For many years I had heard rumors of a beautiful lava-filled canyon somewhere in the lower Owens Valley filled with dozens of rock art etchings carved on its walls. Quite by accident on a drive back from Death Valley I stopped for lunch in Ridgecrest, a few miles off Highway 395, and discovered how I might visit this unique canyon and see the art for myself.
Little Petroglyph Canyon is not too far off of Highway 395, just before the Little Lake area between Red Rock Canyon and Lone Pine. Though only a few air miles of the highway, until the last few years the rock art has been almost impossible to visit because it is within the boundaries of China Lake Naval Air Weapons Station. Thanks to the efforts of Maturango Museum, the Naval Station has provided limited access to Little Petroglyph Canyon, you can now experience one of the most intriguing rock art sites in California.
Little Petroglyph Canyon is more wash than canyon, with the walls extending up on either side only 30-50 feet. However, within the canyon you never walk more than a few feet without encountering another of the beautiful petroglyphs. Though not handicap accessible the walk down the canyon is one that most anyone can do even though it is described as strenuous on the Museum website. You won’t go more than a half-mile down canyon but nevertheless it will take you the better part of the day to take the rock art in.
To join one of the tours you need to register early. Tours this spring are already full but they resume again in the fall when the temperatures cool down. For more information about the tours, trip dates and the like click on thePetroglyph Tour Link at the Maturango Museum site.
The drive to Ridgecrest takes about four hours. Quickest route is via Hy 126 to the Magic Mountain area, south on Interstate 5 for 10 miles to Hy 14 and then on it through Palmdale and Lancaster to Mojave. At Mojave you’ll take Hy 395 — which will take you up the Owens River Valley to Bishop, the Mammoth ski area and Eastern Sierras. You’ll pass through Red Rock Canyon a half hour north on Hy 395 and a half hour beyond that the turnoff to Ridgecrest.
Because you’ll need to be at the Museum at 6:30am for an introductory talk, video and document check, spending the night before your visit is a must. Consider heading out early the day before and spending time at Red Rock Canyon or check out the old mining towns of Randsburg and Red Mountain, a bit off the quickest route to Ridgecrest but a great place to explore for a few hours and lunch at the White House Saloon or the Ransburg General Store is a great way to begin your visit or to end it on the way home.
Early Morning Rising
The Little Petroglyph trip is not for late risers. You’ll need to be at the Museum no later than 6:30am for the introductory stuff. First is a check to make sure you have all of the documents filled out and the proper walking gear. You’ll need proof of citizenship (foreigners not allowed on base), and several forms completely filled out. See the Tour site for links to the forms. After a brief talk and video you’ll head to the entry point into the Naval Station where you’ll get a second briefing from the base personnel as well as have your car searched before being allowed in.
In the Canyon
The drive in to the rock art site is about 45 miles and takes you through the main base area and around the northern edge of the airfields and other out buildings, then up through a series of canyons where the road climbs up onto a higher plateau. Eventually a short spur road leads to a small parking area and bathroom. The walk in takes you to the upper end of Little Petroglyph Canyon where you begin seeing the rock art etchings before you ever get into the canyon itself. The descent into the bottom of what is usually a dry wash is easy and before you know it you’ll find yourself surrounded by hundreds of petroglyphs carved into the canyon walls as you continue down canyon.
For more detailed information about the Little Petroglyph Canyon including links to additional information, photo galleries and things to know, check out the blog on the Santa Barbara Outdoors (SBO) website. Created by long-time outdoor expert and Indy Outdoor Editor Ray Ford, SBO is the place to go for information about where to hike, bike, ride or walk in Santa Barbara County.