While driving to Mammoth Lakes on U.S. 395 over the years, my family and I have visited the sobering Manzanar National Historic Site, clambered over the smoothish stones at (mostly dry) Fossil Falls, called out film locations in the Alabama Hills ( " 'Star Trek'!" " 'Gunga Din'!"), toured the historic Mt. Whitney Fish Hatchery, played conductor at Laws Railroad Museum in Bishop and kicked up dust at the Bodie State Historic Park ghost town. But because it requires actual planning, we've never seen the ancient petroglyphs at Coso Rock Art District National Historic Landmark, tucked away on the Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake. Until now. And what a payoff it was, in late October, for our small group to get up close (cameras, no touching) to the vivid designs etched into the basalt rocks.
The tab: $105 for an overnight in nearby Ridgecrest, $85 for meals and $115 for tours and donations.
Our new favorite hostelry is any Hampton Inn & Suites (this one at 104 E. Sydnor Ave., Ridgecrest;  446-1968) for its comfortable rooms, convenient locations and 6 a.m. breakfasts, allowing us to make the 6:30 a.m. check-in for the daylong, escorted tour arranged by the Maturango Museum (100 E. Las Flores Ave., Ridgecrest;  375-6900; tours $55 for non-members; spring tour schedule available online in February), with the Navy's stamp of approval. (Private tours also available through the Naval Air Weapons Station public affairs office at  939-1683 or email email@example.com)
Tastiest food: At the family-friendly Grape Leaf (901 N. Heritage Drive, Ridgecrest;  446-3930) we nibbled on hummus, dolmas, falafel and kibbe appetizers, lamb kebabs and chicken shawarma. Bonus: leftovers for our picnic dinner the next day at Petroglyph Park in Ridgecrest. Do take a short stroll through the representational exhibits.
Best ambience: lunch in the 1890s boom town of Randsburg, a living ghost town. At the General Store (35 Butte Ave., Randsburg;  374-2143), we ordered grilled cheese with tomato from the friendly counter clerk, who also recommended the homemade potato salad. Within minutes, the lunch crowd roared in — no longer the miners of yore but colorfully garbed off-road-vehicle riders.
A hush fell over our tour group as we climbed down a rocky canyon into the past, coming face to face with the vivid paleo-Indian images of bighorn sheep, hunters, dogs, anthropomorphic figures — even what may be an attacking mountain lion and an ancient kayaker. It was mystical to muse about the people who stood here thousands of years ago, creating on these rock canvases in Little Petroglyph Canyon.
The lesson learned
We didn't leave ourselves enough daylight to visit the Trona Pinnacles, the tufa formation east of Ridgecrest. But, guided by the in-depth "Rock Drawings of the Coso Range" I snagged at the museum gift store, I suspect we'll be back this way to check out more petroglyphs.