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 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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
7 thoughts on “On the hunt for ancient art in the Californian desert”
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.
Please keep the sites hidden; they used to be commonly known sites and then they started getting damaged.
Of course! I intentionally selected photos that do not give away the location, and frankly there are other easily searchable posts online that are more revealing.
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.
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.
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
LikeLiked by 1 person