On the hunt for ancient art in the Californian desert

Hidden between the massive, scraggly boulders of California’s desolate desert, ancient Native American art awaits those who know where to look. You often won’t find a trail marker that will lead you to these historic sites, or even a trail for that matter, but if you do your homework, you will be awarded with a snapshot of the history of the people that once roamed these lands before you.

While on a hike in the desert of eastern San Diego County in Anza Borrego State Park, a quick conversation with a few strangers on the trail tipped me off as to the existence of rock art in the area. I soon thereafter became entranced by the allure and mystery of the pictographs hidden in the desert. It’s well-known that people survived for thousands of years in this unforgiving climate of Southern California’s interior, but something about seeing direct evidence of their existence, art created by human hands, made it feel so much more real and intimate.

As enthralling as seeing the art itself sounded, the search was equally as enticing, if not addicting — a treasure hunt in the vast, inhospitable desert. To protect the art, the locations of the pictographs are nowhere to be found online, save a few of the more obvious spots. Finding the off-the-beaten-trail sites requires navigating the deepest corners of the internet (and the desert for that matter), some serious Google Maps skills, and hoping that those that have been there before are willing to let a few hints slip between their lips.

As enthralling as seeing the art itself sounded, the search was equally as enticing, if not addicting — a treasure hunt in the vast, inhospitable desert.

As a pictograph newbie, I went online and looked at photos of many sites around Anza Borrego and aimed my focus on finding the two that I thought looked the most riveting: the Blue Sun Cave of Indian Hill and the three-fingered people drawings of Carrizo Gorge.

The Blue Sun Cave rightfully earns its name with a vibrant blue sun centered in a cave that has dozens of drawings spread among the walls. The Carrizo Gorge pictograph, not two and a half miles away as the crow flies, features well-defined human figures, highlighting a large canvas of a cave that includes many other mysterious designs.

As exciting as the actual search for the specific caves were in person, 90% of the legwork was done while sitting on my ass working on my computer. I probably spent way more hours than necessary corroborating Google Maps with photos of the surrounding terrain that I found online, as well as asking for nice fellow-bloggers to throw some hints my way. I was determined to find these paintings my first try, not wanting to disappoint my friends who I convinced to partake in the adventure with me.

As with most places in the Anza Borrego desert, you need a high-clearance vehicle to get relatively close to these sites, so luckily my friend Patrick lent us the services of his 4wd pickup and, along with my friend Nate, we departed from San Diego before the sunrise in search of Native American rock art.

Heading off in search of the Blue Sun Cave. A perfect sunny, yet mild, day for desert hiking.
Not a soul in sight out in this remote corner of the desert.
Walking through the maze of cholla cactus to Indian Hill.

The Blue Sun Cave

Our first destination was the Blue Sun Cave, for no particular reason other than that I was most confident in my research on its location compared to the pictographs of Carrizo Gorge. I had compared the shape of the mountains with countless photos, getting confirmation of my findings from another person online, so I knew more or less the general area that I could find it in.

We bounced across five miles of dirt road as far as Pat’s pickup would take us and left the vehicle for a quick, one mile hike up a cactus-riddled valley.

Navigating the trail-less valley, we arrived at Indian Hill and admired its piles of immense granite boulders. The search for the Blue Sun Cave began as we scanned the area, looking for hints of past human existence. We quickly discovered several locations with mortero grinding stones, evidence of a Kumeyaay village that once existed at the hill’s base.

On the backside of the hill we discovered a rock that was particularly riddled with mortero grinding holes, seemingly a clue that we were hot on the trail. Sure enough, just a few meters up the hill, after not more than ten minutes of searching, we found the Blue Sun Cave, which gave me a great sense of achievement and relief. My hours spent researching the route had been validated and we would not have to go home empty handed.

After not more than ten minutes of searching, we found the Blue Sun Cave.

The cave itself is not too big — only a few meters wide and a meter or two deep. It’s hardly big enough to keep five people comfortably out of the rain. The cave clearly played a significant role in the lives of those who lived here, given the effort taken to extensively paint the walls with various colors.

We sat there examining the drawings, conjecturing what they could mean.

