 95 about 15 miles north of Blythe, are notable for their massive size—and just how difficult they are to see from ground level. Etched into the desert floor, the intaglios include both easily recognized human and animal figures. But they’re so big (the largest stretches for 171 feet) that the intaglios are best seen from the air. The intaglios are fenced off to protect against vandalism and off-road vehicle tire tracks, which can forever scar them. And even though the ground-level perspective isn’t the best to fully appreciate the scale, it’s still exciting to get a close-up look, while interpretive panels offer helpful background information.

Joshua Tree National Park

Barker Dam Trail. An easy 1.1-mile loop, Joshua Tree’s interpretive Barker Dam Trail combines a good look at the park’s iconic monzogranite boulders with access to an impressive group of pictographs and petroglyphs. The rock art is set within a cave with a natural arch, and some accounts suggest that the pictographs are especially vivid because they were enhanced during a film shoot in the early 1960s—an act that would certainly qualify as vandalism by today’s standards.

Chumash Painted Cave State Historic Park

Hidden away off Highway 154 between Santa Barbara and the Santa Ynez Valley, the rock art at Chumash Painted Cave State Historic Park dates back at least to the 1600s. These pictographs are on the walls of a small sandstone cave within the traditional lands of the Barbareño Band of Chumash Indians. A short trail leads to the cave, where a heavy and locked iron gate prevents entry to protect the paintings from vandalism. After visiting the cave and seeing the paintings in their natural setting, you can view close-up details of the rock art by visiting an online virtual tour.

Carrizo Plain National Monument

Dating as far back as 4,000 years, the large, horseshoe-shaped Painted Rock in Carrizo Plain National Monument—roughly 70 miles from both San Luis Obispo and Bakersfield—gets its name from the pictographs created by the ancestors of today’s Chumash, Yokuts, and Salinan tribes. Access to the site near the monument’s Goodwin Education Center is limited by reservation to seasonal guided and self-guided tours. To see the pictographs, you walk inside the curving, amphitheater-like gap in the center of the formation. The pictographs are notable for their brilliant red hues and dramatic geometric shapes, as well as a few recognizable animal figures.

Little Petroglyph Canyon

The Western Hemisphere’s largest known concentration of petroglyphs, Little Petroglyph Canyon on Naval Weapons Station China Lake, has historically been accessible on spring and fall tours through Ridgecrest’s Maturango Museum. Because of COVID-related restrictions and damage from a 2019 earthquake, no tours are currently scheduled but will likely resume in the future, so check the museum website for updates.

A visit to this site is truly an unforgettable cultural experience, with rock art covering the cliffs on both sides of a wash for about half a mile. There are all sorts of recognizable animals—coyotes, desert bighorn sheep, and mountain lions—and humans bearing weapons for hunts. Some of the 20,000 images are more than 10,000 years old. The rock art inspired the Ridgecrest Petroglyph Festival, an annual celebration in November with Native American dancers, music, and crafts.

Ring Mountain Preserve

The San Francisco Bay Area is not the first place you would expect to find rock art. Yet across the Golden Gate Bridge in Marin County, the Ring Mountain Preserve proves that you don’t have to travel to remote parts of the desert to find petroglyphs.

This natural area along Tiburon Ridge is where the ancient meets the modern in the Bay Area. Follow the preserve’s 1.76-mile Phyllis Ellman Loop Trail and you’ll catch panoramic views of the city and you can view boulders etched with petroglyphs created by the Coast Miwok people, whose descendants belong to the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria. Rock art adorns around 30 outcroppings around the preserve, including Petroglyph Rock, which is marked by a sign along Ring Mountain Fire Road near the preserve’s highest point.

Lava Beds National Monument

Considered one of the most extensive areas of rock art in California, the images at Lava Beds National Monument date as far back as 6,000 years ago. This national monument in far northern California, about 90 miles from Mount Shasta in the traditional territory of the Modoc people, features both pictographs and thousands of individual petroglyphs. Most of the rock art at Lava Beds is abstract and geometric, and some experts believe both the pictograph and petroglyph styles at Lava Beds were unique to the area. The best place to see rock art in Lava Beds is at the aptly named Petroglyph Point, once an island in Tule Lake, which was drained for agricultural use. A short interpretive trail explores the cliff, which, with its 5,000 petroglyphs, has one of North America’s highest concentrations of rock art.

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