Road-trippin’ California: Pitstop for petroglyphs

The sunrises casts light on Mt Tom of the eastern Sierra Nevada.

Searching for petroglyphs is like taking a college final exam. The hour or two that it takes to complete the exam is nothing compared to the countless hours that are spent studying for the big moment.

A petroglyph hunt can range from quick and easy to tedious and laborious. However, that same level of preparation is required if you want to maximize your probability of success.

For the first quarter century of my life I don’t think I had ever seen or cared to see a petroglyph, but as I began to discover them in hidden corners of my backyard mountains in San Diego, I gained a newfound appreciation and interest.

That said, during some tangential, deep dives on the internet I came across a few impressive prehistoric petroglyph panels that particularly caught my attention.

Hidden somewhere in a fertile valley of the eastern reaches of California lie a series of large panels, well preserved by their remoteness. The panels, carved on car-sized boulders atop a mesa of lava flow, lurk in the shadows cast by some of the state’s highest peaks. The panels are extremely intricate and detailed in nature, each with its own story to tell.

I was sold.

And as it turned out, the physical search for these elusive petroglyphs was quite easy due to a diligent search online beforehand.

Most people do their best to hide the true locations of these archaeological sites online (and for good reason), so when researching, you are basically playing detective looking for their mistakes — any clues left behind. In this case, those who had written about these petroglyphs had actually done a very good job of concealing the location. Usually if you dive deep enough you can find someone who has revealed the location, so kudos to these folks for keeping it difficult. The search is half the fun anyway.

Still, by glinting and gathering tidbits of info from easily over 20 web pages, I was able to get what I needed. I systematically ruled out locations until I had a pretty damn good idea of where to look.

Madison Snively stands atop the volcanic tablelands of Bishop, California.
Madison soaking in the beauty of eastern California.

Sky Rock and 13 Moons

While I had been quite interested in finding these particular petroglyphs for some time, I never really had the chance to make it happen. However, a road trip to Lake Tahoe this spring finally presented the perfect opportunity to go on a little detour. It was a good activity to break up the endless drive north.

The general lava plain on which we were searching features several petroglyph panels, but I had my sights set on the most remote panels that require a bit of hiking. As I mentioned, the search is half the fun. Driving up to a panel with other tourists doesn’t have the same appeal as searching in the open terrain.

After hours of driving through the Mojave desert we arrived at our destination. Late afternoon sun illuminated the snow capped peaks to the east and west, golden rays streaming into the valley below. Below the mesa of volcanic rock, an ice-cold river meandered through the lush floodplain, harboring fish bigger than my forearm that I could see battling the swift current.

The plan for the afternoon was simple: Locate two petroglyph panels and then find a place to pitch the tent for the night before resuming the road trip the following morning.

We packed our bags light for a one night stay and ascended the lava plain where I presumed the location of the panels to be, our eyes scanning the nooks and crannies of the varnish-covered boulders piled at the bottom of each escarpment.

After not 15 minutes of searching, the first of the two panels in question appeared right before us. This ancient lava rock has, among other designs, 13 circles carved into the image. The circles are thought to be the moons of a lunar calendar, representing the 13 phases of the moon in a year, hence the panel’s informal name ’13 Moons.’

The age of petroglyphs is always a bit of a mystery, but this panel is believed to be the work of the Paiute or Shoshone tribes dating back hundreds, if not thousand(s) of years.

Madison Snively examines petroglyphs on the volcanic tablelands of Bishop, California.
Madison examining 13 Moons.
13 Moons petroglyphs on the volcanic tablelands of Bishop, California.
There is a lot to take in here. The moons stand out the most, but lines, a divided rectangular table, and human figures surely are key pieces of the art as well. The dots on the left are perhaps related to the math involved in cycles of the moons.

After lingering a few moments to take in 13 Moons, we set off for our second objective: ‘Sky Rock.’

Sky Rock, unlike 13 Moons, is carved on a horizontal rock that faces the sky, which proves to make it a bit harder to find because it can only be seen with a vantage point from above.

While 13 Moons is impressive, Sky Rock is even bigger and more intricate, spanning across a massive slab of lava.

As we were scanning for its location, a couple of locals in an off-roading vehicle pulled up to have a few beers for sunset. As we suspected, they actually were perched over Sky Rock and gave away its location to us (we were headed that way anyway).

Once I scrambled up a few boulders and caught a glimpse, it was as impressive as advertised.

Hundreds of seemingly abstract designs cover the face of this rock, making it dizzying to examine and follow with your eyes. I’ve never seen rock art that is so extensive and detailed.

The only catch is it’s really hard to get a good view. There are a dozen surrounding boulders that you can climb to get various angles down on the rock, but the only rock that would allow you to look straight down on it is nearly impossible to free climb safely.

The actual boulder that contains the panel in theory is climbable, but the BLM authorities smartly have put a sign there to nix any sly ideas of getting on top of that rock.

By this time, the sun was setting over the Sierra Nevada, so we decided to turn in for the night and return in the morning to see how the panel looked in different light.

Sky Rock petroglyph on the volcanic tablelands of Bishop, California.
Sky rock is a huge, horizontally oriented panel that faces the sky, hence the name.
Sky Rock petroglyph on the volcanic tablelands of Bishop, California.
Returning to Sky Rock and getting onto a boulder that allows a view of the whole panel.
Evan Quarnstrom in front of the Sky Rock petroglyphs of Bishop, California.

Back on the road

We took a stroll into the wilderness and pitched a tent for the night. Dusk faded to darkness and a nearly full moon rose to the east, serving as a more-than-sufficient nightlight.

When petroglyph hunting, I always like to establish the realistic expectations that you might not find what you are looking for. It happens. This time, however, that extra studying paid off for the ‘final exam.’

We cooked a warm meal and toasted to a successful mission before fading into sleep. The pure silence of the night was only occasionally broken up by the howling of coyotes in the distance.

A visit to 13 Moons and Sky Rock was the ideal way to break up a long drive up north. In the morning we gave the panels another peak and then scooted off the lava field to reembark on our travels.

Camping on the volcanic tablelands of Bishop, California.
A scenic and serene location to pitch a tent.

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