Some small mortero holes that we came across, the first evidence of humans. These however, do not lead you to the Blue Sun Cave.
Once we came across this rock, we knew we were close. For those who are not familiar with morteros, Native Americans carved these impressions to grind nuts and seeds. The Kumeyaay spent summers in the mountains and wintered down in the desert when temperatures were temperate and water present. A boulder with mortero holes like this marks a winter village for a band of Kumeyaay, given that it wouldn’t make much sense to stray far from home to grind nuts if the entire desert is covered in granite rocks that are just as suitable.
Climbing above the morteros to search for the cave.
The cave features an array of colors including black, red, yellow, orange and blue. When editing these photos, I did my best not to skew the colors to give a more realistic idea of what the pictographs look like.
As you can see, this cave was not meant for a large group, but it could house a small band of people. Maybe the cave wasn’t meant for living in, but used for something else, such as religious purposes or ceremonies.

Who are the artists?

The art in this region of California belongs to the Kumeyaay (pronounced Koo-me-eye), a Native American group that inhabited, and still inhabits, a transnational region consisting of extreme southern California and extreme northwest Mexico.

The art that they drew is classified as “La Rumorosa” style, which is characterized by humans with fingers and toes, lizards, suns, circles, and rectangular grids 1. The art locations are concentrated on the eastern slopes of the coastal range and the majority of the locations are not widely available for public consumption. When I was at the cultural center of Ensenada, Mexico, I learned that there is a conservation group in Mexico working on documenting the locations throughout the mountains and desert to study and protect them, relying heavily on the local ranchers to point out where they are in the backcountry.

After doing a good amount of reading online, what has become most evident about the Kumeyaay rock art is that not much is known about it. No one knows the exact age of the art and while there are plenty of guesses, no one really knows what any of it means. Given that the art is painted on the rocks and not carved petroglyphs, it’s unlikely that the art is older than 500 years. Some of the art could be pre-Colombian, but some clearly was created after the arrival of Spanish missionaries, seen by the portrayal of old-world characteristics, such as horses.

The present day Kumeyaay have thirteen reservations in San Diego County and communities in Mexico with a handful of people that still speak the language. It’s great that the language is documented, but as with most native languages, unfortunately it is on the verge of extinction.

Learn some basic Kumeyaay phrases (no idea how to pronounce it).

The infamous blue sun. I am not the pictograph expert after one trip, but apparently blue paintings are fairly rare with the La Rumorosa style.
The sun and people designs are very easy to distinguish, but the meaning of the other designs are more abstract to the untrained eye.
The pictographs closer to the outside of the cave are fainter, presumably because of more exposure to wind and rain, or possibly due to the particular painting material used. I am sure there are more that are simply not visible anymore.
Looks like it could be a lizard, or a very tall and skinny person.
We decided that a trip to Indian Hill was not complete without scaling Indian Hill. It’s doable, but requires a few technical, steep sections.
Making it to the top.
Having a snack on Indian Hill. Water had collected in some fairly deep pools where Pat and Nate are sitting. I’m sure the natives that lived here knew all about these collection spots.
More mortero holes visible as I climbed above.
Snow had fallen up in the mountains a few days prior, making for a beautiful contrast with the dry desert below.
Barrel cactus in bloom near Indian Hill.

The three-fingered beings of Carrizo Gorge

Once we felt satisfied with our exploration of Indian Hill and the Blue Sun Cave, we made for the car to look for our second pictograph cave of the day in Carrizo Gorge.

As the crow flies, these two locations are only two and a half miles apart, but more than seven miles when navigating around the mountainous terrain. Instead of the 14 mile round trip hike between the two locations (which I wasn’t extremely opposed to), we opted for the easier route via car.

Carrizo Gorge is a very long canyon that extends in a north/south direction with its origin near the Mexican border. As a result, apparently it’s a well-traveled route for migrants heading north, but I didn’t see any obvious signs of immigration while I was there. The road up the gorge seems like a piece of cake at first and then becomes challenging towards the end. About a mile and a half from our destination we decided that the road had become a little too rough, even for our pickup truck, so we left it up an embankment off the road and finished the route on foot.

I had a much more vague idea of the location of this cave compared to the Blue Sun Cave, but with more trusty work on Google Maps and a very helpful tip I got while exchanging emails with someone who had done it, we were able to pinpoint the location quite quickly. The cave is actually visible from the well-worn trail of Carrizo Gorge, but at a distance the black pictographs blend in with the shadows and you would have no idea that it’s up there if you weren’t looking for it.

