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To see these Mojave Desert petroglyphs, you first have to pass a Navy screening

Coso Rock Art National Historic Landmark
Petroglyphs, described by experts as shamans, masks or human-like figures, adorn rocks at Coso Rock Art National Historic Landmark on a U.S. Navy base in the western Mojave Desert.
(Sara Lessley)

The email caught my eye as we drove home from Death Valley months ago: “Fall Petroglyph Tour dates, now available from the Maturango Museum in Ridgecrest!” The promise was a chance to see  “the richest known concentration of petroglyphs in the western hemisphere.”  OK, sign us up.  

But wait, access is strictly limited because the protected petroglyphs are located within the Naval Air Weapons Station at China Lake. There’s an application to fill out and a checklist of required information; better get moving on this.

Images in Little Petroglyph Canyon of bighorn sheep.
Images in Little Petroglyph Canyon of bighorn sheep.
(Sara Lessley )

Fnally, in late October, here we are standing in a high-desert canyon in California’s western Mojave Desert, tucked away on an active military base, staring at ancient images etched into basalt rock walls. 

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It feels incongruous to find this outdoor cathedral here, with its messages from another time: Were the unknown Paleo-Indian artists beckoning  the bighorn sheep in a sort of hunting magic? Were shamans summoning supernatural powers, or perhaps telling stories? Maybe the images are about boundary markers, ethnic identifiers or vision quests? Anthropologists aren’t sure, and the dating of the designs is not agreed on either.  

But it’s a magical sight.

These figures may be men with bows and arrows, shooting at each other.
These figures may be men with bows and arrows, shooting at each other.
(Sara Lessley )

The Coso Rock Art National Historic Landmark extends over tens of thousands of mostly off-limits acreage with an estimated tens of thousands of hand-hewn images. During a day of awe, we absorb the sight of some of these designs abraded, pecked or scratched thousands of years ago into the basalt rocks’ “desert varnish” surface.

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And the U.S. Navy, stewards of this patch of desert, is tasked with counting and cataloguing each one.

Tour group members explore Little Petroglyph Canyon.
Tour group members explore Little Petroglyph Canyon.
(Sara Lessley )

For our group of eight, plus two Navy-approved guide-escorts, the “hike” into Renegade Canyon (or Little Petroglyph Canyon) proceeds at a crawl, as we mostly stop, point, gasp and click (or sketch) every few steps. “Look at that sheep! “ “Did you see this little pattern over here?” “What does that one mean, do you think?”

The images are often abstract — patterns, dots, circles, lines  —  but also frequently recognizable as the once-abundant big-horn sheep, along with representations of hunters bearing either stylized atlatls  (dart or spear thrower) or later, bows and arrows. Plus birds, deer and canines. (There are more recent markings too, probably created since ranching and mining took place in the area beginning in the 1860s, and the Navy began control in the 1940s.)

The details in some images remain sharp, while others have faded or eroded.
The details in some images remain sharp, while others have faded or eroded.
(Sara Lessley )

On this visit, the concern isn’t the usual high-desert temperatures but rain, which will stop a tour. We get a few scattered drops but manage to scramble a good distance down canyon — there are a few steepish drops in the narrow section — viewing the petroglyphs all along the rock walls and (occasionally) on ground-level boulders.

 More incongruity: We eat our brown bag lunches near the remnants of a more modern sheep corral with the ancient images all around.  

Depending on the time of day and lighting, some petroglyphs are easier to see, right, than others, center.
Depending on the time of day and lighting, some petroglyphs are easier to see, right, than others, center.
(Sara Lessley )
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Our day had started at 6:30 am — ready for the military’s inspection with our closed-toe boots, IDs and fueled-up SUVs  — and then the 45-mile escorted drive across the base to the 5,000-foot-elevation canyon we are permitted to view. No photos are allowed during transit, sadly, even ones of the lush forest of impressively large Joshua trees near the canyon.

Stylized sculptures evoking ancient petroglyphs outside the Maturango Museum in Ridgecrest, Calif. The museum organizes annual tours to the petroglyph site.
Stylized sculptures evoking ancient petroglyphs outside the Maturango Museum in Ridgecrest, Calif. The museum organizes annual tours to the petroglyph site.
(Sara Lessley )

Want to go? Check the Maturango museum website  for more information about the remaining tour dates this fall (Nov. 19-20 and Dec. 3-4)  and the application process.  Cost is $55 for non-museum members. We applied in August for one of three October tour dates; our confirmation came by mail in about 10 days. 

Or check with the public affairs office at the Navy’s China Lake base to arrange a private tour. Call (760) 939-1683 or email margo.allen@navy.mil.

To view the petroglyphs, visitors must do some scrambling up and down rocks.
To view the petroglyphs, visitors must do some scrambling up and down rocks.
(Sara Lessley )

Also, coming up  Nov. 5-6 will be the Ridgecrest Petroglyph Festival, which honors Native American history in the area.

There will be two days of activities centered at nearby Petroglyph Park (which features a  short walking trail with replica exhibits), talks on local history, craft booths and more. 

During the festival, there are a few short group tours of the canyon, booked in advance.

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“The great stone galleries of the Coso Range are windows into the past, windows that reveal far more than can be dug from the ground,”  explains researcher Campbell Grant in the book “Rock Drawings of the Coso Range.” (It’s available in the museum gift shop.)

 It’s definitely worth a look.

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