The Carrizo Gorge pictographs are amazingly well-preserved and more intriguing to me than the Blue Sun Cave, probably because of the multiple human figures. It’s easier for an amateur pictograph reader, such as myself, to at least start to put the pieces of the puzzle together while looking at it.

At a distance the black pictographs blend in with the shadows and you would have no idea that it’s up there if you weren’t looking for it.

You can clearly make out male and female humans, as well as a baby who is drawn proportionately smaller next to a larger human. As with the Blue Sun Cave, there are plenty of unrecognizable designs that are anyone’s guess as to what they mean. Both caves share a few features, such as the crosses and suns, clear proof that the work was done by the same group of people, possibly even the same person due to the small distance between the two.

Ditching the car after road conditions got a little too extreme for our liking. A group of off-roaders were behind us with proper vehicles. They had no problem getting through and celebrating with beers at the end of the road.
Another quick walk to the cave, this time about 1.5 miles mostly on a worn road/trail.
Scanning the hills for caves.
Found it again without much searching at all. Hours of internet research definitely saved us hours of searching countless boulders.
The definition of the paint material leads me to believe that this cave isn’t that old (relatively speaking), or that it is extremely well protected from erosion.
Panorama of the full cave. You can see on the left the rock is oxidized orange where water runs. If there were more pictographs over there, we wouldn’t know due to the water erosion. The pictographs that are visible are entirely free from rainfall or dripping.
More mortero holes on the ground indicate that this was another semi-permanent dwelling.
There were only two mortero holes at this location (that I could find), compared to the dozens at the Blue Sun Cave. Perhaps it sustained a smaller group of people.
Close ups on some of the designs. Feel free to give your perspective of what they mean in the comments.
The cross and the design below it were common themes in both caves.
Mother and child?
This is an interesting one. Looks like a human with very long arms.
It appears that the human on the left is male and the human on the right is female.
Arm-less person.
Taking it all in.
The Chuparosa were blooming in Carrizo Gorge.
More blooming, but still early in the season for a big bloom. If my research is correct, this appears to be a Bigelow Monkeyflower.
I spotted a few lizards in Carrizo Gorge. They have great camouflage against the weathered granite. This photo is not rotated. The lizard is clinging to the side of a rock.


The search for ancient rock art in Anza Borrego was a complete success. Finding the pictographs and learning about a piece of human history in California first hand was fun, but the search was the most exhilarating part.

It’s refreshing to know that in areas that are so populated, you can still get off the grid and find gems like this, still untainted by the modern world.

If this is something that intrigues you, I challenge you to go find ancient Native American rock art where you live. These are some of the last bits of evidence of the culture and lifestyle in California pre-westernization. The western US, including many parts of California, are full of it. Do some research. You may be surprised to find that there is art in your area.

And if you are looking for the Blue Sun Cave or Carrizo Gorge pictographs, these photos will serve as a good starting point. Set aside some time and dive into Google Maps. Happy searching.

Works Cited

[1] https://scahome.org/publications/proceedings/Proceedings.23Bendimez.pdf

7 thoughts on “On the hunt for ancient art in the Californian desert

  1. Hey Evan,

    I have been photographing and finding pictographs/petroglyphs around anza and Joshua tree. I recently started on anza borrego. I was able to locate the sun cave and really loved exploring Indian hill. I am working hard to do a lot of researching on the gorge pictograph and thinking of renting a 4wd to take down there this weekend. I do see that there are various forks on the road that I can go and wanted some insights on which trail to take. Even though people on the comments and you mention that there are more hints on the web, I am really struggling to decide which path I should take to go find this location despite my google maps and google earth wondering/planning/pinning/measuring distances. If you are willing, I would love to get any information on the actual path to follow. Please email me when you can! I am in love with finding artifacts and other things of historical significance.


  2. Curious…do you think the people with bent legs are meant to be running? Could those grids be an indication of cages/metal structures to incarcerate/hold someone? Just musing. Interesting adventure. Thanks for sharing.


    1. Could be! I don’t want to speculate too much. It does see like the female characters are the ones with the bent legs (the human next to the one that clearly looks to be male and also the one next to the baby). Not sure what that means, but may be a clue.


  3. Evan: Again, fine work! You’re really doing a good job of putting this together in a well-produced blog. The writing, the reporting and research, and the potos — they all wok to produce a piece that would get me off my butt and out in the desert poking around those rocks … if I were a few decades younger! Good work. -Uncle Lee

    Liked by 1 person

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